Jefferson the President: Second Term 1805-1809 by Dumas Malone

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 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.


Jefferson the President: First Term 1801-1805 by Dumas Malone

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




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