The Sage of Monticello
With this final volume, historian Dumas Malone completes one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by a scholar-historian in this century: a six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, one of the most interesting, complex, accomplished, and energetic of the Founding Fathers, a man who gave his name to the age in which he lived and which he dominated. Reviews of earlier volumes have called the project “ambitious,” “magisterial,” and “monumental.” Now finished, Jefferson and His Time (6 volumes, 1948-1981) lives up to all its praise.
Some years ago, Malone was asked how any biographer could possibly capture the multisided and always elusive Jefferson. After all, the man had done so much, had had so many interests and experiences, and had encouraged his powerful mind to roam so widely. Among other things, Jefferson could be called an agronomist, an architect, a politician and statesman, a musician, a scientist, a philosopher, a businessman, an intellectual and social commentator, an educator, and many more deserved titles. How could any one biographer snare this man? Malone’s reply, typically modest and self-deprecating, was, “I try not to get lost on the side roads or pathways, but stick to the main highway.”
What is the “main highway” to Malone? In his introduction to the first volume of this biography (published in 1948), Malone offered readers the “road map” he would follow for the next thirty-three years:
He [Jefferson] was confident that time was fighting for his ideas, and that human progress was certain, if only tyranny and artificial obstructions were removed. . . . If he must be given a single designation, he was a liberal. Liberty was his chief concern, and his major emphasis was on the freedom of the spirit and the mind.
Through the first five volumes, Malone keeps to his central theme as he follows his subject through his development and his many public offices, climaxing with Jefferson’s presidency of 1801-1809 (volumes 4 and 5).
The sixth volume, entitled The Sage of Monticello, examines the last seventeen years of Jefferson’s life. After four decades in the public spotlight, Jefferson was an observer of national events, on the sideline, where (if one is to believe Jefferson himself) he would have always preferred to have been. He turned his attention to improving Monticello (with special care given to his gardens), basking in the affections of friends, neighbors, and grandchildren, and trying to put his financial affairs in order and extricate himself from debt.
Yet Jefferson in retirement remained a keen observer of national and international affairs. Though he tried desperately during his presidency to avoid war with England, by 1810 his patience seems...
(The entire section is 1144 words.)