Jefferson the President: First Term by Dumas Malone is the fourth of six books about the third American President. The book was published in 1970 by the University of Virginia Press and spans Jefferson’s first four years as President of the United States.
Malone starts with the transition from Adams to Jefferson and the difficulties of the change from a Federalist regime to a Republican leader in charge of the Executive Branch of government. Adams, disgruntled over his loss in the 1800 election, left before his successor was inaugurated as president. If you are interested in reading more about this election, I recommend Adams vs Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John Ferling (review here). Jefferson was upset by numerous midnight nominations made by Adams in the judiciary which eventually led to multiple judges being impeached in Jefferson’s first term. Malone discusses Jefferson’s difficulties with the judiciary in multiple chapters during this book. The famous Marbury vs. Madison court case was decided midway through Jefferson’s first four years in office.
A major portion of the book covered the Louisiana Purchase which defined Jefferson’s presidency in many ways. Malone conducted a deep dive into the politics of the age, the twisted route that led to the United States doubling in size. No detail was left undiscovered by the author as he wrote nearly 140 pages on the purchase. The Louisiana Purchase was engineered in many ways by Jefferson and his desire to ensure the navigation of the Mississippi River, control of New Orleans, and the strengthening of his country. Jefferson deviated from his usual strict adherence to the Constitution with the purchase of this new territory.
Malone covered different aspects of Jefferson, the man, within this book. The writer addresses the Sally Hemings affair in the middle of the book. Malone, at the time, was not convinced that the alleged affair between Jefferson and his slave took place. The denial of Malone is understandable for two separate reasons. The first is the advances in DNA evidence of the last 40 years that the researcher did not have access to while writing the book. The second reason Malone was unconvinced was due to the man who started the slander of Jefferson during his first term. James Callander was a disagreeable character who began rumor mongering in the early 19th century against more people than just Jefferson. Based on the nefariousness of Callander’s character, who began the rumor of Jefferson relationship with Hemings, one could easily be persuaded to discount the validity of the affair.
Jefferson the President missed the mark for me as a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Malone did not write the book as a biography, but as a history book on the period that covered 1801-1805. Even though Malone brought the Hemings affair into the story, along with Jefferson the scientist, and Jefferson’s view on freedom of religion, the book did not read as a biography. The book reminded me of some of the less exciting texts I read in college. I do not think less of Jefferson as a president, but was not thrilled by Malone’s recounting of his first term. Malone covered the events of the day, but added more detail than was necessary.
Overall Rating- 3 Stars