“Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty” is the third of six volumes in Dumas Malone’s epic biography on Thomas Jefferson. Malone spent over one-third of his life researching and writing this series, his most renowned work for which he won a 1975 Pulitzer Prize. This volume covers the years 1792-1800, including the last year of Jefferson’s tenure as Secretary of State, his three-year retirement at Monticello, his years as John Adams’ Vice President and his election to the presidency in 1800.
Although many reviewers of this volume seem to have felt “Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty” might have been better titled “Jefferson and the Ordeal of Reading,” I found this part of Malone’s series more interesting than the first volume and roughly on par with the second. Happily, somewhere between the first and third volumes his style of writing seems to have become more user-friendly and Jefferson’s life story even more interesting.
Unfortunately, this book (like the first two in the series) often suffers from an overwhelming amount of detail. Die-hard fans of Malone may consider this entirely appropriate in what can be considered an “encyclopedic accounting” of the times – at least as they relate directly to Jefferson. But in some respects, Jefferson seems to have been directly involved in relatively little during these years (other than his election as Vice President in 1796 and President in 1800 – irony not intended) which left me wondering whether this portion of his life really requires five hundred pages.
But while much of the action of the day seems to occur far from the vice presidency, we have the opportunity to absorb Malone’s accounting of the thrust and parry between Jefferson and Madison, and Hamilton and his supporters, which never seems to grow dull. We also get to know Jefferson himself better, primarily through the description of the years he spent at Monticello after his service in Washington’s cabinet and before his election as vice president. But make no mistake, his multifaceted personality remains largely elusive and enigmatic at this point, and may well through the end of the series.
Throughout this volume we also witness Malone’s tendency to acquit Jefferson in every matter of controversy, nearly always finding fault with whomever history finds on the other side of an argument. But where other reviewers often find this to be Malone’s fatal flaw, I am rarely surprised to discover sympathy between an author and his or her subject. Due to my pre-existing familiarity with both sides of the issues described in this volume – or perhaps because I’m generally suspicious when someone is consistently portrayed as a saint – these biases neither distract nor bother me much.
Because Malone’s account of history in this exhaustive study of Jefferson’s life seems to include nearly everything that happened to Jefferson (at least those not relating to the Hemings controversy, of which I’ve seen virtually nothing thus far) my experience with Malone’s series continues to remind me less of a traditional biography and more of a very well researched history book. Malone simply never strips away the bulk of detail which seems extraneous to most readers or boils the detail down to its most important essence. In nearly all cases that work is left to the reader.
Nonetheless, my experience so far – halfway through the Malone journey – suggests that a more exhaustive account of Jefferson’s life would be difficult to find, or construct. As a nearly complete biographical account of Jefferson’s life based upon obviously deep and time-consuming research, this series is masterful. Still, as a biography to be read casually by someone interested in getting to know Jefferson “a little bit better” it remains cumbersome and probably unapproachable. Malone is no master of efficiency and is not primarily a storyteller, but instead primarily a historian.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars