A spirited and carefully crafted look at Jefferson 250 years after his birth

August 01, 1993|By Bruce Clayton

THOMAS JEFFERSON: A LIFE

William Sterne Randall

John MacRae/Henry Holt

676 pages, $35 Who was America's first man for the ages? George Washington? He was a little too aloof and somber, and calculating. Benjamin Franklin? Not quite serious enough. Alexander Hamilton? Too conservative, and anyway he dreamed banks and putting Washington on a king's throne.

Consider awarding the golden ring to Thomas Jefferson in this 250th anniversary of his birth. He surely would get President Clinton's vote, as well as John F. Kennedy's. It was Kennedy who told a group of Nobel Prize winners in 1962 that "this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever gathered together at the White House -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Even people who are hazy about who wrote the Declaration of Independence -- Jefferson did, when he was 33 -- can quote his soaring words: "that all men are created equal," that they have "inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." With the stroke of a pen, he helped invent America and alter the world's consciousness by wrapping equality and liberty in imperishable rhetoric.

Such thoughts crowd into the mind after reading Willard Sterne Randall's spirited, admiring "Thomas Jefferson: A Life." Mr. Randall acknowledges Jefferson's faults but bathes him in a far more favorable light than any other recent writer. The author is eminently qualified; he's a descendant of Jefferson's first major biographer (Henry S. Randall, who interviewed Jefferson's descendants and discovered valuable sources in the mid-19th century) and the author of well-received books on Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin.

It takes true grit -- or audacity -- to tackle Jefferson today and try to squeeze his 83 active years between single covers. The six stout volumes of masterful biography by the late Dumas Malone stare accusingly at the faint of heart. So do older, still useful tomes from Henry Adams, Claude Bowers, Marie Kimball and Adrienne Koch. Then there's Merrill Peterson's acclaimed books, including his thousand-page opus from 1970, "Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation."

To most scholars, Jefferson was a great man, but from the '60s onward his reputation has taken a nose dive as racial sensitivity has heightened. He owned a lot of slaves. His conscience troubled him, but he did little -- save foster illegitimate children by his slave-mistress, according to one rumor that historian Fawn Brodie recklessly popularized in 1974.

Unlike Washington, Jefferson didn't even free his slaves at his death. Even in his last years, when he no longer needed to heed public opinion, he ignored the rising generation of abolitionists inspired by his words. As one of my students observed: "All talk and no action."

That's shortsighted and misleading, Mr. Randall would reply. He acknowledges that Jefferson's life of public service was "utterly dependent on slave labor," but stresses that he repeatedly -- early and late, publicly and pointedly -- condemned slavery as an evil. He made sure the historic Northwest Ordinance outlawed ++ slavery in the territories.

His draft of the Declaration of Independence denounced slavery, but his congressional colleagues deleted his fiery words, much to Jefferson's anger. Had he pushed his views further (in 1776 or later), he would have eliminated himself forever from American politics.

Like most scholars, Mr. Randall dismisses the charge that Jefferson had sexual dalliances with his slave Sally Hemings, or with any woman other than his wife, who died after giving birth to five daughters. At his own death in 1826, Jefferson was so deeply in debt (no presidential pensions or fat book contracts in those days) that he couldn't free his slaves -- or provide for his beloved Monticello to remain in his family's hands.

But there's so much more than race in Mr. Randall's carefully crafted and beautifully written biography. He brings Jefferson, the whole man, to life -- the student so "bold in the pursuit of knowledge" that he studied 15 hours a day; the writer, said John Adams, with a "particular felicity of expression"; the gardener who loved planting peas as much as reading authors in their original languages (Plato in Greek, Horace in Latin and Montesquieu in French); the naturalist who wrote the encyclopedic masterpiece, "Notes on the State of Virginia"; and the architect who designed Monticello. (Has anyone ever designed a more beautiful house?)

Mr. Randall expertly captures Jefferson's mind and personality. At heart a conservative moralist, -- greatly repressed by today's standards -- Jefferson argued against the death penalty and for liberalizing divorce laws. A man of strong personal beliefs and a rigid code of conduct, he campaigned tirelessly for religious freedom. Mr. Randall writes:

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