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.
Malone, in taking such rules for granted—with his chronological tables, appendixes, genealogies, and easily accessible footnotes—has made his work available for almost any use that a reader might need it for. Peterson, in dispensing with them (and in a work whose scope is at least comparable), has left us a very wide and curiously featureless landscape. Two things I noticed may be symptomatic. One is that even these good short syntheses I mentioned tend to get absorbed in the general flatness. The sequence on commercial policy, for example, was previously published as a separate article (complete with citations), and was far more effective in that form than it is here. The other is the enormous number of typos and other gaffes that would normally have been caught in the processing. (The balloon ascension by a “celebrated French astronaut,” or the aging Jefferson—twice on one page—figuring his remaining days with the aid of “morality tables.”) Even the copy editors and proofreaders, it seems, found it hard to keep up their concentration.
But let us turn to Thomas Jefferson himself, and consider these books in another way. Consider the portrait established by Dumas Malone, who has been at it for more than a quarter of a century. This means among other things that Malone has known Jefferson intimately for a very long time, that Jefferson has stood the test, and that Malone’s treatment of his friend is the treatment one gentleman accords to another. The picture is benign. It shows us the man of peace, generosity, and reason, concerned throughout his life with the values of rational inquiry, the happiness of his countrymen, and all the material and spiritual forms of human liberty.
But there is, alas, a difficulty, especially if you know something about the author and have fallen under his charm: where are your defenses against the sheer seductiveness of all this? You have no independent position from which to view the man Jefferson in some other way—except through a breach of hospitality, which is what it would amount to—say, with the eyes of a skeptic. If your host literally cannot imagine Thomas Jefferson as other than all that is finest and best not only in a gentleman but in the entire American tradition itself, how can you?
Not that the total picture should be something other than benign, “all averaged out.” Not that Malone has misrepresented anything; he is absolutely scrupulous. For “the facts,” and even “the truth,” nothing could be more complete. But what if there should be more than one way of apprehending “the facts” and “the truth,” and more than one way of thinking about them?
Take what may or may not be a trivial question, that of Jefferson’s sex life, a question which Malone admits has given him some pain. Malone does not suppress this; but he faces it because the matter has been raised by others. In taking up certain rumors about Jefferson’s private life he has been concerned not—emphatically not—with explaining them away, but at least with explaining them, which is not the same as offering them as objects of speculative interest wherever they might lead.
Three occasions are examined in Volumes I, II, and IV respectively, in both the text and, in two of the cases, separate appendixes. One is the Walker affair, in which Jefferson in young manhood made advances (apparently repulsed) to a friend’s wife; another is Jefferson’s platonic (and on the whole rather attractive) interlude with Maria Cosway in France; the third is the “Black Sally” legend, in which Jefferson was said to have fathered one or more of the four mulatto children born to Sally Hemings, a house slave at Monticello. All the known evidence is laid before us, and from it we are led to conclude that nothing really happened on any of these occasions, that the real father of Sally’s children was Jefferson’s nephew, Peter Carr, and that Jefferson himself was celibate from the age of thirty-nine, when he became a widower, to his death at eighty-three.
If decorum and literal justice were to go hand in hand, we might leave it at that. Jefferson the individual has been “cleared,” if that is the word. But what if, in the interest of speculation, such constraints were waived? It might then occur to us that the question of Sally Hemings went well beyond individuals,4 revealing about an entire society matters that are crucial to our understanding of the most portentous social fact of the age, black slavery. We do know, in a blurred sort of way, that sexual tensions relating to slavery lie deep in the southern psyche. Does the social microcosm of Monticello offer any clues that might help bring the blur to focus?
It most certainly does. Thomas Jefferson hated slavery, and would have given much to be rid of it. The depth of his conviction need not be doubted. But he also had the most intense feelings against miscegenation. He would have liked to see every slave emancipated, and then somehow removed from the country. By no means unconnected with this were his strong views about the loose morals of Europe, a vision of America as an unspoiled Arcadia, and some rather overheated convictions about young men entering as promptly as possible into the wholesome trammels of married felicity. And here he was, with miscegenation and incontinence all around him at Monticello.
Sally was one of the six children of Betty Hemings, all acquired through his wife’s patrimony and all, apparently, having been sired by Jefferson’s own father-in-law—all of them, thus, half-brothers and sisters of Martha Jefferson. And in the years after Martha’s death there was Peter Carr, looked upon by Jefferson as a son, carrying on with Sally while Peter’s brother Sam seems to have done the same with Sally’s sister. Was Jefferson himself tempted? Suppose he was; did he ever give in? Let us assume not, but whether he did or didn’t need hardly matter; it could not have been exactly as the serene philosopher that he partook of these scenes.
What does it all add up to? Jefferson’s hatred of slavery, yet his inability to imagine emancipated blacks as responsible citizens of Virginia. A picture of Europe as the sinkhole of vice, yet surroundings at home that were anything but arcadian. And a touch of that element one finds in the brooding mentality of a celibate Irish clergy holding the lid down in the parish. Here, at any rate, is something that ranges well beyond the putative private sex life of Thomas Jefferson. It is the psychosexual dilemma of an entire society regarding slavery, reflected in that undergone by the most eminent citizen of Virginia and one of the most enlightened men of his time.
Very well, perhaps all this can be carried too far; perhaps we ought to concede Malone his fastidiousness on carnal matters. Conceivably a national hero need not be submitted to that. But there might be other questions. What about those traits of character that aren’t heroic from any angle, those scenes in which Thomas Jefferson could look a good deal less than noble, like anything but the defender of human liberty? The frequent smugness, the covert vindictiveness, the self-deception and lack of irony, the pharasaical self-righteousness, the hand-washing, the downright hypocrisy? The libel prosecutions, the Burr case, the Embargo? Malone does not ignore Jefferson’s lapses, but he does somehow absorb them. They are there, but the canvas is large, and such things tend to be enveloped in a larger mellow tolerance. (Again, a quality for which Dumas Malone is beloved by all who know him, including the ingrate who writes these lines.) There is no way of getting outside it.
Peterson, on the other hand, does try. His picture too is benign, but he does stand off from time to time to deliver some surprisingly sharp reprimands to his subject. How seriously we are to take them, however, is a question, since this is not real “detachment.” It can’t be, because he has to resume the main business; he has to get back, as any biographer does, to the “larger picture.” Malone and Peterson may not see all things exactly as Jefferson saw them, but they certainly can’t see any of them as his enemies did, or in any way resembling it. That would have incapacitated both of them from being what they are, biographers of Thomas Jefferson, and I hasten to add that we would all be the poorer for it.
So here is a real problem, not temperamental but technical in nature, which I think is virtually insoluble within the genre of biography itself. In the “limited” study, on the other hand, there might be certain resources. Take, for instance, the fiasco of the 1807 Embargo: Jefferson’s deluded conviction that he could force his version of freedom of the seas on the British simply by cutting off American trade and keeping American ships in port, his increasing callousness in the use of force to prevent transactions that were now defined as smuggling, and his stubborn demand for sacrifice in a cause that millions of citizens had become sick of. Can this episode be understood as reflecting certain continuities in the man’s own character? Peterson deals with it as the result of other factors, factors largely outside Jefferson’s control, though he is forth-right enough in seeing it as a disaster. Malone hasn’t come to it yet, but we can guess that although he too will be forthright, Jefferson’s character itself will probably not suffer much.
Now I am quite aware that the single-mindedly “psychological” study can be full of pitfalls; for some reason, few such studies of public figures ever come off. I was, however, impressed by certain devices which Alexander and Juliette George used a number of years ago in their scrutiny of Woodrow Wilson.5 They worked backward, using the insights they gained from Wilson’s last grand disaster in order to give earlier turning points in his career a rereading, and new lights popped on all up and down the line. Were they to apply the same principle to Thomas Jefferson—say by comparing two major failures in Jefferson’s public life, his revolutionary war governorship of Virginia and his Presidential Embargo—I would guess that something comparable might very well occur.
It might occur somewhat as follows Problems of a military and naval sort, though hanging over Jefferson on both occasions, never fully engaged his mind and never released his imaginative energies. Was his “passion for peace” entirely a matter of principle, or was it less a question of war which he resisted than of a war he had to handle? He was not very good at it, and somehow knew it. As President he was willing to make the Embargo indefinite, despite all the anguish it was causing and despite a cost to civil liberty that went far beyond anything the Federalists had ever done, rather than become a war President.
As governor of Virginia he had been anything but a Churchillian figure, having little instinct for rallying the community through the essentially informal and improvisational techniques that emergency leadership requires. Jefferson’s genius as a legislative planner had been recognized years before; here, however, he lacked reflexes. This had more than a little to do with the failure of Virginia’s war effort to take fire in 1780-81, and some of his excuses were preposterous. When men and horses failed to materialize, or when forts failed to build themselves, Jefferson told the baffled Steuben that the executive might be responsible for giving an order but not for its being carried out, and would deliver sage homilies about the independent spirit of a republican people. (This in the midst of a revolution, and in Virginia, a state in some ways better organized socially and politically for war than any of the others.) It was a failure not of good intentions or of honorable convictions, but simply of energy. Whereas with the Embargo he used every resource he could lay hold of for getting it through, and got it virtually in a matter of hours.
Then there was Jefferson’s incapacity, in either case, to admit himself wrong. Here was a man with painfully few resources for accepting personal defeat, whatever might happen on the larger scene for which he was responsible, and who would go to some lengths to protect himself from the knowledge of his own incompetence. And finally, there was his superb capacity for washing his hands when failure was clear and manifest, and dropping things completely. With scant sense of the imperatives of salvage, he could dump all the pieces in the lap of a successor and leave. In one case it was back to Monticello even before a successor could be installed, whereas by hanging on a few months longer (though of course he did not know this) he might have shared in the prestige of Yorktown, which he would have relished deeply and which might have changed his whole life. In the other case, he stopped functioning almost completely with the news of Madison’s election, though he became surprisingly relaxed about the necessity of war with Great Britain after he himself was out of office and it was no longer his problem.
There is another possibility for a special angle. Suppose the foregoing remarks should turn out to be unreasonable. But shouldn’t there be some more or less formal mode of inquiry that can let you ask unreasonable questions? Leonard Levy, in his systematic indictment of Jefferson’s record on civil liberties,6 did just that. Levy went after Jefferson in the spirit of a prosecuting attorney; he was unreasonable, as any prosecutor is, but that didn’t mean he was in a game without rules. What we at least got here was a cross-examination, and for the jury (which means all of us) this cannot help but be enlightening. Here our Malones and Petersons can set us straight, and probably Jefferson’s advocates will turn out “in the long run” to have the “better” case. But that isn’t quite the point. The Jefferson that survives this sort of scrutiny would be a Jefferson that looks at least somewhat different, and the point, a limited but critical one, is that he has had all too little of it.
I could close this essay on a benevolent note by observing that all I have said so far, if pertinent, could only be so in proportion to the very completeness of these works, inasmuch as virtually everything that can be known about the life of Thomas Jefferson is contained in their pages. The authors might then grant that this is as much as they had tried to accomplish, and that I am free to think what I please about anything I find there. But there is one more problem, and since it is larger, more endemic, and more elusive than any of the others, I have left it to the last.
Thomas Jefferson took a good deal of abuse in his time, especially from the mid-1790s on, much of it slanderous. It seems, however, that a biographer has no way of dealing with this as anything but slanderous, or at best hopelessly perverse. The real issue, I think, goes much deeper. The man’s very pre-eminence was bound to have consequences; his presence was coercive, as such a presence would be any time, and at no time more so than at the inception of a nation. It was a world view, and only incidentally a man’s character, that was in question, and the stakes were beyond calculation. True, in view of the outcome it is hard to picture Thomas Jefferson as standing anywhere ideologically but astride his age, which was how he pictured himself. And yet there were others who would have liked to see themselves in the same light, who nonetheless articulated their position in a very different way, and who in yielding their claims could do so only with the worst possible grace.
Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s headed one side of a bitter ideological struggle for the right to specify and spell out what was no less than the moral future of the Republic. Between Jeffersonian Republicans and Hamiltonian Federalists, populism or elitism was hardly the only issue and perhaps not even the primary one, though it was certainly in the interests of the Jeffersonians to make it so. (The majorities, “silent” or otherwise, that an incipient opposition needs must by definition be “popular.”)
More fundamental was the problem confronted by any new nation, that of national self-definition—the sort of face to be turned toward the world at large, and specifically the former mother country; and in our case this involved the extent to which the values of the new republic might safely be permitted to acquire a mercantile, maritime, and cosmopolitan tone. The Anglophobia of the Virginian past, the hard experience which had told a colonial rural gentry that banking and trade and all who prospered in them were works and agents of the devil—and that commercial cities should be seen as so many sores on the body politic—were powerful items in the Jeffersonian conviction. One of the monuments to that conviction, it might even be argued, was Washington, D. C.—a national capital so placed and planned that the principal elements of nationality could have no real confluence there, that the political, economic, and cultural elites of the Republic could never intersect in the same place. As we know, they never have.
But however one views the consequences, the consequences were those of struggle, and it takes two sides to make a struggle. It is not in the interests of “fairness” or “justice” that the insists on this, not that we may then see one as the enlightened side and the other the benighted, but simply so that the struggle itself may be taken seriously and seen as real. Two visions of Utopia were in contention, one with a mercantile and the other with a pastoral emphasis. Each had its spacious and inspiring aspects. Both would in time become corrupted, perhaps irreparably.
The view from Jefferson’s camp, in the work of Peterson and Malone, is as full as any such view can be. And yet looking across to the enemy’s lines we might well wonder. For there, we make out not men but malign and shadowy movements, and when we ask about these shapes we are told little more than that they are Federalists, and that they are, in fact, the enemy. Who they really are, and why they are there, are not to be learned at the headquarters, however well-appointed and superbly staffed, of Thomas Jefferson.
December 17, 1970
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). ↩
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. ↩
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). ↩
As it already has to Winthrop Jordan, who was under no constraints in the first place. See his “Thomas Jefferson: Self and Society,” in White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (North Carolina, 1968), pp. 429-481. ↩
Alexander L. George and Juliette L. George, Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study (J. Day, 1956). ↩
Jefferson and Civil Liberties. Levy found Jefferson’s high-handed search and seizure practices in enforcing the Embargo and his submergence of scruple on habeas corpus, military arrest, and arbitrary change of venue in the Burr case especially scandalous. ↩