Assistant Professor of History Matthew Crow is the author of a new book to be published this spring by Cambridge University Press. Titled “Thomas Jefferson, Legal History, and the Art of Recollection,” the book will be part of the Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society series.
According to Crow, the book results from work done on his UCLA dissertation, completed in 2011. “As a graduate student, I knew I wanted to bring the reading I had done in early modern legal and political thought and in the great scholarship on those topics to bear on the early history of the United States, and on Jefferson in particular,” he says. “The question I had was whether I could really do something new with Jefferson, and it took some time to convince myself that I could.”
In the book, Crow argues that for a variety of reasons, Jefferson came to think that a republic would need to change the way its citizens understood their relationship to law if they were to stay citizens and if the republic was to stay a republic. He spent much of his life working to understand constitutional text so that it could be reinterpreted, edited or scrapped by assemblies in favor of something else.
“Obviously,” says Crow, “this was risky business, and so Jefferson spent even more time worrying about who would get to participate in these activities — activities where people are doing nothing less than taking stock of themselves as a people and their history and openly exploring what to do with it.”
While shedding new light on the era of our country’s birth, Crow’s book also has applications for modern-day America. “Americans still have trouble living together as members of a political community with dramatically different narratives of who we are and what we have been doing here, and even who the “we” is in the first place,” says Crow. “It’s really hard to live politically with fractured and different foundational narratives, fractured to the extent that they are no longer foundational, if they ever were. The book uses Jefferson as a way of pointing out this difficulty and the urgency of confronting it, together.”
“Thomas Jefferson, Legal History, and the Art of Recollection” will be available at online book sellers, the College Store, and the publisher’s website in early April.