In the introduction to his substantial one-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Willard Sterne Randall argues that the continuing scholarship on the third American president justifies a new interpretation of a man who has been both revered and pelted by revisionist brickbats. To his credit, Randall seeks neither to whitewash nor to tar the United States’ third president. His Jefferson is a cool, scholarly man who even in his thirties longed to retire to Monticello (which he had begun to build while still in his twenties and would continue to build and rebuild for the rest of his life) and there observe nature, conduct and record a thousand and one agricultural, mechanical, and scientific experiments, and write. Yet he was also a man who could not resist the siren song of public life.
Randall lays stress on Jefferson’s westward orientation. It is easy to forget that the area around the future Monticello, which his father Peter surveyed and settled upon in the 1730’s, was frontier territory. Peter Jefferson was a massive, almost Bunyanesque man who infected his son early with his admiration for the unsettled and largely unexplored land beyond the Blue Ridge. Thomas Jefferson was an explorer only in his imagination-although eventually, through his farsighted purchase of the Louisiana Territory and his commissioning of his cousin Meriwether Lewis and George Rogers Clark to their great expedition, he became an enabler of exploration also.Self- educated himself, Peter saw to it that young Tom was instructed at home, in school, and on expeditions to nearby fields and forests. One of his teachers introduced the eighteen-year-old Tom to a distinguished legal scholar, George Wythe, who confirmed him in the study of law. After less than two years as a practicing attorney, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and soon plunged into the Colonial opposition to British oppression. Wythe had helped Jefferson become not merely another lawyer but the man who, at the age of thirty-three, was the obvious choice to compose the Declaration of Independence.
The Revolutionary years themselves were replete with setbacks for the man who would later reemerge as a great American statesman. One of the charges against him-that in 1781, while governor of the colony, Jefferson ran away from the British-is technically true, but for much of that retreat he was a solitary man pursued by 250 cavalry. More significantly, he had not been able to assemble adequate defenses for the colony five years after the war had begun, and to that extent he deserved at least a portion of the abuse later heaped on him by Patrick Henry. Jefferson, who could be mightily vindictive, never forgave Henry.
The war over, Jefferson began to exercise his legislative talents at both the state and congressional levels, and in 1784 he was appointed to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams as one of the ministers to France. Randall’s original intention to write merely a study of Jefferson’s French mission is evident in his leisurely treatment of these five years: He devotes four chapters to this period, compared to only one long chapter on Jefferson’s presidency and a perfunctory final chapter on the subsequent seventeen years of his life, during which he founded the University of Virginia-an achievement that Jefferson himself ranked as more important than his eight years as the nation’s chief executive.
One of the most impressive aspects of this book is the even- handedness with which Randall discusses the more controversial aspects of Jefferson’s life. While not trying to gloss over Jefferson’s negative attitude toward his mother, he points Out that Jefferson’s alleged antifeminism dates from the period immediately after Peter Jefferson’s death, when the adolescent Tom was under the control of his mother, not from some years later as argued in some Jefferson biographies. Randall scorns as “preposterous” the likelihood of a liaison with Jefferson’s domestic slave Sally Hemmings but accepts as proven that as a young man of twenty-five Jefferson attempted to seduce the wife of his friend Jack Walker.
The book teems with instances of Jefferson’s complex and ambivalent attitude toward slavery. Early in his life Jefferson registered his disgust with the class of men who oversaw slaves directly. On a number of occasions he urged the cessation of slavery, but his life was inextricably bound up with the institution and personally he remained a slave owner, though a relatively humane one. As a twenty-five-year-old, he and a kinsman, Richard Bland, introduced a bill in the Virginia House of Burgesses that would have allowed emancipation of slaves by free choice of the slaveholders. In...
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