Thomas Jefferson’s Lives: Biographers and the Battle for History


December 16, 2019
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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Thomas Jefferson’s Lives:  Biographers and the Battle for History edited by Robert M. S. McDonald.  (Charlottesville, VA:  University of Virginia Press, 2019)

Robert M. S. McDonald’s previous book, Confounding Father:  Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time (2016), portrays the Virginian as a multifaceted character who is extraordinarily difficult to understand. Thomas Jefferson’s Lives: Biographers and the Battle for History (2019), a collection of essays edited by McDonald, shows in dramatic detail how complicated Jefferson is. Not only is understanding Jefferson as a historical figure a challenge, but his legacy is likewise arduous to determine. The book is an excellent portrayal of various viewpoints of Jefferson and how these attitudes differed as a result of national events and cultural trends.

McDonald enlists the expertise of many scholars and their essays cover famous biographical writings about Jefferson. It is also imperative that historiography about both Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are included in order to examine Jefferson’s legacy as seen from his enemies. Well-known presidential expert Jon Meacham provides the book an informative introduction explaining not only the importance of biographies, but also the difficulties inherent in writing them. It is up to the biographer, Meacham writes, to “recapture as responsibly as we can the pressures the protagonist faced, the anxieties he experienced, the fears he harbored, the hopes he nurtured, and the battles he won and lost.” (p. xi) People die and meet a definite end. Biographies, however, change.

McDonald’s preface outlines the book’s goal: explore not who Jefferson was, but who biographers make him out to be. Jefferson is still relevant to us. How did changes in society, economics, politics and the diplomatic environment influence views of Jefferson? Jefferson, McDonald claims, is still relevant to us. The essays included in the book explore how biographers over the years have attempted to describe the true Jefferson. The book’s sections are “Memory,” “Rivalry,” and “History.” The final chapter is devoted to the scholar Peter Onuf, whose work on Jefferson has greatly contributed to our current understanding of the problematic Founder.

Barbara Oberg opens the book with her essay, “Introduction: The Many Lives of Thomas Jefferson.” Jefferson had always been concerned about his legacy as interpreted by biographers, especially after Federalist John Marshall published a biography of George Washington. The earliest biographies of Jefferson were written by people who either knew him personally or had a connection to him. People who supported Burr or Hamilton had very different views of Jefferson.  Oberg makes clear the purpose of Thomas Jefferson’s Lives: to show the changing views of Jefferson’s image and those of his many biographers.

The first section, “Memory,” includes essays from J. Jefferson Looney, Christine Coalwell McDonald and the editor himself, Andrew Burstein, Jan Ellen Lewis, and Richard Samuelson. They explore Jefferson’s own pseudo-autobiography (called the “Anas,” published in 1829), and relatively early Jefferson biographies, portraying Jefferson in antebellum America. Jefferson is the domestic family man, the hesitant slave-owner, the pious protector of religious liberty, and the sole author of the Declaration of Independence. Even Henry Adams, the great-grandson of Jefferson’s political rival, claimed, “the American mind resembled Jefferson’s mind.” (p. 112) The Sally Hemings affair was either not a concern of these early biographers, or the accusations were vehemently denied. Jan Ellen Lewis’s essay “‘A Beautiful Domestic Character’: Sarah N. Randolph’s The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson” was of particular interest because Randolph, Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, described Jefferson as the ideal family man.  His relationship with his daughters showed him to be both indulgent and withholding of his love.

Biographers of Aaron Burr were explored in the first essay in the second section, “Rivalry.” Nancy Isenberg included Matthew Davis, Samuel Knapp, James Parton, and Gore Vidal in her essay, “‘I Come to Bury Caesar’: Burr Biographers on Jefferson.” Some of these earlier biographers were mainly interested in making sure that Burr’s legacy was not shaped by Jefferson acolytes. Gore Vidal’s novel Burr turns Jefferson into a suspicious and nefarious character.  Jefferson, in Vidal’s mind, is a debauched Caesar. Isenberg reminds readers, however, that Burr and Jefferson were often more similar than different—they were both flawed:

They were savvy politicians who took risks, built alliances, occasionally (and sometimes dramatically) miscalculated, and never stopped trying to shape their legacies.  Their story of the election of 1800 is less an Olympian struggle between flawed giants than the failure of constitutional design.  Furthermore, Burr and Jefferson need to be seen as two among a host of players engaged in the larger contest between the two proud states of New York and Virginia.  Their philosophies on western expansion were more alike then different.  In intellectual terms, both were devoted men of the Enlightenment.  It is only in the pungent prose of their enemies that Burr and Jefferson ever became enigmatic. [p. 143]

Joanne B. Freeman then covers the many Hamilton biographers and their own perspectives on Hamilton’s nemesis. Hamilton seems to have a “democracy problem” when compared with Jefferson, the supposed symbol of American democracy. Freeman writes that Hamilton biographers need to constantly attack Jefferson in order to draw attention away from Hamilton’s own issues. Jefferson comes across as the devil incarnate in Hamilton’s youngest son’s History of the Republic of the United States (1857-1864). Henry Cabot Lodge, the famous Massachusetts senator and a modern Federalist, makes Jefferson out to be a conniving politician and master manipulator in his Alexander Hamilton (1882). Slavery becomes more of an issue, since Hamilton is seen by some of his biographers to be an active abolitionist. Who was the true revolutionary? Jefferson or Hamilton? Hamilton’s talents cannot be underestimated, but Jefferson played the political game more brilliantly then Hamilton ever did.

The third section of Jefferson’s Lives, “History,” contains essays that first show Jefferson’s image was shaped by political movements of the early twentieth century. Brian Steele focuses on the works by Claude Bowers and Albert Jay Nock, while Herbert Sloan offers a unique view of Jefferson in Frenchman Gilbert Chinard’s Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism (1929). R. B. Bernstein’s essay on the “elegant” Jefferson and His Time by Dumas Malone shows how the biography has stood the test of time. Annette Gordon-Read finally explores the Sally Hemings “controversy” with her essay on Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (the title of the essay says it all: “That Woman.”) In the book’s closing chapter, famed historian Gordon Wood takes on the task of offering a detailed tribute to scholar Peter Onuf. The essayists included in the book owe a debt of gratitude to the work done by Onuf over the course of his career.

Thomas Jefferson’s Lives: Biographers and the Battle for History is obviously a valuable study, and it takes up a unique challenge that most readers may not fully appreciate. How objective can a biography truly be?  The authors of Jefferson biographies seem to be writing about different men. How can they all possibly be about the same person? Or is this the point that Robert M. S. McDonald is trying to make: that Jefferson and his legacy cannot be seen through one lens? McDonald’s earlier book Confounding Father was appropriately titled. Jefferson confounds academics and historians almost all the time.  Jefferson’s image can be compared to Woody Allen’s film character Zelig, who changed like a chameleon to meet the needs of the moment. Jefferson’s biographers had to change their description of the man and his times in order to reflect the prevailing attitudes of the moment in which the biographers wrote. The result is that readers may never understand Jefferson. Jefferson probably wanted it that way all along.

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