Jefferson & the Ordeal of Liberty by Dumas Malone

Three down and three to go!  I completed Dumas Malone’s, Jefferson & the Ordeal of Liberty putting me halfway through his six-volume work on our third president, Thomas Jefferson.  The third book begins with Jefferson as the Secretary of State serving at the behest of George Washington.  The author reviews the period between Jefferson as a cabinet member, his four years as Vice-President, and the election of 1800.  So far, the books have given a good depiction of Jefferson’s pre-presidential years readying the reader for his two terms as chief executive.  These books are important to establish who Jefferson was and how he evolved into a defender of the rights of citizens and leader of the Republican party.

Dumas Malone is considered to have written the authoritative biography of Thomas Jefferson.  The Mississippi born author was the director of the Harvard University Press from 1936 to 1943.  Malone started this work on Jefferson while living in Charlottesville, Virginia, providing him access to Jefferson’s letters and notes on file at the University of Virginia.  Jefferson & The Ordeal of Liberty was completed in 1962, almost two decades after the publication of Jefferson: The Virginian (review here).

The first 30% of the book analyzes Jefferson’s stint as Secretary of State during Washington’s first term in office.  Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Henry Knox were appointed by Washington to his first cabinet.  Malone does a very good job of describing the conflict between the Jefferson and Hamilton eventually leading to two political parties being formed around each leader.  Jefferson believed the majority of the citizenry of a nation should be the guide for governmental policies, whereas, Hamilton believed in a centralized government with a strong executive leading the country.  The author is explicit when describing the meddling of Hamilton in foreign policy, to the advantage of the British, infuriating Jefferson who leaned towards France as an ally.  Malone explains in this portion of the book, that Jefferson normally got his wishes in foreign policy, even though he felt that Washington relied more on Hamilton.

The four years of battling against Hamilton left Jefferson desiring retirement and he departed to Monticello to assume the life of a gentleman farmer.  For the most part, Jefferson was not involved with politics to concentrate of his farming, continuous renovations of Monticello, and spending time with his family.  He did continue to get updates from two of his devotees, James Madison and James Monroe, keeping him informed of activities in the nation’s capital.

Jefferson’s period of solitude ended upon the election of 1796, and his ascendency to the office of Vice-President under John Adams.  The election was close, but the Federalist party controlled just enough votes to deny Jefferson the top office in the land.  The remaining half of the book discusses the four years Jefferson spent in office.  The political battles continued as fiercely during these years as when he was Secretary of State.  Jefferson became the unquestioned leader of the Republican party during this period, leading to his election as the third president of the United States in 1800.  Malone does not discuss the election in great detail and if you want more information on the election, I would refer you to Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (review here).

Malone continues to give an in depth review of Jefferson’s life.  The book is very good, but in places is dry.  I have found myself appreciating Jefferson, the man and leader, but having to concentrate to ensure I do not skip a word.  The author is an outstanding historian, however his story telling is not as good as a present day writer like David McCullough.  I really appreciate the depth of research and am enjoying the learning about Jefferson, but Malone can bog you down with the most minute of details.  Still- every bit of the book is worth reading for a serious student of Jefferson.

Overall- 3.5 stars


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