Uncle Thomas’s Cabin

Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

by Fawn M. Brodie
Norton, 591 pp., $12.50

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson; drawing by David Levine

Two vast things, each wondrous in itself, combine to make this book a prodigy—the author’s industry, and her ignorance. One can only be so intricately wrong by deep study and long effort, enough to make Ms. Brodie the fasting hermit and very saint of ignorance. The result has an eerie perfection, as if all the world’s greatest builders had agreed to rear, with infinite skill, the world’s ugliest building.

Start with ignorance, as the most understandable part of the book. She regularly treats us to sub-freshman absurdity—thus: “We do not even know for certain if Jefferson signed on the second of July, when the Declaration was formally voted, or on the fourth, as he later insisted. There is still controversy over this, though Julian Boyd makes out a good case for the fourth….” She has tangled up as two things the three events at issue: (1) the July 2 vote on Richard Henry Lee’s resolution (not, as she says, on the Declaration), (2) the July 4 vote to pass the amended Declaration, and (3) the signing of the formal copy of the Declaration on and after August 2. Boyd’s elaborate discussion concerns events (2) and (3), which Brodie recasts in terms of (1) and (2). No one before her ever raised the inconsequent matter of a signing on July 2. And Boyd was not arguing for a signature on July 4 or August 2 (as she seems to think), but for one on July 4 and August 2.

Not only does she misconceive all three elements in the problem, considered singly; she then collapses them into two (the wrong two for her purpose) and says that we must choose one or the other from these wrong two on the basis of inapplicable norms. Then, just to complete our amazement, she tells us that Julian Boyd has made “a good case” on the matter—though his case has nothing to do with the garbled mess she has made of things. Error on this scale, and in this detail, does not come easily. There is a skill involved.

And much nerve. She has managed to write a long and complex study of Jefferson without displaying any acquaintance with eighteenth-century plantation conditions, political thought, literary conventions, or scientific categories—all of which greatly concerned Jefferson. She constantly finds double meanings in colonial language, basing her argument on the present usage of key words. She often mistakes the first meaning of a word before assigning it an improbable second meaning and an impossible third one. When Hamilton assures Washington that he will do nothing to “endanger a feud” with Jefferson, she calls this “a curious slip of the pen”—though the word more often meant “incur the danger of” in Hamilton’s time than “cause danger to” as in our own.

Ms. Brodie seems never to have heard of the OED. When a slave (Robert Hemings, who may have…

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