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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Jefferson & The Rights of Man by Dumas Malone

I recently finished Jefferson & The Rights of Man by Dumas Malone.  This is the second book in the six-volume epic written by Malone.  The author picks up the storyline with the reception in Paris of America’s newest ambassador to France.  The book ends after Washington’s first term in office, but on the heels of Jefferson and Hamilton disagreeing over the direction of the United States government.

Dumas Malone is a former historian and awardee of the Presidential Medal of Freeman.  He was the Thomas Jefferson Foundation President of History at the University of Virginia.  The biography he wrote on Jefferson’s life won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975.  The former Marine Corps officer passed away in 1986 at the age of 94 and is buried at the University of Virginia Cemetery in Charlottesville.

Malone ably breaks down this 523-page tome into six sections spanning 28 chapters.  Jefferson’s time in Europe serving alongside John Adams and Benjamin Franklin is covered in the first half of the book.  Jefferson enjoyed a good relationship with Louis XVI and the French court while strongly representing the best interests of America.  The friendship between Jefferson and John Adams deepened during the time spent together in France.  Later, Jefferson visits Adams in England only to have the English King turn his back towards the author of the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson departed France right as the country was plunged into civil war.

The second half of Jefferson & The Rights of Man encompasses Jefferson’s time as the Secretary of State for George Washington.  Malone provides an interesting backdrop to the initial squabbles between Jefferson and Hamilton during this portion of the book.  The two men were diametrically opposed on almost every important political issue of the day.  Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, meddled in Jefferson’s foreign policy with a bent towards England, while the Secretary of State leaned towards the French.  Jefferson opposed Hamilton on the creation of a national bank and the assumption of State debt by the Federal government.  He acquiesced to Hamilton’s plan of assumption, only if the new Federal City, now Washington DC, would be built along the Potomac River.  These are only a few examples of their differences which resulted with the development of political parties identifying with each man.

Jefferson & The Rights of Man comprises the development of Jefferson as an ambassador and national politician in depth.  Malone provides the reader with exhaustive detail on the years the future president spent honing his diplomatic skill and becoming an admirer of the French revolutionaries.  The writer spells out the different views between Jefferson and Hamilton so the reader can better understand the evolution of the two major political parties.  Many readers may find Malone to be consistently sympathetic to Jefferson in every debate with Hamilton, but I must ashamedly admit that I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Jefferson.

After reading this book, I appreciate the depth of research Malone has put into Jefferson.  As I noted in an earlier blog post, Jefferson represents an ideology that I also believe in.  I have been looking forward to getting a better understanding of Jefferson.  Jefferson & The Rights of Man is essential in better understanding the person who was considered the pen of the American Revolution.  Learning about Jefferson’s ideas on the rights of man versus the tyranny of government is providing me with a deeper appreciation of the man.

My only complainant about the book is that it can be dry at times.  Malone provides so many details, I know now the reason, what originally was supposed to be four books on Jefferson became six.  I thought his initial book, Jefferson: The Virginian (review here) was more exciting than the follow up.  In many ways, I believe this book was the right length, with outstanding research, and a table setter for the rest of Jefferson’s career.

Overall Rating- 3.5 Stars

Jefferson The Virginian by Dumas Malone

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