Jefferson the President: Second Term, 1805-1809
Volume Nineteen of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson just appeared from the Princeton University Press. It covers three months of the year 1791, when Jefferson was secretary of state—when he was, by comparison with some later years, on the periphery of national events. A Jefferson scholar has surmised, “If Julian Boyd [the series editor] keeps to the same standards of inclusiveness, it will take him a full volume just to get through one week of Jefferson’s more difficult times as President.” And though it takes Volume Nineteen 646 pages to cover these three months, Volume Eighteen spent 688 pages on the preceding three. This suggests one great difficulty in coming to grips with Jefferson, the too little that we too often get from his too much. The man articulated himself into mystery, becoming dark with argument—by his very density of clarification and self-explanation, his endless lucubrations: lucus a non lucendo.
The volume of material Dumas Malone must control in writing his fifth volume of the Jefferson biography is staggering. The period covered—the second term as president—is crowded with events and controversy. Malone’s area is not Virginia, any more, or even the United States, but the world. He must deal with the complicated international situation, not only in its more famous aspects like the maneuverings with Britain and France and Spain over commerce and territory, but on little-known points like Jefferson’s friendly cultivation of Tsar Alexander I, whom he admired as the finest type of Enlightenment monarch. Given the complexity of the story, it is a wonder that Malone can tell it so clearly and well in just 700 pages, with a beautiful mastery of the sources. When public business begins to weary the reader (as it certainly did Jefferson), Malone inserts a chapter or more on the private man, on his life of the mind at Monticello, that refreshes as much by the evidence of Malone’s affection for his subject as by the subject’s own brilliance.
Still, the book labors under inescapable difficulties. As Malone begins by admitting, this was not the most glorious period in Jefferson’s long life. His landslide election to a second term had given him powers that were largely dissipated by the time he left office, bequeathing his successor a nation and a party seriously wounded by the unpopular embargo. Besides, Malone is covering territory traversed by Henry Adams, whose sympathies were not with Jefferson, in the work that is probably supreme among all American historical studies. To add further problems, this time in Jefferson’s life has been exposed to serious criticism in recent years by just those men who had been special keepers of a Jeffersonian tradition up till now. In Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side, Leonard Levy, while arranging his material to suggest a critique of Jefferson’s entire life, actually draws all his most powerful ammunition from the second term—two whole chapters on the embargo, another on the Burr case, and a chapter on the free press that relies primarily…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.