American history, best biographies, book reviews, Dumas Malone, John Boles, Jon Meacham, Joseph Ellis, Kevin Hayes, Merrill Peterson, presidential biographies, Presidents, Thomas Jefferson, Willard Sterne Randall
After nearly two months with Thomas Jefferson involving five biographies (ten books in total) and over 5,000 pages of reading, I still feel I know Jefferson less well than many other revolutionary-era figures…including some like Alexander Hamilton who I’ve only encountered through his numerous appearances in various presidential biographies.
But that’s part of the intriguing mystery that Jefferson presents – even the most dedicated Jefferson scholars such as Malone and Peterson have admitted difficulty in getting to know our third president on a personal level. In his biography of Jefferson, Merrill Peterson acknowledged being mortified in confessing he still found Jefferson “impenetrable” after years of study.
Part of what seems to make Jefferson so complex is that he is not merely a two-dimensional figure. The set of internal rules governing his behavior resembles a multi-variable differential equation whose output seems maddeningly inconsistent at times. But on a basic level, Jefferson is no different than most of us – guided by a small number of core convictions, steered by a larger set of general principles, and influenced by a broad group of more nebulous forces.
Only that smallest group of convictions seemed to guide Jefferson as if they were immutable laws of physics. His other principles and beliefs were more maleable, able to change under great strain, competing forces, or compelling circumstances of the moment. He was a passionately private man, yet ended up in public office for most of his adult life. He professed the evils of slavery, yet owned slaves (and may have even had a long-term relationship with one). He was intensely afraid of the power of a broad federal government under the direction of a strong president, yet as president did very little to curb that power and in many instances did just the opposite.
These seeming contradictions are less mysterious when we ask ourselves how a biographer would see our own lives, and the various complexities we each offer. In that spirit I find it unsurprising Jefferson could, for instance, be quite civil to someone at the dinner table, yet could write a scathing indictment of that person’s political views (and even personal motivations) in a private letter written to a friend. I am equally unsurprised he could profess politically correct views on various topics, yet seem to violate those principles when it was convenient. Don’t we all know people like that? But it does make drafting an elegant, straightforward character profile in a three- or four-hundred page book rather difficult.
* Dumas Malone’s six-volume series (“Jefferson and His Time”) took over three decades to complete – it was begun when my parents were not old enough to walk, and finished when I was almost entering middle school. This series, to which Malone dedicated a huge chunk of his adult life, took me just five (rather intense) weeks to read.
Although this series does not receive high marks as a means of “entertainment” it receives the very best marks for its content and scholarship. The first five volumes won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.
Volume 1 (“Jefferson the Virginian”) covers the first four decades of Jefferson’s life, up to the point when became a diplomat in Europe. Volume 2 (“Jefferson and the Rights of Man”) covers the years 1784-1792 which Jefferson spent in Europe as a diplomat and as George Washington’s first Secretary of State.
Volume 3 (“Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty”) covers 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. Volumes 4 and 5 (“Jefferson the President”) cover his eight year presidency while Volume 6 (“The Sage of Monticello”) covers the final seventeen years of Jefferson’s life.
As thorough and comprehensive as any biography on Jefferson could possibly be, the series suffers only from being less “readable” than more recent biographies which are written in modern, well-flowing verse, and perhaps for not addressing the Hemings controversy with evidence that has only recently come to light.
Malone’s series on Thomas Jefferson reminds me of Thomas Flexner’s series on Washington and Page Smith’s on John Adams – together, these three great works are in a class all to themselves. (Full reviews: Vol 1, Vol 2, Vol 3, Vol 4, Vol 5, Vol 6)
Merrill Peterson’s “Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation,” published in 1970, was written while Malone was about halfway through his series on Jefferson. In no other single-volume biography of any of our first three presidents can a reader find a more comprehensive book, chock-a-block with such an impressive level of relevant detail. Yet compared to Malone’s series, while it seems to contain proportionately similar granularity, it also seems to contain relatively fewer interesting conclusory remarks and insights.
Without a doubt, no serious library would be complete without a copy of Peterson’s classic. But with the benefit of hindsight, if I were forced to choose between reading Malone’s six-volume series or Peterson’s single-volume biography, I would not hesitate to invest the additional time required to experience Malone’s series. (Full review here)
Joseph Ellis’s “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson” was published in 1996, three years after he published his biography of John Adams. This is by far my favorite of Ellis’s books, and the second most “enjoyable” read among the Jefferson biographies.
Like each of Ellis’s works I’ve read so far, this book is not quite a biography and should not be read as such. In my opinion, the best way to enjoy “American Sphinx” is to first read either Malone’s series or Peterson’s biography. Ellis not only observes Jefferson’s behavior throughout life, as have other authors, but also synthesizes his observations into a set of characteristics that seems to have defined Jefferson’s personality. This book comes as close to getting into Jefferson’s mind as any book I’ve read. (Full review here)
“Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson” by Alan Pell Crawford was published in 2008 and, despite a number of imperfections, proves quite an enjoyable and easy read. Although it exudes a slight tabloid “feel” Crawford has exploited a niche never before fully explored – even Malone’s last volume focusing on Jefferson’s retirement years seems slightly incomplete in hindsight.
By the end of the book, though, it feels as thought the author may have tried too hard to make his case. Rather than coming across as insightful and revealing, the book finally beings to feel hyperbolic and melodramatic. Nonetheless, as my next-to-last book on Jefferson, it was perfectly timed and absorbingly provocative. (Full review here)
“Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham was published in 2012 and is currently the most popular of the Jefferson biographies. As I’ve discovered from readers of this site, Meacham is a polarizing author. Those who love him do so because his primary mission seems to be to entertain and, only secondarily, to inform. Others find him distressing for exactly the same reason, sensing that he merely puts new wrapping paper on an old treasure.
But no matter your take on Meacham, “The Art of Power” is both easy and enjoyable to read. At times it is thoroughly engrossing and contains its own interesting perspective on Jefferson’s life. Although it is lighter on penetrating, recently-uncovered insights and heavier on clever one-liners than previous Jefferson biographies, it probably serves as the perfect “second” biography of Jefferson. (Full review here)
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[Added January 2020]
* In 2013, I read four single-volume biographies of Jefferson and the six-volume series described above. Since then I’ve had the chance to read a biography of Jefferson I missed on that first trip through Jefferson: Willard Sterne Randall’s “Thomas Jefferson: A Life” which was published in 1993. But while it is uniquely valuable as a study of Jefferson’s legal studies and career, it covers most of the remainder of his life – including his presidency – with less dexterity and it turned out to be my least-favorite biography of Jefferson thus far. (Full review here)
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[Added October 2021]
* I’ve also now read John Boles’s 2017 biography “Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty.” With 520 pages of text, this biography proves uncommonly thoughtful, thorough and revealing. Boles expends no small effort in attempting to unravel Jefferson’s complexity and perplexing contradictions – including the large gap between his attitude toward slavery and his actions – and here the book is quite successful. Less ideal is the relative lack of focus on understanding and revealing Jefferson’s friendships with figures such as James Madison and John Adams. And Boles’s writing style, while crisp and articulate, is rarely particularly colorful or engrossing. But overall this is perhaps the best modern, single-volume introduction to Jefferson’s life and times. (Full review here)
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[Added August 2022]
* In August 2022 I had the chance to read Kevin Hayes’s “The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson.” Published in 2008, this “literary life” of Jefferson is a dense, detailed 644-page intellectual biography of the third president, focused on the literature he read, wrote and collected. Although it provides much of the framework of a traditional biography, it is decidedly not one and cannot serve as an adequate substitute for anyone seeking a thorough and broad introduction to Jefferson. The natural audience for this book is quite limited, but for someone already familiar with T.J. who is interested in exploring his intellectual evolution through an analysis of the words that shaped his world, this book may be ideal. (Full review here)
Best Overall: Dumas Malone’s six-volume series
Most Enjoyable Biography: “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power”
Best Single-Volume Biography: “Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty”