“Jefferson and His Time: The Sage of Monticello” is the sixth and final volume in Dumas Malone’s groundbreaking biographical account of Thomas Jefferson’s life. This volume marks the apex of the series and the end of nearly four decades of work by Malone. Just more than a year after its publication, in recognition of his vast contribution, Malone received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Covering Jefferson’s life from the end of his second presidential term to his death, this volume surveys the final seventeen years of one of our most revered but enigmatic presidents. After a difficult last term in public office, Jefferson returned to his beloved Monticello in 1809 undoubtedly seeking a peaceful retirement. But while his twilight years proved more numerous than might have been expected, they were also more painful – particularly in terms of his ongoing health and personal financial situation.
Consistent with earlier volumes, Malone’s writing becomes aggressively detailed at times and the pace lurches back and forth between intensely slow and well-paced. Nonetheless, this was the easiest of the six volumes to read and was by far the most enjoyable. One can almost sense Malone’s relief at the series drawing to a close, but also the author’s gratitude to Jefferson for providing such a rich and complex history to digest, analyze, reconcile and chronicle.
The chapters concerning the sale of Jefferson’s personal library to Congress, his personal financial situation (which was surprisingly poor) and his renewed friendship and extensive correspondence with John Adams were highlights. On the latter front, however, I was surprised to find the story somewhat underplayed, particularly given how much of interest is revealed in the letters these two former presidents exchanged in their last years of life. (I’m also surprised given Malone’s propensity for never missing an opportunity to describe in several chapters what might be more concisely written in a few pages.)
Most strenuous of the chapters were those relating to the War of 1812 and his initial efforts to create a common vision – and ongoing funding – for what is now the University of Virginia. Both of these topics were presented with so much detail that they eventually became difficult to follow. We learn nothing more of the Sally Hemings controversy that seems to preoccupy contemporary Jefferson scholarship, and Malone skirts past the seeming inconsistencies in Jefferson’s public and private positions on slavery.
Nonetheless, Dumas Malone clearly saved his best work for last, and of all six volumes in this series, this final volume is also perhaps the one best-suited to be read on a standalone basis. Though Malone never evolves into the storyteller we seem to expect of modern-day presidential biographers, he has without a doubt chiseled from primeval stone a great work – laboriously, meticulously and with inordinate care. Although this is just the first of several Jefferson-oriented biographies I plan to read, it is hard to imagine finding more rigorous scholarship in any other work on Jefferson, or more commitment on the part of any author.
Overall rating: 4 stars