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Parent Category: 18th Century History Articles
Category: Biography
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Thomas Jefferson was a man of many talents. He was a farmer, lawyer, and statesman. While well known for these talents, Jefferson is little known as a philosopher of Eighteenth century. (Read this article 18th Century Society: An Overview on this site) With this philosophy, he helped to create a nation rich in individualism, egalitarianism, and freedom.

 

The biographers Thomas Fleming, Dumas Malone, Merril Peterson and Fawn Brodie see Jefferson as much more complex a man. All of them agree on who the historical Jefferson was, but they disagree on the significance and life of Jefferson. They agree that Jefferson had these talents, a philosopher, a statesman, a Virginian, but each has his own view of how Jefferson performed in public and private. Each author treat Jefferson's character with respect; however, some are more objective and critical of his life. Brodie, for example, deals more with Jefferson as a man, with affections towards his slave, Sally Hemings. She also describes the cover-up involved, to protect the family name and reputation. In contrast, Brodie does not deal as extensively in Jefferson's political life as Peterson or Malone does.

Thomas Fleming, The Man From Monticello

Fleming's Biography, The Man from Monticello, fills the gap of scholarly, modern biography. It is first of such one volume works on Jefferson's life and times. Fleming's work is about Jefferson in the eyes of the public and lesser-known private figure. We see Jefferson as a thinker, politicianfarmer, scientist, and inventor; as a father, grandfather, and a great grandfather; as a host and neighbor, horseback rider, and violinist; as a correspondent, traveler and diarist.

His work is heavily descriptive and narrative in nature, enhanced by a judicious choice of contemporary quotations. Fleming sees Jefferson as the most civilized man ever produced in this nation, of a stature equal to the great European, Goethe, but Fleming does not see Jefferson as always being the disinterested philosopher and statesman.

Fleming describes Jefferson's public life and accomplishments in sympathetic terms. He has fallen under the spell of the man; for example, controversial interpretations are usually resolved in Jefferson's favor. Fleming shows Jefferson as a protector of American democracy and survival.

He implies that Jefferson was thinking pragmatically about the nation's potential growth, thus he agrees with Jefferson's motive for territorial expansion. It is an approval of Jefferson's effort to purchase the Louisiana territory in an effort to thwart any designs to deal a restricting blow to the new nation that the French or Spanish may have had in mind. Fleming claims that the federalist accusation that Jefferson was a French puppet as false because Jefferson was a realist who thought about the economic welfare of his nation. (pp. 300-320)

Fleming portrays Jefferson as a human. He loves, hates, and has anxieties and on occasion loses his temper. Fleming uses Jefferson's dispute with Hamilton to show the following point. Fleming makes Jefferson a hero and Hamilton an enemy against democracy. He describes Jefferson as the ever conscious and virtuous statesman, who focuses on the principles of democracy while fighting to save the republic from Hamilton's machinations to destroy democracy and in its place, substitute an American form of Monarchy. (pp. 167 - 183)

Fleming uses slavery as another example of Jefferson's human quality. He states that despite Jefferson's belief of the inferiority of the black man to the white man, he constantly works to abolish slavery. Jefferson kept slaves only because he was trapped in the economic system of the south. (pp. 99,100)

In describing the man's personal life, Fleming presents to the reader a vivid portrait of an eighteenth century family. Monticello is the center of the Monticello circle, which is as much an extension as a creation of its master. These, and other relationships, show the warmth, wit, and wisdom which would have made Jefferson a singular individual had he never held office, and which, at the same time, made him a very human one when he did.

The Man from Monticello should provide a pleasure and profit for the general reader. However, for a specialist in the subject, the material shows that the research was limited to the major secondary sources written about Jefferson. There is a major job of compressing and compacting subjects into one paragraph, when it should require a whole chapter, if not a volume.

Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Times

Dumas Malone's work, Jefferson and His Times, is a six volume factual dictionary of Jefferson's life. It is the first multi volume work since Henry S Randall's detailed three-volume study appeared in the 1850's. The first volume looks at the major events of Jefferson's first forty-one years of life. The volume begins by describing his forbearers then his school and college days, from the time of his career as a lawyer to the final episode leading to his ambassadorship to France in 1784.

The first volume explains why Jefferson is difficult to know. Jefferson made a sharp distinction between public and private matters. We all know about his public life, and how boisterous and robust he was, but his private life was an enigma to the public. For example, Malone explains that Jefferson'swife did not belong to posterity; she belonged to him.

Malone has sought to depict Jefferson as a historical figure in American History. To him, Jefferson was not static personality but rather a constantly changing and developing figure, though in a sense, he remained the same. To Jefferson, freedom of the mind was absolute, and he never surrendered his belief in enlightened liberalism.

Malone's work, although voluminous and thorough, is easily understandable and definitely readable. There is no pedantry or obscure involvement in petty detail; it presents historical scholarship at its best.

Volume IV of Malone's work exemplifies the finest traditions of the historian's craft. For example, Malone's description of the Louisiana purchase is so masterfully done that it is evident that his broad knowledge of American history, and his capacity to see events as they must have affected people long ago, enables him to put the Louisiana Purchase in precisely the context it needs for full understanding.

Malone records his reactions and impressions of Jefferson without claiming to have found the document that clinches some simplistic theory. There are no conclusions based on a few scattered letters; rather, the honest opinion of an entirely trusted scholar, perhaps the most valued and perspective we can hope for from a study of the past.

However, there are a few criticisms about Malone's work. Malone used more than five hundred pages to describe four years marked by but one great event (the Louisiana Purchase) and almost entirely lacking diplomatic, military or even personal drama, which occasionally seems so leisurely as to be slow and labored. Some events were unnecessarily drawn out, especially in those instances where there is very little new information or even insight to offer.

Malone makes clear that he is reflecting Jefferson's own view of things, and that he is not necessarily offering a balanced, retrospective interpretation. Thus, some of Malone's views are biased and protective of Jefferson.

Merril Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and The New Nation

Merril Peterson's biography, Thomas Jefferson and The New Nation, is a bright insight. This quality, together with Peterson's emphasis on Jefferson's public career and intellectual development, repeatedly yields wise comments.

It is obvious that Peterson's interpretation of Jefferson's thought, his role in conceiving the purposes and character of the new nation, and his political skills in leading it down his chosen paths achieve a depth and richness other scholars of Jefferson cannot match.

Malone gives us Jefferson as seen by a judicious historian, but Peterson shows us Jefferson's contribution to the development of American nationality and culture. The chapters on Jefferson's early life, before 1775, are very sketchy. The chapter on Jefferson's wartime governorship and the fifty pages on the Louisiana Purchase are tedious. He does not give adequate resources in his bibliography.

However, Peterson's biography combines scholarship with sound judgment and good prose. Like most biographers of Jefferson, he has a high regard for the man. His assessment is usually balanced. He does not hesitate to express an opinion on many controversial questions that must be answered by the scholar. Thomas Jefferson was no radical; he showed enthusiasm as a revolutionary statesman.

Peterson considers Jefferson a successful president. If, at times, Peterson becomes too defensive of Jefferson, he compensates by a willingness to criticize. For example, Peterson goes into much more detail of the Louisiana Purchase than Brodie or Fleming. He gives the background both the diplomatic and international developments leading up to the decision to purchase the Louisiana territory.

Unlike Fleming and Brodie, Peterson claims that Jefferson was trying to create an empire of democracy. He quotes Jefferson's statement, "Our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all of America, North and South is to be peopled," in an attempt to imply that Jefferson was an expansionist; and that the United States would be the protectors of this democratic empire. (pp. 450-464)

Peterson thought that Jefferson's view of slavery was honest, disinterested, and no doubt true to his personal observations and knowledge, Jefferson's opinion was the product of frivolous and tortuous reasoning, of preconception, prejudice, ignorance, contradiction and bewildering confusion of principles.

He believed that Jefferson was broaching the subject of slavery to prove that it was impossible to incorporate freed blacks into the American society. He really did not want the black man as an equal but neither did he want the black man as a slave. Peterson mentions that Jefferson was humane towards his slaves and only mentions the relationship with Sally Hemings briefly. (pp.260-264)

Though there is some bias in the volume towards Hamilton, it does not destroy the general reliability overall. Peterson claims that the difference in their philosophy of government is what caused the dispute between Jefferson and Hamilton. Hamilton's belief in a conservative, highly centralized and powerful national government contradicted Jefferson's belief of strict adherence to the constitution of republican democracy. Jefferson feared a powerful central government and he believed that he must stop Hamilton's plan of forming a strong national government. (pp. 464,465, 646-647)

Historians, if not the general reader, will resent the absence of footnotes. This is no popular biography, no brief sketch, but more than a thousand solid pages of scholarship. Peterson's major contribution lies in his description of Jefferson's contributions to American politics and culture, i.e. the Louisiana purchase, freedom of religion, and agriculture. Peterson is occasionally harsh, and sometimes inaccurate. George Tucker's best-known novel is incorrect; also incorrect is the statement that Madison drew up the first list of books for the Library of Congress entirely from Jefferson's personal list.

Peterson shows that publicly, Jefferson was great at influencing his country from his time to ours, but his personal life was in disrepair, culminating in economic ruin concomitant with his estate's fall into an abyss of poverty and mediocrity. The biographer equates economic ruin with intellectual and moral degradation.

Fawn Brodie, Thomas Jefferson; An Intimate History

Brodie's biography, Thomas Jefferson; An Intimate History, examines Jefferson's struggle, equating his idealism of democracy and liberty with the American institution of slavery. Brodie's biography deals more with the slavery issues, and Jefferson's affair with his slave Sally Hemings. Jefferson as a slave owner was humane towards his slaves because he had a deep sense of guilt for owning people in a democratic republic.

This guilt made Jefferson work for the emancipation of the slaves. Jefferson was hypocritical in a sense because he would not free Sally Hemings because of the political and social damage that she could inflict upon him and the family, if she decided to make public their intimate relationship.(Chapters 3,4,5)

Brodie barely touches upon Jefferson's contributions in the political realm of the nation. However, when she does write about his political career, she describes his feelings and attitudes towards the events. Brodie interpreted The Louisiana purchase as a peaceful means of gaining territory for the new nation without the threat of war. Other than a simple background description, she goes no further into the subject. (pp. 37, 339, 341)

On Jefferson's dispute with Hamilton, Brodie gives a much different reason for its causes. She contends that the dispute was little more than a sibling rivalry between the two antagonists. Jefferson's hatred for Hamilton was complicated by his jealousy of Washington's affection for Hamilton. This jealousy and his fear of what damage Hamilton might do to the republic kept Jefferson from retiring from public service. (pp. 27-34)

These are but a few examples of Brodie's effort to make Jefferson more human and more approachable. She has uncontested flair and a style in describing Jefferson's life. She claims that her views would be considered scandalous by the public because of the "unhealthy" conclusions that she had come to. Overall, the work is very informative and readable.

Brodie has accomplished what she has set out to do, make Jefferson approachable. Brodie used mainly primary sources and she has compiled an excellent bibliography. She has used Jefferson's account and farm books to justify some of her interpretations. Brodie also comments upon the lack of interpretation and description of Jefferson's liaison with Sally Hemings, by other biographers.

Bibliography

Brodie, Fawn, Thomas Jefferson; An Intimate History
Fleming, Thomas, The Man From Monticello
Malone, Dumas, Jefferson and His Times, Volumes 1, 4
Peterson, Merril, Thomas Jefferson and The New Nation