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


American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis

I opened my readings on Thomas Jefferson with American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis.  Instead of plunging straight into Dumas Malone’s six volume epic, I chose to begin with a one volume book on the third president.  I wanted to learn to swim instead of just jumping into the deep end of the pool so to speak.  American Sphinx, a National Book Award winner was the perfect spot to start my journey.

Joseph J. Ellis is a historian focused primarily on the revolutionary war period in colonial America. A former professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Ellis has not only won the National Book Award, but received the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.  He has written 12 books on the revolutionary war period, two of which I have previously reviewed, His Excellency: George Washington (review here) and Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (review here).  I learned that Joseph Ellis had previously been suspended while at Mount Holyoke for lies told about his life during the Vietnam War period between my last review and this one. I read two articles, one from the Boston Globe, the other from the New York Times, that covered this scandal.  The allegations do not diminish the books for me, but no different than Stephen Ambrose, the man has been weakened in my eyes.

American Sphinx is not a traditional biography, which focuses on the entirety of Jefferson’s life.  Ellis broke the book down into 5 defining sections, offering the reader an opportunity to discover major events in Jefferson’s life.  The first section gives solid insight into Jefferson as a participant in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  The author provides a massive amount of detail on the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  Ellis’s knowledge of the revolutionary period is on display during this chapter and it is by far my favorite portion of the book.

The author proceeds to take the reader on a whirlwind tour of Jefferson in Paris, Monticello, Washington D.C., and back to Monticello.  In each section, Ellis gives examples of Jefferson’s impact on the politics of the day.  His accounting of Jefferson in retirement during the final chapter of American Sphinx is much better than that of John Adams in Passionate Sage.

The book is not written with an academic bent, much like His Excellency: George Washington, making it an easy read.  The way in which the sections break up the pattern of the book make it a very fast read.  I believe that Ellis provides exciting insights into Jefferson’s life and when mixed with his ability to convey a story to the reader, the recipe for an interesting book comes together.

American Sphinx is a very good book on Thomas Jefferson.  I selected it based on the awarding of the National Book Award and its popularity.  The website has it listed as the 16th most popular presidential book with 17,270 individual ratings for a 3.90 average.  I would agree with these raters and give American Sphinx 4 stars for a rating.  However, I am unsure how I feel about Joseph J. Ellis as a writer/historian going forward.  In learning that he fabricated a war record, he has committed a grievous error for this veteran of the war in Iraq.  He may be able to tell a good story and his research may be 100% accurate, however, I will read his books with more skepticism than before.  I believe a solid line can be drawn when discussing Ellis’ legacy to that of Stephan Ambrose.  Both have actively plagiarized from others- lessening my respect for them as historians.

Overall Rating- 4 Stars

On to Thomas Jefferson!

On to Thomas Jefferson!

I visited Washington DC as a young man, and the Jefferson Memorial was overwhelmingly the favorite spot that my Dad took me on our trip.  I spent my time studying the imposing statue and reading the words inscribed on the walls that surrounded him.  I appreciate the words Jefferson applied to the Declaration of Independence and his stance on limited government.  Jefferson is continually graded as one of the top 4 or 5 presidents and is eternally enshrined on Mount Rushmore.  The third president is one of the leaders I am most excited to read about of all the Chief Executives.

Jefferson was born in Shadwell, VA on April 13, 1743.  He was not born into the Virginia elite, but his father, Peter Jefferson was well respected in the Shadwell area.  Jefferson graduated from the College of William and Mary prior to becoming a lawyer.  Eventually, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and then the Continental Congress.  In 1776, Jefferson put pen to paper and formulated the Declaration of Independence, which became a transformative document in world history.  Jefferson was elected as Governor of Virginia prior to being sent to France as American’s Ambassador.

Returning from France, he served as the Secretary of State for George Washington and Vice-President to John Adams.  In 1800, Jefferson was elected as President of the United States, a controversial election that can be further researched in Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (my review here).  He fulfilled two terms as President before retiring to Monticello.  During these terms, he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, deployed Lewis and Clark, and fought a naval war against the Barbary pirates.  Jefferson exchanged dozens of letters with John Adams, providing present day Americans a fascinating look into their lives. He died the same day as Adams, July 4th, exactly 50 years from the signing of the Declaration.

The journey of reading on Jefferson will take some time this spring.  I currently have 11 books, and believe once Thomas Jefferson: Architect of Liberty is released in late April, it will become 12.  The books I selected are a mixture of biographies and works on snippets of Jefferson’s life.  The first book in the lineup is American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis.  I want to get a one volume overview of Jefferson’s life completed before taking on Dumas Malone’s six volume epic.

Moving through Malone’s works will take the better part of four weeks at 70 pages daily.  His biography written in the Sixties is purported to be the definitive work on the life of our third president.  Kevin Gutzman’s Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary comes after Malone’s work.  The remainder of the books will follow the timeline of Jefferson’s life, but I will save Pulitzer winner The Art of Power for the final book in my reading.

I am very excited to read and study Jefferson.  I feel I am most closely aligned politically speaking with his views out of all the presidents.  I look forward to discovering how much we have in common.