Sunday, October 30, 2005

Thomas Jefferson Redux

So I just finished The Sage of Monticello, which is Part 6 of Dumas Malone's Jefferson and His Times series (itself a six-parter). Now I don't know enough about biographies in general or about Jefferson biographies specifically to label the series as "definitive," but looking at the whole collection sitting there on the bookshelf in the excellent used bookstore in downtown Fredericksburg, it's easy to see that Mr. Malone put an inordinate amount of effort into the thing. If volume six is anything like the first five, it definitely shows. Also, the back of the book claims that it won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize in history, but they give those things out like candy, so that doesn't mean a whole lot. Seriously though, it takes up like half a shelf.

I started with the last one in the series after my experience with R.E. Lee in Lee: The Last Years by Charles Flood, which infused me with a perhaps unhealthy interest in what old men did with their "autumn years." As luck would have it, Jefferson spent most of his building a university, trying to get out of debt, and writing letters to John Adams, his onetime nemesis.

The book is really very excellent, but you probably will have to love Jefferson or history in general to be able to get through it enjoyably. The UVA parts get really old really fast, as they mostly deal with administrative mumbo-jumbo and the (suprise!) underfunded Virginia education system. These chapters though are easily identifiable and quite modular, so you can skip them and not miss much of the rest of the narrative.

Probably the most contraversial aspect of Jefferson, the fact that he championed the "eternal rights of man" and yet owned hundreds and hundreds of slaves, gets its own chapter, which contains a good quote by the man himself outlining his views. Strangely enough, he manages to come off rather well and nominally non-self-contradictory in the process. As with everyone who has ever lived, he was a victim of his times.

Also of note to Confederate sympathisers are several chapters dealing with Jefferson's rabid support of state's rights. Not these kinds of state's rights, but the kind where local governments have more power over their citizens than federal governments. An interesting idea on this subject was his advocation of splitting each county into 100 "wards," each of which would work on a direct democracy level and would have considerable say over their own affairs. It's an issue that is still relevant today, and Jefferson tells it like it is, even from hundreds of years in the past.

Of course, then there's the famous-ish Jefferson-Adams reconciliation letters, which are pretty interesting and revealing of both of their characters.

Malone is suprisingly even-handed with Jefferson, moreso than in the typical biography one might read. You can tell that he likes the guy (after all, he made him his life's-work), but he does a good job of showing both sides of his character. It makes it easier to understand why Jefferson was such a contraversial (and, yes, hated) figure in his day. You can't help but coming out of it loving him, though - he is endearing even in his faults.

I would give the book 5 out of 5 stars, with the caveat that you will probably only want to read it if you are interested in one or more of the following things: Jefferson, early american history, state's rights, the state of Virginia, UVA, or being a huge nerd. If, on the other hand, you are interested in any of those things, then this books should be a requirement.


At 10/31/2005 12:39:00 PM, Anonymous nic said...

You go through books like nonother. Where do you find the time?

At 10/31/2005 07:25:00 PM, Blogger mbs said...

i dunno, i mean under normal circumstances i prolly only read an hour +- .5 or so a night. this past weekend though, ihd was off partying, so i plowed (ploughed?) through the last 200 pages or so of this book.

the trick is to have something completely different lined up for the next one to read, because then you are motivated to finish the one you are on, even when you get bored with it (instead of quitting to play katamari damacy).


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