The View from Jefferson’s Camp

Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805 (Volume IV, Jefferson and his Time)

by Dumas Malone
Little, Brown, 539 pp., $10.00

Any biographer of anyone surely has his problems. But what must they be like when his subject happens to be a historical figure of primary importance who lived an inordinately long life and who had a career that imposed itself in the most coercive way on the most critical events of his time? Obviously the story cannot be counted on to write itself. There are choices all along the way, and it matters which ones you take. But just as the career was itself coercive, so are the choices that are open in dealing with it. They are in reality more limited than might be expected, and in no case more so than in that of Thomas Jefferson. What are they?

Will it be a “favorable” biography or an “unfavorable’ one? But that’s a pseudo-choice, not a real one. The late Vernon L. Parrington believed there was only one of two views that could be taken of American history, a Jeffersonian or a Hamiltonian view, and it is certainly true that the way you think about Thomas Jefferson largely determines how you will think about any number of other things, and vice versa. The choice here really amounts to whether you take up Jefferson or you don’t. In any case, few competent writers will be found devoting the better part of a lifetime to an “unfavorable” biography of anyone, and certainly not of Thomas Jefferson. The “point of view” can be a problem in fiction; for the biographer it’s given. And in the present case, there can be few sustained counterviews, counterpositions, counter-statements on Jefferson at any level, to say nothing of the level of biography, because the values this career represented are basic to the entire value system of American culture. Counter-statements may be urgently needed—I think they are—but that is another question. They are not to be found at this level, and there is reason to doubt that they ever can be.

Thus I suspect that the most fundamental choice a biographer faces with such a subject comes down to whether it will be done in one volume or in more than one. Actually these are not light choices; they can take him down very different paths. If it is to be more than one volume (and if the subject is Thomas Jefferson), then it has to be “definitive.” This is arduous and demanding. But the rewards can be both considerable and satisfying. If it is to be a single volume, then there are other options. The work can be “limited” in a positive sense; it can be schematic, it can sustain an argument, themes can be established and carried through without their getting lost in otherwise unavoidable detail. These anyway are the choices that are involved in the books being considered here.

Dumas Malone’s is the fourth volume in what is clearly the definitive life of Thomas Jefferson. Covering the first term of Jefferson’s Presidency, this is the best so …

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