“Jefferson and the Rights of Man” is the second of six volumes in the Pulitzer Prize winning epic biography of Thomas Jefferson authored by Dumas Malone. This volume covers the years 1784-1792 which Jefferson largely spent in Europe as a diplomat and as George Washington’s first Secretary of State. The volume concludes as Washington’s first term, but not quite Jefferson’s tenure in the cabinet, is ending.
Like the first volume in this series, turgid prose and weighty detail are found in abundance throughout. Happily, though, the pace moves along somewhat more rapidly than in “Jefferson the Virginian” though it is uneven, moving quite slowly in pockets and picking up speed at other moments (usually as the story grows more interesting and intriguing).
Many reviewers describe this volume as more dry and less interesting than the first, but I disagree. While, from a personal perspective, less seemed to occur in Jefferson’s life during these years, what was described of this important period seemed either more interesting, or perhaps just more colorfully related. Where in the first volume we saw Jefferson mature, enter politics, draft the Declaration of Independence, marry and serve as a war governor of Virginia, in this second volume he “merely” spent several ineffectual years in Europe as a diplomat and served three largely frustrating years as Secretary of State.
But it is the manner in which Malone weaves the major themes of Jefferson’s life during this period together with the increasingly fractious personalities of the time which holds the reader’s interest. The author’s description in the second half of the book of the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson during Washington’s first term was one such highlight. Although that discussion comes across as a bit one-sided (in Jefferson’s favor), at least we uncover some intrigue and heat in an otherwise academic discussion of fruitless diplomacy.
Malone’s obvious affection for Jefferson becomes increasingly clear during the course of this book. Where his sympathy for his Jefferson was harder to discern in the first volume, by the end of the current volume the author can be seen as almost unfailingly apologetic toward his primary subject. Besides his favorable treatment of Jefferson in all matters involving Hamilton, for example, I almost failed to find any trace of Jefferson’s leading role in starting or later fanning the rhetorical flames in the Philip Freneau / National Gazette firestorm.
Even though on the whole this volume represented an important if rather unexciting period of his life (at least for me personally), it was holistically satisfying to view the progression of Jefferson’s life and the evolution of his core philosophies during these years. Adding to the complex portrait of Jefferson which Malone paints, we begin to get our first hard impressions of what historians have often referred to as Jefferson’s duplicitousness as well. But more potent evidence of that side of Jefferson likely remains to be found in subsequent volumes.
Overall, “Jefferson and the Rights of Man” requires slightly less fortitude than the first book, but is equally unlikely to be a single-stop destination for most readers interested in Thomas Jefferson. Whether read as part of the broader six-volume journey or intended as a standalone experience, upon completing this book the logical next step is clearly to venture on to the next volume. That third book in Malone’s series seems to hold great promise as it covers a dynamic and interesting phase of Jefferson’s life: his “retirement” to Monticello, his election as Vice President and his increasingly active role as the leader of an evolving political party.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars