Finally, finally finished, is how I feel after reading Jefferson the President: Second Term 1805-1809 by Dumas Malone. This mammoth 704-page manuscript is the fifth book written by Malone about the third president. Before I go any further- I need to give a shout out to Steve at bestpresidentialbios.com who completed the book at a much faster pace than I could. I found this book to be characteristic of Malone’s writing style: comprehensive, yet dry.
The expansive book covers Jefferson’s turbulent final four years in office as he faced problems internally and externally. The first issue confronting Jefferson was created by the Barbary pirates on the coast of North Africa. Jefferson dispatched the Navy to fight for independence of sea travel instead of continuing to pay bribes to the buccaneers. The US Navy launched a successful operation against the loose confederation along the Mediterranean coast giving Jefferson a very public foreign policy victory early in the term. The return of Lewis and Clark from their wilderness journey provided Jefferson with a domestic achievement. The explorers discovered a route to the Pacific Ocean, met Indians on the frontier, and contributed greatly to the scientific knowledge of the American West.
Malone dives immediately into the intrigue created by Aaron Burr. The facts remain murky 200 years later about what the former Vice-President tried to accomplish. Some reports claim Burr was trying to become the leader of a break away portion of the newly purchased territory in Louisiana or possibly plotting to lead an incursion against the fading Spanish Empire. The research is phenomenal and in depth, but I came away wondering if I was reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson or a comprehensive account of the Burr affair. I believe that in wandering so far off topic from Jefferson’s life, Malone loses sight of what is important to the reader- the President. Many pages did not contain information about Jefferson, which in my opinion, leads the book into the territory of a history book about Jefferson’s second term rather than a dedicated biography. Malone does weave Jefferson into the account of the Burr Conspiracy, but his account spans 180 pages, much too long for a pure biography.
Jefferson continued to be plagued with problems typical of a President in their second term. The author does a good job of showing the evolution of Jefferson from an energetic president in his first four years to a man who is ready to escape the office of the chief executive. Jefferson was worn down by turmoil in Europe with the fighting between France and England. He scored diplomatic success with the Tsar of Russia, but this was countered by constant bickering between the Federalists and Republicans in Congress. The enforcement of an embargo against foreign goods wore the President down during his last years in office. Jefferson left the presidency ready to go home to Monticello and leave politics behind. His legacy was secured with the election of his protégé James Madison who followed Jefferson into office.
This fifth book on Jefferson highlights Malone’s strengths and weaknesses as an author. His research into the events from 1805 to 1809 is unparalleled. Malone recounts these four years to the reader in a very distinctive style as an author. I cannot criticize the amount of work the historian put into this book, however, I do believe the writer loses focus on his subject. Malone strays from keeping Jefferson the point of his book in attempt to provide minute details about important events of the day. I understand that Jefferson’s imprint was on every aspect of early American politics, but this fifth book had too much extraneous information that leads the reader into more in depth examinations of happenings than they may want.
I do recommend this book for anyone who has read the other four works written about Jefferson by Dumas Malone. I would also tell someone desiring to read a comprehensive history on macro level incidents in the United States from 1805 to 1809 this book would be good for them. I cannot give this book a stamp of approval for the casual reader, looking to learn more about Jefferson. As the book went past 400 pages and into 500, I began to put off my reading sessions. This book is good, but be prepared to slog through many parts of it trying to finish.
Overall- 3 stars.