The Sage and Family Man

The place was a mess. It had “fallen into ruin: windows were broken, the roof leaked, the terraces had rotted through, graffiti defaced the front of the house, souvenir hunters had chipped away at [the] burial shaft…bats and rats gamboled and searched for food in the empty dwelling.”

Good thing the owner already did. Seeing his house this way would have broken his heart.

After he finished with the Presidency, and politics, Thomas Jefferson finally completed Monticello, and did precisely what he had hoped to do before he got talked into running for president in the first place–he gave himself time to think, roam and inspect his farms, read the classics, write to friends, and, as a “hobby,” built what became the University of Virginia not far from Monticello. Like George Washington, Jefferson was constantly short on funds, the result of a slave-based farming economy that required far more personal attention than a public figure could provide, and some lousy luck.

From the University of Virginia collection

I just finished reading about 500 pages about the life of Thomas Jefferson, my third presidential biography (I hope to read at least one book about every president, which may not be so easy to do because there are gaps in the literature and gaps in my patience for some of the people who served in the office). I began with Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life (Chernow wrote the Hamilton biography that inspired the musical), and continued with David McCullough’s magnificent John Adams (the basis for the HBO series starring Paul Giamatti). There are lots of Jefferson biographies, including the classic six-book series, Jefferson in His Time by Dumas Malone, and Jon Meacham’s more recent The Art of Power. I chose the new Jefferson book by Rice University Professor John B. Boles because it seemed to be fair-handed, and because it seemed to balance personal and professional life without overdoing it on the brilliance of Jefferson’s accomplishments and authorship. I am not a presidential scholar, so it’s difficult for me to evaluate the quality of the work, or to compare it with other lifetime biographies, but Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty seemed to fit the bill.

Begin at the beginning. Based upon available accounts (Boles consistently prefers available accounts to his own intuition), Thomas’s father Peter was an intelligent, well-read, ambitious man who married well, bringing the Randolph family and the Jefferson clan together in one of Virginia’s great extended families. Peter died young, and left a considerable amount of prime Albemarle County land to the family. So begins the saga of Monticello.

When he was 26, Thomas became a college student, attending William and Mary College in Williamsburg and greatly benefiting from one particular professor, Dr. William Small, a Scotsman, who focused Jefferson’s keen intellect on rational thought. Jefferson wrote that Small had been “to me as a father,” and “to his enlightened & affectionate guidance of my studies…I am endebted for every thing.” Small introduced Jefferson to two friends: a law professor named George Wythe, and the royal governor Frances Fauquier. So began Jefferson’s introduction to public life and politics–in the very small capital city of the colony of Virginia, early in the 1760s.

Through a growing circle of political connections, Jefferson made his way through the courts and eventually into the legislature. Boles presents Jefferson’s professional and personal growth by presenting the young legislator’s growth in good alignment with the colonial struggles against an increasingly aggressive England. Even in his earliest work as an attorney, Jefferson’s principles were explicit: “Under the law of nature…all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to be his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it as his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of his nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.” This was written in connection with an April 1770 case involving a complicated multi-generational question about miscegenation and slavery.

Like George Washington and other wealthy Virginians, Thomas Jefferson relied upon slaves to operate his plantations, operate small businesses, and maintain some degree of economic stability (not his strongest suit). Wisely, Boles does not allow the chronological storytelling to become bogged down in lengthy inquiries into Jefferson’s philosophies about slavery in general or his own slaves in particular. It’s well known that Jefferson has more than a personal stake: his decades-long relationship with Sally Hemmings–and the majority of slaves under Jefferson’s control were members of the large Hemmings family. That discussion is reserved for chapter 29, after Jefferson has reconciled differences and renewed friendship with John Adams, after Jefferson’s 90-plus year old body finally gave out. Boles allows Jefferson a fair amount of latitude here. Basically, the author presents Jefferson as man of his time, and at the time, his behavior was considered perfectly reasonable–despite the fact that Jefferson’s outlook on slavery in general was restrictive. In essence, Jefferson hoped that his decisions and his writings would begin a long movement in which slavery would be eliminated in due course, not as the result of any single action.

There is a great deal of story in these 500+ pages–life in Paris (which he adored), returning to the U.S. and reluctantly becoming the nation’s first Secretary of State, his complete and all-encompassing love for his daughter and so many family members (most of all, Jefferson was a family man), his philosophical differences and battles with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, his love for and extreme distaste for politics, his raw ambition and relentless curiosity, his utter disappointment with Merriwether Lewis who utterly failed to document the science and much of the detail in his documentation of the famous expedition with William Clark, and his ability to manage an astonishing range of interests and activities that can be experienced, at least in a cursory way, by a largely rebuilt Monticello estate.

So it’s off to James Madison for me. I need to decide whether to pick things up with the Lynne Cheney biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, or the Kevin R. C. Gutman biography, James Madison and the Making of America (which seems to be very focused on the U.S. Constitution, and less on the man’s whole life)This decision is made more complicated because of a weak link in the chain: of the two James Monroe biographies that might follow, neither is likely to suit my purpose. Suggestions are welcome.

 

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Comments

  1. If you decide to read Lynne Cheney’s biography of Madison, let me know what you think of it! It’s on my follow-up list but may be awhile before I get to it…

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