American history, biographies, book reviews, presidential biographies, Thomas Jefferson, US Presidents, Willard Sterne Randall
Willard Sterne Randall’s “Thomas Jefferson: A Life” was published in 1993. Randall spent the first seventeen years of his professional career as a journalist for a variety of Philadelphia-area publications. He later earned a Masters degree from Princeton and began a career as a historian and author. Among his nine books are biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen. He is Professor Emeritus at Champlain College in Vermont.
When first published, this 595-page biography promised new insights into Jefferson’s legal career, his philosophy regarding slavery and his relationship with Sally Hemings. But while Randall’s background as an investigative journalist clearly aided in his research and analysis, his most notable assertion – that Jefferson never had a romantic relationship with Hemings – has not survived the test of time.
Randall’s biography of Jefferson is lengthy, chronologically organized, and often interesting…but frustratingly uneven in its pace and focus. Originally intended to document Jefferson’s years in France, the book’s scope was expanded at the request of Randall’s editors when it became obvious that a modern review of Jefferson’s entire life was needed. What resulted is a biography that carefully dissects Jefferson’s formative years but loses momentum by the zenith of his political power.
The author’s background as an investigative journalist is obvious from the book’s earliest pages – from the way he questions longstanding lore to his use of handwriting analysis to date certain of Jefferson’s letters and manuscripts. His literary style is crisp and straightforward, but rarely colorful or riveting. And while this book often seems a “life and times” study tightly focused on Jefferson’s world, it occasionally feels like a character study…but without the reader fully getting into Jefferson’s mind.
Jefferson’s lifelong animosity toward his mother is revealed more effectively than I can recall in any other biography of Jefferson I’ve read. Randall provides a useful, if too brief, introduction to Patrick Henry, and the author’s description of George Wythe (under whom Jefferson studied law) will almost certainly compel the motivated reader to seek out an excellent biography of Wythe.
This biography provides an impressively detailed review of Jefferson’s youth and undoubtedly offers the most insightful coverage of his legal studies and legal career that I’ve ever read. And portions of the narrative covering construction at Monticello and his relationship with Maria Cosway are consistently fascinating.
For readers interested in Jefferson’s early life, Randall’s biography is a good place to start; nearly 1/3 of the book is consumed by the decade he spent as a lawyer and young politician prior to authoring the Declaration of Independence. But fewer than three-dozen pages whisk the reader through Jefferson’s two-term presidency, and his retirement years garner less than a dozen pages.
Other shortcomings include generous treatment of Jefferson on the issue of slavery, the author’s dismissal of the possibility of a relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings and a failure to better introduce Jefferson’s most important contemporaries (such as Washington, Madison, Monroe and Hamilton) or more fully integrate them into the narrative.
In addition, familiarity with the Revolutionary War is implicitly assumed; historical context is often provided only as necessary to explain Jefferson’s actions at any given point in the narrative. As a result, most of the war takes place entirely off-stage while Jefferson is focused on reforming Virginia’s laws relating to religious freedom, primogeniture and education. And, finally, the book far too infrequently makes use of introductory paragraphs to foreshadow important points or highlight seminal themes or conclusions.
Overall, Willard Sterne Randall’s biography of Jefferson proves serviceable but far from exceptional. As a study of Jefferson’s legal studies and career it is uniquely valuable. But as a comprehensive and evenly-paced biography of Thomas Jefferson’s public and private lives and relationships it is significantly lacking.
Overall rating: 3½ stars
This profile of Thomas Jefferson by Randall has the special distinction of being the first full-length biography I ever read, starting the long, well-trodden road of peering into the lives of historical figures I continue to this day. Since it was the first, I didn’t have an established baseline to form a critique, but your analysis of Randall’s shortcomings seems correct. Still, there must have been some redeeming quality of his writing to prompt me to continue reading more of his biographies including his analyses of Hamilton and Washington. Randall is not in the stratified pantheon of biographers for me, but he will always hold the significance of being the one who propelled me to read the biographies of countless other individuals. Thanks!
For me, this biography had the potential to be at least a “4 star” review of Jefferson, but I just couldn’t get past the over-weighted focus on the early part of his life. Notwithstanding that, I’ve got Randall’s bios of Alexander Hamilton, Benedict Arnold and Washington and I’m planning to get to at least one of them in the next year or so (Hamilton, if I’m not mistaken).
And if this biography was the genesis of your own interest in reading great biographies then I’d say this book deserves a special place on your bookshelf for sure!
I have been waiting (impatiently) for your review of this bio, as I started it about a year ago and then dropped it out of frustration with the pacing and a feeling that events were being dropped in my lap without being placed in an overall context, and I wondered if it was just me.
Thanks for your patience! I got through about 2/3 of this book in late August before I found myself overseas for an extended period of time (and without this biography in my luggage). I decided to indulge in some long-deferred fiction (the Harry Potter series!) and *had* to finish that before I jumped back into Jefferson. (Sept-Dec 2019 was the first time in 7 years I’d read anything but non-fiction…)
If this was the only Jefferson bio I had ever encountered I may have found it more appealing. But having read almost 250 presidential biographies, it was easy for me to identify what I liked – and didn’t like – about this book relative to my “ideal” presidential biography and, obviously, there was a fair amount about this one that didn’t shine for me.
Great to have you back! I’ve had this book on my “might read” list for a while, but I was leaning toward dismissing it as obsolete because of Randall’s outdated conclusion about the Hemings relationship. Glad to see there’s at least some value in it, so now I “might” actually get around to reading this one eventually!
It’s great to be back after de-compressing with some much-needed fiction for the last few months of 2019!
The way I feel about this Jefferson bio is…if it’s competing for your time & attention with several other biographies, I might read something else first(!) But if you’re looking to expand your insight into Jefferson it might be worth tackling sooner rather than later since it does provide a view of his legal studies & career you can’t really get anywhere else.
I finally got around to reading this one – I was going to skip it, but read it based on your semi-endorsement. I agree this was excellent on Jefferson’s early years, better than any other Jefferson book I’ve read. I went back to check Meacham’s book, for example, and he mentioned Jefferson’s legal career only in passing in a few scattered paragraphs. So for that reason alone, Randall’s is worth reading. But I can’t fathom why he raced through Jefferson’s presidency and post-presidency. This could have been an excellent one-volume bio but just completely ran out of steam at the end.
I wondered, how many presidents would you say you found a “definitive” biography for, that you would unhesitatingly recommend as “the” book to read? I would have no problem recommending Chernow on Washington, Ferling on Adams, Feldman on Madison, McGrath on Monroe… but I still feel like a definitive bio of Jefferson is frustratingly elusive.
I think of the presidential biography universe as being divided into thirds. For the moment I’m going to avoid the word “definitive” because, to me, that implies some critical and rigorously applied standard for both its scholarly content and its entertainment value. And while I’m happy to opine on the latter, I’m only partially qualified to pass judgment on the former.
About a third of the presidents in my view have a “go to” single-volume biography (I am intentionally excluding series since they are of a different breed for most). In some cases there are arguably two or three that are equally good, but I have a clear preference for some reason.
I think about a third have several good-to-excellent choices but none strike me as a clear winner or favorite and any of them may be suitable for any given reader. (For me Jefferson – and possibly Lincoln – are in this category and although I have a preference in each case, it would not surprise me if an even better alternative comes along at some point for Jefferson and I don’t think there is a head-and-shoulders “best” among the Lincoln standouts).
And it seems as though about a third lack one or more biographies which I believe could be reasonably considered a “go to.” In some cases these are presidents who haven’t attracted many biographers (Martin Van Buren); in some cases the person’s presidency was too recent and I don’t think enough time has passed.
To complicate matters, there are situations of course where the best biography probably IS a series. I think this is the case with LBJ although I suspect someone will come along in a decade or two and, building off Caro’s work, write a single-volume bio of Johnson that is better than anything currently available in a one-volume format.
It’s unfortunate that we no longer give Jefferson the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the Hemings allegation. That has now become an industry of the scurrilous. What gets lost is Jefferson’s true contributions to our national story.
Isn’t it strange that Hemings stopped having children after Jefferson took up full time residence at Monticello? You would think with unfettered access, more children would have been a given.
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