I apologize to our readers for my prolonged absence. My presidential-biography project continued apace this summer -- mostly -- but I was remiss in my writing duties.
My next subject was Thomas Jefferson. Despite the many books written about him, I’m not certain anyone has successfully distilled the man’s character in a one-volume biography. The best attempt is Joseph Ellis’s American Sphinx, though Mr. Ellis is too quick to lend credence to the suspicion that Jefferson had relations with Sally Hemings. (We know it was a Jefferson male, but whether it was that Jefferson male -- and not, say, his roving-eyed brother -- is unclear.)
Over the summer, I read all six volumes of Dumas Malone’s work, Jefferson and His Time. I don’t recommend the experience. The first and sixth installments were interesting, but I find that multi-volume biographies suffer an inability to distinguish what’s truly important in their subjects’ lives. I also read Kevin J. Hayes’s The Road to Monticello, which bored me to tears, and Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg’s study Madison and Jefferson, which wasn’t half bad.
Perhaps the reason it’s hard to find a good biography of Jefferson is that it’s hard to get a good grasp on him. When I interviewed David McCullough for the Wall Street Journal a few months back, he told me the more he learned about Jefferson, the more he disliked him. For instance, McCullough recounted how Jefferson enlisted the services of the unscrupulous scribbler James T. Callender to attack John Adams during the campaign of 1800. (Callender later betrayed Jefferson and spread the Hemings rumors.)
Malone, on the other hand, thought highly of Jefferson because he never wrote unsigned editorials against his political opponents. (I side with McCullough here: Jefferson got others to do his dirty work for him.)
The conventional take on Jefferson’s presidency is that he talked a good game about small government, but once in office, he maintained the giant apparatus that George Washington and John Adams had constructed. Prof. Gordon Wood takes another view, to which I subscribe: Jefferson gave the office a more populist flavor, ending the monarchical-sounding weekly levees and sending his State of the Union address in writing to the House of Representatives. He also repealed the hated whiskey tax, ending all internal taxes imposed by the federal government at the time. And he made serious progress in paying off the national debt.
Where Jefferson failed, I think -- and here I go back to the conventional wisdom -- was in his treatment of the conflict with Great Britain, which ultimately led to the War of 1812. By skimping on the Navy and implementing a disastrous embargo, he left the country weaker than it should have been.
I hope to restart my weekly schedule, and next week, we’ll discuss James Madison. Although I read about him almost nine months ago, I recently acquired a copy of Rick Brookhiser’s new biography, and I plan to give our readers a sneak peak before the book comes out in October.