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