Wednesday, July 4, 2012


A review of Willard Sterne Randall’s Thomas Jefferson: A Life (1993)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Willard Randall’s take on the life of Thomas Jefferson is worth reading.  The strength of the book comes from his coverage of Jefferson’s developmental years.  The later part of his life is glossed over rather quickly.  For example there is only one chapter covering his two-term, and rather eventful, presidency.  So this book is good for what drove President Jefferson and what events contributed to his personality but not very useful when covering his presidency.  That is not necessarily a bad thing when you consider that Jefferson’s time as the President of United States is well covered by other historians, but it is worth noting.  

            One of things I learned in this book that I like about Jefferson was his resistance to adopt any one political ideology or philosophy.  The book shows Jefferson referring to the adoption of a philosophy to fitting your mind in a prism that limits the way you view the world.  That part really spoke to me because that is how I view things as well; I always dislike trying to label myself with any word to describe me and how I think.  Randall does a good job showing where Jefferson gets his ideas and beliefs.  
“It is not from the Scottish religious reformers but from English and European writers of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Age of Reason that Jefferson drew his evolving notions of government.  From Bacon, the grandfather of the English Enlightenment, Jefferson had learned to use his powers of observation and question any opinion, regardless of its source.  He adhered to Bacon’s admonition to apply reason and learning to the functions of government to improve society.  Jefferson was influenced by Newton’s Principia, which held that the universe was a great clock invented, made, and set in motion by a deity, but he had adapted Newton’s view to his own quest for a world of order and harmony.  Like Newton, Jefferson did not believe in miracles.  Jefferson’s third hero from the time of boyhood studies was Locke, who had joined the empiricism of Bacon and Newton to the realm of politics.  Locke’s An Essay Conserving Human Understanding for the first time fed his natural optimism and gave him hope mankind could be improved by education.  From Locke and Scottish adherents, Jefferson had adopted the theory of the Second Treatise of Government that legitimate authority to govern was derived from the consent of the governed, which had first been granted while mankind had still been in a ‘state of nature’ when all human beings were by right free and equal.  Locke underpinned all of Jefferson’s political thought.” (p.205)
            There is great deal of information of Jefferson’s career in the Continental Congress, his horrendous stint of Governor of Virginia, and his time abroad negotiating on America’s behalf in Europe.  Jefferson considered his authorship of the Declaration to be one of the finest moments of his personal career, although he did not think so at the time.

“The debate was one of the more painful ordeals of Jefferson’s long political career.   He sat there, beside Franklin, silent in his humiliation at the number, extent, and importance of the changes.  He mostly maintained this silence for years, but what little he wrote indicates his mounting disgust at the timidity of the conservatives in Congress, their slashing deletions of at least two major clauses in Jefferson’s draft declaration.”

On Sally Hemings Randall could not have been more off.  Although it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction, Randall does do a good job correcting the lies of James Callender the propagandist, and some of the unhistorical flaws of the work of Fawn M. Brodie.  However he was clearly wrong about the final conclusion.  

“Sally Hemings’s lover was, in other words, a son of Dabney Carr and Jefferson’s sister Martha.  It is impossible to believe that Jefferson abandoned his love for Maria Cosway to force his affections on even the most beautiful adolescent girl.” (p.477)
            I bet that statement is a little embarrassing now!  DNA reveled in 1998 that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ kids.  So, on this issue, he is definitely wrong. 

            In America over the last seventy years there has been a great deal of debate over the Executive Branch’s use of military force without the consent of the Congress.  Many who feel offended by all such actions often cite the founders and the U.S. Constitution.  However if one looks at what the Founders themselves did when managing the government of the Constitution, and they might find themselves coming to a far different conclusion. A good example is Jefferson’s actions against the pirates.

“At the first full cabinet meeting on May 15, President Jefferson confronted his first foreign policy crisis, one he had tackled first as minister to France fifteen years earlier.  Tripoli had attacked American ships in the Mediterranean.  Putting into effect his long-held views on the subject, Jefferson had already assembled an American naval squadron at Norfolk that was ready to sail.  An American navy sailing off Tripoli, he told his cabinet, ‘might lead to war.’  He wanted his cabinet’s opinions and approval.  All five members agreed on sending the squadron but disagreed over Jefferson’s authority to act while Congress was adjourned.  Navy Secretary Smith and Treasury Secretary Gallatin backed Jefferson’s position that the president could use military force to defend the United States, but Attorney General Lincoln argued that without a formal declaration of war by Congress, American warships could destroy North African pirates wherever they could be found.” (p.549) 
Thomas Jefferson: A Life is good book about a very complicated figure.  James Madison once warned people who study Jefferson to be ready for a great deal of twists and turns when going through his mind.  Randall acts as fairly good guide. 

{Video is taken from the HBO John Adams series}

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