The first of Dumas Malone’s six volume biography on Thomas Jefferson is Jefferson the Virginian. The opening book of the definitive biography is an excellent, in depth study of the life of the third president. The details provided by Malone transport the reader to 18th Century Virginia and is so well written, it almost as if you were with Jefferson himself.
Dumas Malone was born in Coldwater, Mississippi, in 1892. Malone attended Emory College, graduating in 1910 before following up his studies at Yale University in 1916. After receiving a divinity degree, Malone served as a Marine Corps officer from 1917-1919. Malone eventually served on the faculty at the University of Virginia. He was the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History during his time in Charlottesville. The authorship of the six books on Jefferson took from 1948-1981 and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Malone died four years after the sixth and final book was complete.
Jefferson the Virginian was published in 1948, covering the early life of Thomas Jefferson. The book spans 484 pages making it lengthier than the first book I read on Jefferson, American Sphinx (review here). The book is divided into 7 sections and 28 relatively short chapters making it very easy to read. Malone breaks down Jefferson’s life in two or three year segments providing a great amount of insight to each period. Unfortunately, as with all biographies on Jefferson, Malone is unable to account for much of Jefferson’s early life. Jefferson’s home in Shadwell, Virginia was destroyed by a fire in 1770 accounting for the destruction of many of his early documents. Jefferson was particularly distraught about the loss of his library in the fire.
The first two sections in the book cover the genealogy of the Jefferson family. The author provides a family tree of Jefferson in Appendix I, helping the reader keep track of Jefferson’s family. Thomas was named after his great grandfather and grandfather and he was the fourth Thomas Jefferson in the family line. Thomas’ father, Peter, was the fourth child of Thomas Jefferson II, born in western Virginia. Thomas was not born into the elite of Virginia society, but today his family would have been regarded as upper middle class. Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary ultimately becoming a lawyer.
The third and fourth sections describe Jefferson practicing law on the circuit in Virginia. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses at the young age of twenty-five. Jefferson was influential enough to be designated as an alternate to the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia. When Payton Randolph could not attend the Congress, Jefferson departed to Pennsylvania.
The final three sections of the book cover Jefferson during the Revolutionary War period. Jefferson continued to be influential in Philadelphia, was elected to the Governorship of Virginia twice, and the book concludes with his being named as an ambassador to France. This section includes the death of his wife, leaving Jefferson with two daughters and grief stricken.
I enjoyed Malone’s first book on Jefferson. The book is well written and organized very well. The author concentrates primarily on Jefferson, bringing in his contemporaries where needed, but not making them a distraction to the main character of the book. Malone draws on Jefferson’s notes and brings this patriot to life for the reader. Jefferson is portrayed as an intellectual leader, who framed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
There are two points, however, that must be brought up in reviewing this book. I do not believe Malone spent enough time on Jefferson’s contributions to the Continental Congress. The author should have taken more time to study the development of the Declaration of Independence and the other events Jefferson participated in during 1776. The document Jefferson wrote only got 12 pages in the book, which is too little for the defining writing of Jefferson’s life.
Malone covers Jefferson’s flight from British dragoons during the last days of his governorship. Jefferson came under fire during the late 1770’s for “fleeing” from British invaders who were heading towards Monticello. Even today, some historians scrutinize Jefferson’s actions in front of the enemy. I have read some criticism of Malone for excusing Jefferson’s actions, but I tend to agree with the author. Malone gives an exhaustive recounting of Jefferson departing Monticello as governor. He does not portray Jefferson in a panic filled flight, but instead a reasonable man who was a politician not a solider. In my opinion, Jefferson acted appropriately during this troubling time.
Jefferson the Virginian is an excellent book and I enjoyed reading it. This comprehensive book has laid the groundwork for a better understanding of Thomas Jefferson. Malone’s effort at research and his easy to read writing style make this an interesting book. Many readers may be daunted with the task of reading six books and may be better served with a definitive one volume work on Jefferson. However, if the reader wants to take the time to get to know this patriot in better detail, this series is a must read.
Overall- 4.5 Stars