“Jefferson the President: Second Term” is the fifth of six volumes in Dumas Malone’s groundbreaking biographical work on Thomas Jefferson. Published in 1974, this book is the longest of any in the series. Soon after completing this volume, and more than three decades after beginning work on the series, Malone received the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for history.
By this point in the series, Malone has long-settled into a familiar, comfortable style of writing which is clear and cogent, though somewhat dry. Readers expecting an enchanting, carefree description of events will again be disappointed. Malone’s meticulous research underpins a writing style which is consistently expansive and thorough, and will test the casual reader’s tenacity.
Most scholars, Malone included, view Jefferson’s second term as having been less successful than his first. Similarly, readers are likely to find the description of Jefferson’s first term (in Malone’s fourth volume) more absorbing than the description of events here, in Jefferson’s second term. Where the earlier volume provides a gripping account of Jefferson’s struggle with a Federalist-dominated judiciary, the Louisiana Purchase and the launch of the Lewis and Clark expedition, this volume labors under the burden of the Burr/Wilkinson affair and the imposition and enforcement of an unpopular trade embargo. The former episode alone accounts for nearly one-quarter of the book.
In familiar style, Malone vigorously describes Jefferson’s “work” life but we learn almost nothing more of his domestic life or his family. Little more is betrayed of his inner-most thoughts, including those we might imagine could be revealed through his personal correspondence. This lack of additional insight may be due, in part, to the diminishing size of his family and his fewer opportunities to exchange personal letters (his wife and all but one child having died by his second term).
By far, the best feature of this book is Malone’s introduction. Regular readers of Malone’s series on Jefferson quickly find that his introductory chapters are an excellent guidepost for each volume, providing a concise, articulate preview of the forthcoming pages. Increasingly, Malone’s introductory comments also seem to serve as the repository of his most insightful analysis of the period and of Jefferson’s performance. After completing this volume, I re-read the introduction and found it to be by far the most rewarding and productive moments I spent with this book.
“Jefferson the President: Second Term” is the most detailed and complicated of Malone’s volumes, and also one of the most bittersweet. For although the reader can delight in having survived the multi-volume journey thus far and see immediately ahead Jefferson’s final (and some say most productive) years, the decline of his influence and leadership in his last years of public office is both palpable and poignant.
Rather than finishing his presidency with one final vigorous political flourish, Malone describes a President Jefferson almost eager to walk away from the seemingly intractable remaining challenges of his presidency, handing the reins to his successor and close ally (whose campaign and election is almost entirely uncovered). Jefferson, like nearly all presidents serving multiple terms, seems physically and intellectually worn down from the ravages of time and friction, but the stage is nicely set for Malone’s final volume in this long adventure.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars