An Interview with Peter Onuf

Donor Story  •  News

By Elizabeth Piper

Peter Onuf is the 18th century Guy on BackStory with the American History Guys, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Virginia, the author/editor of eleven books, including most recently, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson (2007), and a long-time supporter of VFH. I sat down with him recently to learn more about why VFH is important to him.

Peter Onuf in the VFH radio studio. Photo by Tom Cogill.
Peter Onuf in the VFH radio studio. Photo by Tom Cogill.

EP: You and your wife have been two of VFH’s most loyal supporters through the years, over twenty years. Why? Did your affiliation begin with your VFH Fellowship in 1992?

PO: It began with my fellowship that I shared with my brother Nick; we were in the middle of writing Federalists in a Modern World together. I kept up with Andrew Wyndham along the way and, years later, began BackStory with him, Ed [Ayers]and Brian [Balogh].

EP: What other causes are important to you and why?

PO:There are a number across the spectrum; it’s a mixture of some enlightened self-interest and ones you’re indebted to in my line of work. I’m a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Antiquarian Society. But VFH has been my favorite Virginia cause by far! We also give to the American Friends Service Committee and Doctors Without Borders.

Peter Makes a Point NMAHEP: What’s it like being a BackStory History Guy with Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh?

There are some things that are unmitigated joy; one is hanging out with the “Guys.” We are collegial in the best sense; we are very concerned about the dynamic and about each other as people. It has been nice to see Ed and Brian grow in their positions. I think they’re both marvelous. Sometimes—our producers might think too often!– we just crack each other up. And we love the producers—Tony is a genius; we have great respect for him. Two things that are really gratifying are, one, the cross-generational relationship between us and the associate producers, who are really smart young people. That gives you a really good feeling about the future. It does seem that they have a skill set that can lead to the transformation of history as we know it. Secondly, we are accustomed to having students, but these producers are better because they have skills and they move at ease in the digital world. There’s a quality of reciprocity going on here that we don’t get in the classroom. We are grateful that we can attract such talent to the production staff of BackStory.

EP: When you started out with BackStory, did you ever expect it to gain the momentum that it has and turn into a national program?

PO: No, gaining that high profile was never high on my list of goals, it was the process and satisfaction of doing it, it was hanging out with the Guys. It’s staggering in retrospect that Andrew thought we would ever become something, and I say that based on the two years it took us to produce a really lousy recording in the beginning.

The transformative point was the idea that we could do a different theme every week, because in the beginning we thought we could just do an anthology show with callers. We found that we could have fun and be interesting about stuff we didn’t really know a lot about because we had the period expertise. Probably the closest we came to a sweet zone was our three-part series on the Civil War. In our collective memories, that one would stand out to me as a turning point.

We read better than we used to. I won’t be dishonest with you, I’m definitely the crankiest person down there when I’m asked to repeat something for the third time. One of the elements of my style is that I do not use notes or read bullet points. When lecturing, I get all worked up and excited and if you have a script, you can’t get excited, because you’re anxious about reading the script. One of the conceits I have about my style is that it’s like jazz, the second and third times have diminishing returns.

EP: Who is your favorite radio personality and why?

PO: I’m not a radio person, never was, because I don’t drive a car. At home, I’m busy with something else where my mind is not available. We enjoy All Things Considered on our long car trips to Maine.

EP: Was doing radio hard for you at first?

PO: Yes, but people keep telling me I have a good radio voice. Ed, Brian, and the producers are now my audience. What brings me back is the fact that we’re having fun.

EP: Now, changing the line of questioning to your favorite subject, Mr. Jefferson…. why Jefferson…why not Mao-Tse-Tung?

PO: It started here in Charlottesville at U.Va. They weren’t looking for a Jefferson Scholar but there was a chair in waiting. They tried to hire my mentor, Jack Greene, and other famous historians. The thing that sealed my fate was the 1993 conference on the 250th anniversary of Jefferson. The press found me, and from then on, if anyone was going to cover Jefferson, it was me.

EP: What do you admire the most about the times and the interests of Jefferson?

PO: I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with him. It’s sorely tempting to be a Jefferson lover; although, no real historian would be one because there’s so much about him that’s troubling. I identify more with Jefferson as I get older, particularly in the work I’ve done with Annette Gordon-Reed as we are writing a book together. The thing that is most striking about Jefferson has to do with the question of generations, his intense concern about the fraught transition between them. For Jefferson, the route of all evil is dynastic privilege. The thing I can’t stand is his assumption of global mastery of his domain and the people in it, not just enslaved people, but also his family, that they all live for him.

EP: If you were one of Thomas Jefferson’s dinner guests at Monticello, who else would you want at the table with you? What would be burning on your brain to ask him?

PO: Of course, we’d like to see some sparks fly, so I’d like to have Hamilton there. And after reading the later-life conciliatory correspondence between Adams and Jefferson, Adams would provide a nice balance to Hamilton, and give you a multi-dimensional Jefferson. I would like to hear them talk about the business of politics, and I would challenge both Adams and Hamilton to call out Jefferson on his notions of natural aristocracy. There’s a great (friendly) debate between Adams and Jefferson about this. Jefferson would be horrified over the concentration of wealth in today’s society.

EP: I’ve signed on for your MOOC, Age of Jefferson. Do you think this online format is the future of education?

PO: I like the format, the fact that it’s short and sweet. I would like to see a thousand MOOCs out there. There should be a lot of opportunities for people to get their scholarship out and from all types of colleges and universities; one size does not fit all. Let’s get rid of the conventional lecture format and record lectures with an audience and have a library of these things for people to choose from. The lecture format hearkens back to the Scottish Enlightenment when people couldn’t afford text books, these were talking books.

EP: Thomas Jefferson had Poplar Forest. What is your home away from home?

PO: Winter Harbor, Maine; I don’t like hot summers and it’s cool there.

Onuf on bike
Onuf on his bike in front of the Rotunda.

EP: We see you riding a bicycle to the office. Is that for exercise or for fun? What else do you do for fun?

PO: I have found biking to be enormously therapeutic, particularly. If I’m stressed or experiencing writer’s block; it’s mindless but it makes you mindful. Not only do I get the mental and physical benefit, but I get to feel morally superior (chuckle). Although I make up for that with all the plane trips I take, so I know I’m a complete fraud. For other fun things, I’m reading the complete works of Balzac, I’m forty-five percent through right now after two years of reading. Trollope is like popcorn to me. Some of my fondest memories are of reading aloud to my daughter. We read Vanity Fair when she was twelve. When she announced, at fifteen, that she was too old for our reading together, that was a crushing blow.

EP: What three books would you want to have with you if you were stuck on a deserted island? What three CDs?

PO: For books, I’d take Balzac, Jane Austen, and George Elliot’s Middlemarch.

I would leave the musical selection to my wife, but I’ll be honest and select Puccini (a complete schlockmeister), specifically La Rondine. As a young guy in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I’m a great Richard Thompson fan from the British Folk movement. And I dedicated my first book in part to the Beach Boys.