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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 far of an already superbly distinguished series1 which will constitute when finished one of the finest historical biographies of our time. In it, one can appreciate all over again the gross fact of Jefferson’s inauguration and its enormous implications for the future, with the peaceable transfer of power for the first time from one party to another. Then there are the unavoidable agonies of patronage and the dilemmas it creates with any transfer of power, peaceable or otherwise. We see the new Treasury under Gallatin, with its purposeful insistence on frugality and the retirement of the Hamiltonian debt. Jefferson begins his classic struggle with the judiciary, in which he learns among other things that strict construction of the Constitution (in such matters as treason and impeachable offenses) is not a monopoly of his own party.

And finally, there is the crowning blessing of Jefferson’s first term, and indeed of his entire Presidency, the peaceful acquisition of Louisiana. Bringing with it the long-coveted control of the Mississippi and a doubling of the country’s area, this vast province fell into Jefferson’s hands because the fifteen million dollars he paid for it happened to be worth more to Bonaparte for his forthcoming adventures in Europe than was the trouble of defending, with French troops, an unmapped wilderness.

Malone’s work is definitive and it is a success. Nor is it simply the modest grace of the narrative prose that makes it so, allowing the reader as it does to move through it with such swiftness and freedom. There is another sense in which (despite what I said in the first paragraph) Malone may be thought of as having found the script already there, and in which one of the truly remarkable talents at work here is that of managing a scenario the major features of which are reasonably familiar. We see a sense of proportion and symmetry, of presentation and staging, of what ought to be stressed and what not—in short, all the elements of directorship that are essential to a dramatic masterpiece. Malone, moreover, having made the choice of his vehicle—the multi-volume biography—has also accepted the scholarly rules that govern it, and has worked in such a way within them as not to stultify his effort but rather to enhance and liberate it. I will come back to this point shortly.

With Merrill Peterson’s Jefferson, the choice—that of the single volume—was different, and so presumably the criteria of appraisal have to be different too. But whatever they are, it is clear that Peterson and Malone, being the two leading Jefferson scholars in the country, possess between them (shared of course with Julian Boyd)2 the bulk of the available Jefferson expertise. And as was to be expected, Peterson’s work too has its very considerable virtues. It covers Jefferson’s entire life with remarkable thoroughness. I think, though, that its particular merit lies in the way the author manages to synthesize and render with clarity a number of very complicated episodes in Jefferson’s public career. Among these, for example, is the tangled aggregate of intellectual issues and tactical imperatives that were involved in composing the Declaration of Independence. Another is the commercial policy upon which Jefferson operated during his mission to France in the 1780s, together with the strain of Anglophobia that underlay it and governed virtually every thought Jefferson had, or would have, on the subjects of trade, banking, and debt.

Peterson is good on the rapidly escalating quarrel between Jefferson and Hamilton, and has a shrewd sense of Jefferson’s commitment to politics—of his eagerness, despite Cato-like professions, to come back from retirement in 1796. In the notorious Aaron Burr Conspiracy it was never really clear whether Burr’s mad imperial schemes in the Southwest were to be carried out at the expense of Spain or the United States—or both, or neither—yet President Jefferson was willing to do almost anything to get the man convicted of treason. Peterson’s rendering of this episode, the intricacies of which in most accounts are all but impossible to keep straight in one’s mind, is a small tour de force.

There are, to be sure, exceptions, the most notable being the funding and assumption of the national debt in 1790, Peterson’s treatment of which is rather hackneyed. But perhaps there is a reason. The funding system, involving among other things a special vision of growth economics and a concentration of growth capital, was a Hamiltonian project, not a Jeffersonian one, which may have some bearing on Peterson’s reluctance to deal with it as an act of imagination. This raises a whole problem in itself, of which more later. Malone, back in Volume II, was not at his best on this one either. Fresh light on early national finance is not likely to be found in any Jefferson biography, and this should not be laid to Peterson’s account.

On other grounds, however, I fear the final judgment must be that Peterson’s book is less than a success. Peterson may appear to have made a straightforward choice as to his vehicle. But I don’t think he has, and in trying to have it both ways—the benefits of both the single-volume treatment and the definitive life, with the liabilities of neither—he has presented his subject in a strangely anomalous format and run afoul of what may well be iron laws having to do with the nature of his audience, the audience’s expectations, and the claims that can be made on a given audience’s attention.

His “single” volume is unconscionably long; it actually seems longer than all four of Malone’s together, though of course it isn’t. The chapters themselves frequently run over a hundred pages. All this is asking a lot, given the normal patterned cycle of reading, with its accustomed intervals and mileposts; the reader’s energy drops off and he finds, more than he likes to admit, that this is a hard thing to stick with. The reasons are not easy to figure, but some guesses may be in order. It isn’t the prose: line by line, that is clear enough. Even the length should not in itself be insuperable. But perhaps the critical question is, length for what? What are we to use this for, what are we seeking in it? The very indeterminacy: that, I think, is what is tiring. It is not a “thesis” book, not an argument, not an effort with clear governing themes, not a schematic “essence” of Thomas Jefferson, not a book-length essay on some special aspect of the man’s career or character. Highly successful examples of these can, after all, be produced and have been, one of them by Peterson himself.3

Nor is the book an “introduction” to Thomas Jefferson; it is too extended and detailed for that, and few readers coming upon Jefferson for the first time here are likely to last to the end. Actually the audience for this work, like Malone’s, is mostly one whose members know a great deal about Jefferson already. They are professionals, quasi-professionals, students, and knowledgeable amateurs—that is, insiders and vicarious insiders. The book, in authority, seriousness, and bulk, edges toward the “definitive.” There are no footnotes, but if there were, there would be material for perhaps as many as three volumes, and certainly for two very fat ones.

But there, precisely, is the rub. Certain of the amenities of such an enterprise, to which this sort of audience is indisputably entitled, have been withheld. Peterson’s decision to omit the scholarly apparatus of citation and reference means more, I think, than he realizes. I don’t ask why he did this, but it can’t quite be pushed off as a matter of sparing the reader pedantry and clutter (that objection tends to come oftener from authors and publishers than from readers); nor would the sole function of retaining it be that of certifying the author’s credentials. Peterson certainly doesn’t need that; everyone knows he has mastered everything. Such an apparatus is an integral item of creative and ongoing scholarship; it has multiple functions; it is a method of accounting so designed that it doesn’t get in the way of the text; the reader can take it or leave it but it’s there if he needs it. Loose ends can be managed and the text kept free and simple—prevented, if one must say so, from getting tedious. And it simplifies the work of others: there should be at least some things that needn’t be done over.

  1. 1

    Jefferson and his Time, Little, Brown. Vol. I, Jefferson the Virginian (1948); Vol. II, Jefferson and the Rights of Man (1951); Vol. III, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty (1962).

  2. 2

    Boyd is the editor-in-chief of the stunningly comprehensive edition, still in progress, of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950- ), seventeen volumes so far, to November, 1790.

  3. 3

    E. g., Gilbert Chinard, Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism (Little, Brown, 1929); Albert Jay Nock, Jefferson (Harcourt, Brace, 1926); Karl Lehmann, Thomas Jefferson, American Humanist (Macmillan, 1947); Lawrence S. Kaplan, Jefferson and France: An Essay in Politics and Political Ideas (Yale, 1967); Leonard W. Levy, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (Harvard, 1963); and Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (Oxford, 1960).

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