Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson; drawing by David Levine

Thomas Jefferson as a person scarcely seems to exist. He seems to be mainly a symbol, a touchstone, of what we as a people are, someone invented, manipulated, turned into something revealing about ourselves. Surely no figure in our history embodies so much of our democratic heritage and so many of our democratic hopes. Jefferson has virtually become America itself. “If Jefferson was wrong,” wrote James Parton, our first professional biographer, “America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.”

Given this identification of Jefferson with America, it is not surprising that Jefferson during the past couple of decades has been given a rough going-over by historians. In the 1960s and 1970s many people, including some historians, concluded that something was wrong with America. And if something was wrong with America, then something had to be wrong with Jefferson.

Consequently in these years Jefferson was subjected to a series of sometimes quite bitter attacks by historians and biographers. All of the criticism involved in one way or another an unmasking of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that apparently lay hidden in the heart of Jefferson and thus our democratic heritage. Or was it the other way round?

In Jefferson and Civil Liberties (1963) Leonard Levy ripped off Jefferson’s mantle of libertarianism to expose his “darker side”: a passion for partisan persecution, a lack of concern for basic civil liberties, and a self-righteousness that became at times out-and-out ruthlessness. Far from being the skeptical enlightened intellectual, allowing all ideas their free play, Jefferson was portrayed by Levy and other historians as something of an ideologue, a doctrinaire thinker eager to fill the young with his political orthodoxy while censoring all those books he did not like. He did not have an open or questioning mind after all. He uncritically accepted a conventional Whig liberalism, which, to the consternation of his more thoughtful and inquisitive friend James Madison, repeatedly framed his intellectual response to events. He seemed to be, as some might say today, nothing but “a knee-jerk liberal.”

But exposing the weakness and hypocrisy of Jefferson’s liberalism was only part of the critique. Just as America has wrestled with the problems of race-relations during the past few decades, so inevitably historians have explored Jefferson’s attitudes toward slavery and blacks. Some, such as Winthrop Jordan and David Brion Davis, have done this sensitively but nonetheless critically. Others, such as William Cohen, have been more brutal. All have found the contrast between Jefferson’s great declarations of liberty and equality and his lifelong ownership of slaves glaringly embarrassing. Jefferson hated slavery, it is true, but he never freed his slaves. Moreover, as historians in the 1960s pointed out, he bought, sold, bred, and flogged his slaves, and hunted for fugitives in much the same way his fellow Virginia planters did.

Jefferson could never really imagine freed blacks living in a white man’s America, and throughout his life he insisted that the emancipation he desired had to be accompanied by expatriation. He wanted all blacks sent to the West Indies, or Africa, or anywhere out of the United States. While he had no fears of mingling white blood with that of the Indian, he never ceased expressing his “great aversion” to miscegenation between blacks and whites. Although he believed that the Indians were uncivilized, he always admired them and made all sorts of environmental explanations for their differences from whites. Yet he was never able to do the same for the Negro, and he continually suspected that the black man was inherently inferior to the white.

It has even been suggested that Jefferson’s obsession with black sensuality shared by so many other Americans was largely a projection of his own repressed—and perhaps in the case of his attractive mulatto slave Sally Hemings—not-so-repressed libidinal desires. The charge that Jefferson maintained Sally Hemings as his mistress for decades and fathered several children by her was first made by an unscrupulous newspaperman, James Callender, in 1802. Since then, historians and others have periodically resurrected the accusation.

In her 1974 psycho-biography of Jefferson the late Fawn Brodie made the most ingenious and notorious use of it, building up her case for this implausible liaison between Jefferson and his slave largely through contrived readings of evidence and even the absence of evidence. In light of our modern soap-opera sensibilities she naturally turned the relationship into a secret love affair. That Jefferson dutifully recorded in his Farm Book the births of the offspring of this presumed love affair, along with all other slave births, does, however, take the edge off the romance. Brodie’s suggestion of a love match aroused a great deal of controversy, perhaps because a lot of people believed it or at least were titillated by it. A novel based on Brodie’s strained concoctions has been written, and it appears that a TV miniseries might be on the way.


These may seem like small and silly matters, but they are not—not where Jefferson is involved; for the nature of American society itself is at stake. The shame and guilt that Jefferson presumably suffered because of his secret love, Brodie suggested, were the same shame and guilt white Americans have always felt in their tortured relations with blacks.

People see America in Jefferson. When Garry Wills in his Inventing America (1978) argued that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence owed less to the possessive individualism of Locke and more to the communitarian sentiments of Francis Hutcheson, one critic accused Wills of aiming “to supply the history of the Republic with as pink a dawn as possible.” The Jefferson that emerges out of much recent scholarship thus resembles the America many have visualized in recent years—self-righteous, guilt-ridden, racist, doctrinaire, and filled with liberal pieties that under stress are easily sacrificed.

This is not the America or the Jefferson Dumas Malone has evoked in his six-volume study. His Jefferson is a very different symbol—designed not to provoke passions but to calm them. His is the Jefferson that Jefferson would have liked—temperate, rational, and balanced, a man who was “one of the most notable champions of freedom and enlightenment in recorded history.” Malone treats Jefferson as one gentleman to another, with respect but with honesty. He is aware of Jefferson’s faults, but he is anxious to place them in proper perspective, to judge the man not by his lapses but by the general tenor of his life.

Through all the noise and controversy over Jefferson during the past several decades, Malone, who is eighty-nine this year, has slowly been putting together his monumental work, deadening the criticism of Jefferson by enclosing it within his scholarly synthesis. With this volume, the sixth in the series generally titled Jefferson and His Time, the edifice is complete. In its majesty, in its soothing prose, in its reasonableness and humane tolerance, and in its deeply rooted confidence in things American, this great biography—perhaps the greatest presidential biography ever written—seems to come from another time and another place.

Actually it does. Although Malone began his biography nearly forty years ago, during World War II, he first conceived of writing “a big book about Thomas Jefferson” back in the 1920s, when he was teaching history at the University of Virginia. Malone in 1948, when his first volume was published, intended his big biography to be complete in four volumes, but the two volumes planned for Jefferson’s years of national public service between 1784 and 1809 were eventually doubled. Malone, however, has remained faithful to his original aim of devoting a single volume to the period of Jefferson’s retirement, from 1809 to his death in 1826. This final volume is The Sage of Monticello.

Malone initially thought that the last volume dealing with Jefferson’s years of retirement would be “in intellectual and spiritual content…the richest of them all.” It is not quite that—not because of any failings in Malone’s powers as a historian but because of what happened to Jefferson and to America in those years of his retirement. The period between 1809 and 1826 was a tumultuous one in American history and not a happy time in Jefferson’s life. To be sure, there was the Sage of Monticello relaxing among his family and friends and holding court for scores of visiting admirers. There was his reconciliation with John Adams and the wonderful correspondence that followed. And there was his hard-fought establishment of the University of Virginia. But the world around him, the world he helped to create, was rapidly changing, and changing in ways that Jefferson found bewildering and sometimes even terrifying. By the end of his life not only was Jefferson faced with the prospect of losing Monticello but he had a dimly perceived apprehension that the Revolution, to which he had devoted his life, was in danger of failing. He turned inward and began conjuring thoughts, stirring up demons, and spouting dogmas in a manner that many subsequent biographers, including Malone, have found perplexing and embarrassing.

When Jefferson retired from the presidency he returned to Virginia and never left it. In fact, he virtually never again lost sight of his beloved Blue Ridge. He became more narrow-minded and localist than he had ever been in his life.

Decay was everywhere in early nineteenth century Virginia and Jefferson felt it at Monticello. His debts kept mounting and he kept borrowing, taking out new loans to meet old ones. He tried to sell his land, and when he could not he sold slaves instead. He was, as Malone says, “a mass of contradictions.” He complained continually of his debts, but refused to cut back on his lavish hospitality and expensive wine purchases. Unable to comprehend the economic forces that were transforming the country and destroying the upper South, Jefferson blamed the banks and the speculative spirit of the day for both his and Virginia’s miseries.


The ultimate culprit, he thought, was the corrupt course of the national government. The Missouri Crisis of 1819-1820, provoked by Northern efforts to limit the spread of slavery in the West, was to Jefferson “a fire bell in the night,” a threat to the union and to the experiment in republicanism. He despaired of stopping the spread of federal consolidation and commercial values and bemoaned “the degeneracy of public opinion from our original and free principles.” He became a bitter critic of the usurpations of the Supreme Court and a more strident defender of state rights than he had been even in 1798 when he penned the Kentucky Resolutions justifying the right of a state to nullify federal laws. While his friend Madison remained a nationalist and upheld the right of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution, Jefferson lent his wholehearted support to the most dogmatic and sectional-minded elements in Virginia, including the arch state-rightists Spencer Roane and John Randolph. He became parochial and alarmist, and his zeal for state rights, Malone admits, “bordered on fanaticism.”

He was more frightened and fanatical than he had to be, and he went further backward to the principles of 1798 than he had to go, further certainly than Madison ever went. For someone as optimistic and sanguine as he usually was, he had a lot of moments of gloom in these years. The question, which Malone never quite answers, is why?

Certainly his personal troubles, the threat of bankruptcy, were part of it, but they are not the whole explanation. More important was Jefferson’s outlook itself—his deep faith in popular democracy and the future. No American leader was so confident of the people and what they would do in the years to come. His expectations always outran reality. He was a Pollyanna about everything, whether it was garden vegetables that never came up, or misbehaving students who violated their honor code, or a revolution that became perverted. He was the pure American innocent. He had little understanding of man’s capacity for evil and had no ironic or tragic sense whatsoever. In the end his rosy temperament did him in.

Throughout his long public career, while others were wringing their hands, Jefferson remained calm and hopeful. He knew slavery was a great evil, but he believed his generation could do little about it: instead he counseled patience and a reliance on the young who could follow. It was the same with every difficulty: somehow or other he expected things to work out. Progress was on the march, and science and enlightenment were everywhere steadily pushing back the forces of ignorance, superstition, and darkness. The future, he felt, was on his side and on the side of the people. A liberal democratic society would be capable of solving every problem, if not in his lifetime, then surely in the coming years.

But Jefferson lived too long, and the future and the coming generations were not what he had expected. His correspondence in these years was punctuated with laments over “the rising generation, of which I once had sanguine hopes.” American society, including Virginia, was not progressing, but seemed to be going backward. Jefferson was frightened by the popularity of Andrew Jackson, regarding him as a man of violent passions and unfit for the presidency. He felt overwhelmed by the new paper-money business culture that was sweeping through the country and never appreciated how much his democratic and egalitarian principles had contributed to its rise. Ordinary people, in whom Jefferson placed so much confidence, were not becoming more enlightened; superstition and bigotry, with which Jefferson identified organized religion, were reviving, released by the democratic revolution he had led. He was incapable of understanding the deep popular strength of the evangelical forces that were seizing control of American culture in these years. He was a confused secular humanist in the midst of a real moral majority. While Jefferson in 1822 was still predicting that there was not a young man now alive who would not die a Unitarian, Methodists and Baptists and other evangelicals were gaining adherents by the tens of thousands and transforming American society. All Jefferson could do was blame the defunct New England Federalists and an equally bewildered New England clergy for spreading capitalism and evangelical Christianity throughout the country.

Jefferson’s solution to this perceived threat from New England was to hunker down in Virginia and build a university that would perpetuate true republican principles. “It is in our seminary,” he told Madison, “that that vestal flame is to be kept alive.” Yet even building the university brought sorrow and shock. The Virginia legislature was not as eager to spend money for education as he had expected. His support of the university actually became more of a political liability in the legislature than an asset. The people were more sectarian and less rational than they had been at the time of the Revolution; they did not seem to know who he was, what he had done. Was this the new generation on which he had rested all his hopes? During the last year of his life, at a moment, says Malone, of “uneasiness that he had never known before,” Jefferson was pathetically reduced to listing his contributions during sixty-one years of public service in order to justify a legislative favor. No wonder he sometimes felt cast off. “All, all dead!” he wrote in 1825, “and ourselves left alone midst a new generation whom we know not, and who know not us.”

These were only cracks in his optimism, only tinges of doubt in his democratic faith, but for an innocent like him these were enough. Jefferson went further in his state-rights principles and in his fears of federal consolidation than his friend Madison did because he had such higher expectations of the Revolution and the people. He had always invested so much more of himself intellectually and emotionally in the future and in popular democracy than Madison had. Madison never lost his dark foreboding about the America yet to come, and he never shed his skepticism about the people and popular majorities. But Jefferson had nothing but the people and the future to fall back on; they were really all he ever believed in. That’s why we remember Jefferson, and not Madison.

This Issue

August 13, 1981