American history, biographies, book reviews, Dumas Malone, presidential biographies, Presidents, Thomas Jefferson
“Jefferson the President: First Term” is the fourth volume in Dumas Malone’s monumental biographical work on Thomas Jefferson. This volume was published in 1970 and was followed four years later by volume five, after which Malone received a Pulitzer Prize for the still incomplete series. The final volume was published in 1981 when its author was eighty-nine years old.
Consistent with previous volumes in this series, this book can be read as a stand-alone work – in this instance focusing almost solely on Jefferson’s first term as president – but seems much better read as part of Malone’s complete series. Also consistent with earlier volumes, this book was clearly the result of meticulous and painstaking research and groans under the weight of factual insights and accountings, though not the synthesis and evaluation I would have also appreciated.
Most readers will view this book as even less a biography than earlier volumes, it seeming instead more a historical account of the years 1801-1805. This is primarily due to Malone’s heavy focus on the notable events of the period, rather than Jefferson’s actions themselves. Owing partly to his party’s control of Congress, and the harmony within his cabinet, Jefferson rarely needed (or wanted) to be in the spotlight. As a result, Jefferson’s character recedes into the background for much of the book and we learn little of this man’s innermost-self.
Also receding in this volume is the pro-Jefferson “slant” which the reader may by now expect of Malone. In part, this is a natural result of circumstances of the times: the principal antagonists of the series thus far (the Federalists, and Hamilton in particular) are virtually politically extinct during this period and create relatively few headaches for Jefferson. And owing to a duel he clearly lost with Jefferson’s vice president, Alexander Hamilton does not even survive the first term of Jefferson’s presidency.
Only in the case of Sally Hemings do we get a full dose of Malone’s familiar sympathy with his biographical subject. Here, for the first time in the series, we learn of the controversy surrounding the possible (and, to many, quite likely) “relationship” between Jefferson and Hemings. True to old form, Malone quickly dispatches the issue in Jefferson’s favor. Unfortunately, his defense of Jefferson is so efficiently and narrowly executed that I expect it will leave most modern readers unconvinced.
“Jefferson the President: First Term” is organized thematically by chapter rather than chronologically. Although with most books this causes me significant discomfort (as it has appears to have caused many others who have read this volume), the entirety of this book encompasses just four years. As a result, the timeline is not particularly difficult to reassemble and the events seem relatively easy to consider separately. Causing more pain, in my view, is that this book is not less tedious to read than earlier volumes.
Overall, I came away from this volume feeling quite well-familiarized with the first term of the Jefferson Presidency. I learned a great deal (perhaps even more than I cared to) of Jefferson’s efforts to challenge the Federalist domination of the judicial branch and to negotiate and integrate the Louisiana Purchase. But I learned surprisingly little of Jefferson’s re-election to the highest office; this piece of history is covered in paragraphs while other seemingly trivial matters receive chapters. Nonetheless, I am much wiser for the overall experience and look forward to the next volume of this adventure.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
I found this book easier to understand after reading Petersen’s book.