THE IMAGE of Thomas Jefferson as the leading philosopher of American democracy has been somewhat tarnished in the last two decades. Historians have told us that he violated his professed belief in civil liberties by a relentless effort to hang Aaron Burr, that he must share the credit for the separtion of church and state with serveral obscure Baptist leaders, and that, as a large slave owner who fathered mulatto children, he personified the inbred racism of white Americans.
In such a historical climates, it is fortunate that Dumas Malone has completed his definitive biography of Jefferson. The first volume appeared in 1948; now, a third of a century later, the sixth and final volume is published on the Fourth of July, the anniversary of Jefferson's death. More than any other biographer, Malone has encompassed the total Jefferson, a monumental achievement, all the more amazing because he wrote his final words as he neared 90.
To the end, Malone has maintained the qualities that earned high praise for the earlier volumes and the Pulitzer Prize for the fifth. If not a masterpiece of English prose, Jefferson and His Time is written with unusual clarity and precision for a biography with such historical detail. Malone's reverence for Jefferson seldom blinds him to the great man's inconsistencies or failures. He does not attempt to force the voluminous record of his subject's 83 years into a single, overriding interpretation. Rather, he writes out of the faith that "there is something in him for practically everybody." Even those who maintain that Jefferson no longer serves as an effective symbol of American society's highest aspirations can find grist for their mill in Mallone's pages.
The Sage of Monticello details the years from Jefferson's leaving the White House in 1809 until his death in 1826, a period in which he never left Virginia. An extensive correspondence, particularly with his two Virginian successors in the presidency, kept him abreast of national affairs. He supported Madison in the War of 1812, even to the point of advocation universal military training. But private citizen Jefferson was so distrubed by the growth of federal power, and especially by the nationalizing decisions of the Supreme Court under his old antagonist John Marshall, that he moved back to an extreme states' rights position. In 1821 he wrote that "when all government domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated."
Some of his enmity toward national power seems to be have arisen from his distressing role as the country's most "eminent debtor." He left office $11,000 in arrears for presidential expenses, and he died owing more than $100,000 after 17 years of paying interest on interest, discharging one debt by incurring another, and selling slaves to escape bankruptcy. Hard hit by the Panic of 1819, Jefferson viewed commercial interests, particularly the Bank of the United States, as the oppressors of his section. Even so, he was forced to borrow from the Richmond branch of that bank. Nineteenth-century presidents received no pensions. Only by a close vote in 1815 did Congress approve the purchase of Jefferson's library, thereby easing his financial strain for a moment and laying the foundation for the Library of Congress. Poorly served by relatives and others to whom he entrusted some of his affairs, Jefferson acknowledged that debt was the "constant torment" of his old age. The died as friends and admirers were making feeble efforts to hold a national lottery to save his property from a debtor's sale.
Insolvency did not deter Jefferson from continuing to live the life of the mind and spirit. His 15-year campaign to establish a university in his native state attained success when the University of Virginia opened its doors in 1825 with the octogenarian former president as is rector. His difficulties in this office sound strangely modern: the state legislature provided inadequate funding and insisted upon the orthodoxy of professors; outstanding teachers had to be courted away from other institutions; textbooks did not arrive on time; many students came to college unprepared to study the curriculum (one-third of them, he concluded, were "idle ramblers incapable of application"); and student rowdyism threatened to lay in ruins the graceful buildings he had designed and nursed to completion. But he never lost faith in an educational institution that would, as he told the faculty in his last year, produce alumni capable of becoming "Newtons and Laplaces by energies and perseverance to be continued through life."
On the controversial subject of slavery, Malone sticks to the records and leaves the moral implications to others. Always opposed to slavery in theory, Jefferson believed that the physical security of whites and the preservation of republican government necessitated its continuation for the present: "We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go." Malone acknowledges that Jefferson indulged in "wishful thinking," when he suggested that in time even southerners would see the wisdom of emacipation. Like most whites, he saw no possibility of a biracial society: "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them." After the proposal to admit Missouri as a slave state nearly tore the nation apart in 1819-1820, Jefferson was even less inclined to be a martyr for the cause of emancipation. His opposition to the "fatal blot" on the country remained private and theoretical.
Jefferson's ambivalence on slavery opened the door for the late Fawn M. Brodie's probe of his psyche in Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Historyd . Brodie concerned herself especially with his reputed relationship to his slave mistress, the quadroon Sally Hemings, who loved at Monticello and bore several children, said to resemble their master closely. The Brodie book was followed quickly by Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel. Sally Hemings . Both volumes sold well and received generally favorable reviews in the popular press. As a result, the Jefferson-Hemings relationship has gained renewed credibility.
Virginius Dabney will have none of it. In The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal he traces the history of the charge that the master of Monticello fathered Sally's children and presents what hard evidence has survived concerning the Hemings family of slaves. While agreeing that Jefferson was at home when each of Sally's children was conceived, Dabney dismisses much of Brodie's psycho-historical study as hardly less fictitious than Chase-Riboud's novel. He details the reviews in historical journals that exposed Brodie's distortions and errors of fact. What family evidence there is, he concludes, points to one of Jefferson's nephews as the probable father of Sally's children.
Dabney is clearly correct in asserting that the story of widower Jefferson taking a slave concubine is "unproved and unprovable." And his book provides a valuable corrective to the uncritical acceptance of this irrepressible rumor. But as long as Jefferson cannot be positively eliminated as Sally's lover, except by the questionable argument that such a liaison was inconsistent with his character Dabney's polemical tone may lead some readers to think that he "doth protest too much." Whoever was responsible, the presence at Monticello of nearly white slaves, who were given favorable treatment and sometimes eventually emancipated, points directly to the dilemma of American democracy and chattel slavery growing side by side. Some of the evidence in Malone's final volume suggests that this dilemma troubled Jefferson more deeply than Dabney seems willing to admit. It is regrettable that Brodie and other psycho-historians have few reliable measures of such psychological phenomena as the guilt over slavery that she sensed in Jefferson's personal papers.
The Image of Thomas Jefferson is a unique pictorial study, for it reproduces and discusses the likenesses of Jefferson, mostly engraved prints, available to the public during his presidency. "By looking at what people saw," Noble Cunningham explains, "the viewer today can share a common experience with Jefferson's contemporaries." Many of the engravings were so poor that citizens owning them would not have recognized their president had he walked into their living rooms. But toward the end of his term, "the art of engraved portraiture was coming of age in the United States," and several faithful likenesses became available. Cunningham has produced a magnificent volume, one of equal value to historians and students of American art, and of interest to all modern Jeffersonians.
When John Adams died on the 50th anniversary of American independence, his last words were reported to be, "Thomas Jefferson still survives." Adams was wrong, for the Sage of Monticello had gone to his deistic maker five hours earlier on that same Fourth of July. Yet Adams was correct in another sense. As these three volumes reveal, at the beginning of the third century of the republic, the interest of Americans in Jefferson has never been greater.