10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2009
Having just read Chernow's Hamilton, I approached this volume with great anticipation: it favored Jefferson, I knew, and should present an exciting critical contrast to Chernow's masterpiece. Unfortunately, though this bio includes reams of fascinating detail, I was continually disappointed in its acceptance of Jefferson's words at face value and its complete and utter failure to address any of the hypocrisies that are evident to even the least questioning of readers.
The book covers a remarkable epoch, in which Jefferson was a key player. It starts with him in pre-revolutionary France, as an intimate diplomatic colleague of both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. While the crucial period of the American revolution, with its vital support from France, was over, Jefferson took part in the ferment of the times, it would appear as a radical republican. The book goes into great detail on how the experience influenced his unique genius, from his friends to the 80 crates of books he shipped back to his frustrating efforts in Europe to correct the many erroneous accounts of American geography and politics. While his diplomatic work of that time was rather banal - it focused on commercial treaties, most of which failed - there is no question that Jefferson was a major Enlightenment figure, whose "rights of man" deserve immortality in the humanist canon. There is also much about his fascination with architecture, in particular his study of Palladio and certain Roman monuments.
Once he returns to the US, he takes the position of Secretary of State in the first cabinet, under Washington. In addition to a plethora of administrative issues, which the book covers in greater detail than anyone but a scholar would want, it was there that he began to fight Hamilton's grand schemes. The period is absolutely crucial because the modalities of how the government would operate were being created through interpretation of the constitution and the action that enabled. Malone presents the facts, but his interpretations reveal the serious deficiency of his approach.
First, to Malone, Jefferson's motives are always noble, and naturally superior to those of his adversaries. As such, Hamilton comes off as a evil grasper of power, a self-styled Napoleon (or George III, the specter that haunted Washington's presidency) who wants the government (as run by the elite) to intrude into the lives of ordinary citizens. Malone does not even discuss the validity of these propaganda stereotypes against Hamilton, but merely repeats them. The problem is that this is not just a partisan approach, but more an idolization of Jefferson, whom I believe was a great man with many flaws. Malone is almost never critical, but blithely dismissive of anything that might be interpreted as devious, self-seeking, or manipulative.
Second, Malone appears to believe that everything Jefferson said or wrote was sincere and well intentioned rather than also an ongoing construction of a political persona. This is either naive or disingenuous - the guy was a first-rate politician, perhaps one of the great early demagogues of American politics. He stood for the common man, brilliantly articulating his vision, yet lived the life of an aristocratic elitist, slaves, property, and all. I do not mean to imply insincerity or cynicism in Jefferson, whose words survive because of their originality and principles of liberty and republicanism, but he was unquesionably a master politician aware of his "brand."
Third, Malone glosses over anything that might make the reader question Jefferson's character. For example, he entirely avoids any mention that Sally Hemmings was a slave, calling her a "servant" instead; he never even broaches the subject of her concubinage or the fact that she was his wife's half sister. Far, far worse, Malone refuses to consider the underside of Jefferson's political machinations while in the cabinet. Yet Jefferson hired Freneau, the writer who became Hamilton's worst gadfly, into a sinecure in the Dept of State (for which he was unqualified), and even contributed anonymous articles to his newspaper undermining Hamilton's policies as approved by Washington - all while serving in the administration.
Fourth, many of Malone's assertions are tendentious and even erroneous. For example, he repeatedly claims that he had an excellent and intimate relationship with Washington, when in fact he called him "old mutton head" behind his back and worked relentlessly to undermine him politically. In the same way, he unconvincingly dismisses the Freneau episode as inconsequential and not as bad as it appears. I can only conclude that he does this to support the noble version of Jefferson at the expense of seeking the truth or at a minimum honestly addressing these issues. While some of the claims against Jefferson are surely propaganda from his adversaries, they deserve intelligent scrutiny that is completely lacking here.
Taken together, these deficiencies made me question everything that Malone claims. I could not trust his take on anything. Nonetheless, the book does evoke much of the time and presents many facts that the readers can interpret in their own way. It is also supremely well written. The 2-star rating is because the interpretation is so one-sided as to be ludicrous.
This book is a product of its time, I think, when America had emerged triumphant from WWII and fancied itself as a beacon for the rest of the world at the height of the McCarthyite period. There is great national pride in Malone's writing, much of it justifiable. But if you read it today, it comes off as a sentimental, biased, and uni-dimensional portrait, almost patriotic propaganda. It is academic mythmaking. That being said, the scholarship is monumental and this book deserves study and critical debate.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2007
This book is the second volume in Dumas Malone's six volume biography called "Jefferson and His Time". In the introduction Mr. Malone explains that, although he originally planned to cover Jefferson's life from the end of the Revolution and his appointment as Minister to France through the beginning of Jefferson's presidency as part of an originally projected 4 volume work, the depth of material required him to split this into two volumes.
From the outset his decision to expand his work into an extra volume (as he would also later do with the period covering Jefferson's presidency) seemed as it might be an unwelcome one. Mr. Malone's straightforward prose, that I enjoyed and appreciated in the fist volume, was replaced with a more scholarly and cumbersome style. Especially during the first half of the book, covering Mr. Jefferson's time in France, Mr. Malone's excessive and often redundant analysis at times made me feel like a hamster in a wheel. Part of the issue seems to stem from Mr. Malone's decision to abandon the chronological flow of the first volume for topic themed chapters with considerable chronological overlap. While this does serve to organize related information, it also leads to much of the redundancy mentioned earlier.
Luckily the second half of the volume, covering Mr. Jefferson's tenure as Secretary of State under George Washington's first term and the beginnings of his political rivalry with Alexander Hamilton, comes into much more distinct focus, and is very enjoyable.
I do not doubt that this volume is as Mr. Malone intended, although for me it was not as enjoyable to read as the first, and regardless of the intent of the author or the strength of the material presented, is the most important factor in making my recommendation. More specifically, the first half of the book would receive 3 stars and the second half the full 5.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2013
So far I've read two of the five books in this series and have enjoyed both! The books are very detailed and obviously a lot of research went into writing them. Anyone who's a history geek like myself will definitely like these books. :-) I have volumes IV and V, and plan to purchase volume III soon.
on May 23, 2015
Had I met Dumas Malone I’m certain I would have liked him, judging by the amiable tone of his Thomas Jefferson biography. No doubt, he did future scholars a great service by his exhaustive research and attention to detail in producing a grand narrative of Jefferson’s life. That said, his portrait is flawed because it attempts to portray the slave-holding Virginia aristocrat as a man of highest principle and beyond recall. This book was published in 1951, and since that time a number of scholars have thoroughly debunked Malone’s idealized portrait, and rightly so. The Founding Fathers were men of glaring weaknesses, who rose above their petty differences, acted boldly and unselfishly, and created something noble and enduring, the American Republic. It was founded upon a single idea—voiced by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence—that all men are created equal. That alone warrants our respect for the man from Monticello, but it doesn’t mean we must deify him.
“Jefferson & the Rights of Man” covers the years 1784-93. I purchased this book (volume 2 of 6), primarily to learn more about Jefferson’s time in Europe (1784-88). His achievements as Minister to France were modest, but his influence on the creation of the U.S. Constitution, though indirect, was certainly noteworthy, and his influence on American architecture was far reaching. And, without doubt, he was the first American to truly appreciate French cuisine and French wine. While he may have praised “good old mutton” in his letters to friends back home, Jefferson saw to it that (1) his personal chef was taught French cooking and (2) on his return to America imported 288 bottles of French wine. Indeed, as much as Malone wished to portray his subject as a man of modesty, Jefferson was anything but—he was a man who loved fine cooking, fine wine, and fine living. Everything he purchased: harnesses, clothes, a harpsichard, furniture, an extension to his living quarters, was the best money could buy. In fact, that’s among the many ironies of this book—Jefferson spent more than he made, despite already being deeply in debt. At the same time (according to Malone), he wanted Americans to tighten their belt and live within their means. Despite his special genius, Jefferson had little feel for finance, as he freely admitted to John Adams. It should be remembered it was Adams, and not Jefferson, who secured the Dutch loans that kept America financially afloat prior to Alexander Hamilton becoming Treasury Secretary and restoring the nation’s credit.
Jefferson was first and foremost an artist, as more recent of his biographers have pointed out. He loved architecture with “the ring of eternity” as he called it. Arriving in France, he was immediately drawn to the buildings of Andrea Palladio, especially the Hotel de Salm, which was being constructed when he arrived. Writes Malone: “(Jefferson) was so violently smitten with the Hotel de Salm that he used to go to the Tuileries almost every day to see it, generally sitting on a parapet and twisting his head around until his neck was stiff.” The Hotel de Salm, which featured a central columned portico and dome, would become the model for Monticello. Another building that caught the Virginia’s attention was the Maison Carree at Nimes, which Jefferson saw while making a tour southern France. It was a Roman Temple. While it was not designed for the purposes of executive, legislative and judicial departments, that is what the Virginian had in mind when he had a scale model made and sent to Richmond, for local architects to copy in their design of Virginia’s capitol building. It would be the first of many state capitols to look as if they had been transplanted from the Greek Acropolis, updated for government use, and planted on America soil. That, and the dome, was Jefferson's contribution to America architecture—the grand style of privilege in a society founded on equality—evident today in our nation’s capitol building, and in buildings across the country, and, of course, in Monticello, the University of Virginia Library Building and the stunning Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.
While Jefferson failed in his goal of replacing England with France as America’s most vital trading partner, he did send over two trunks of books to James Madison, including the collected works of David Hume, which Madison then proceeded to study in preparation for the Constitutional Convention. (The historian Douglass Adair has called Madison’s reading of Hume perhaps the most productive and consequential act of scholarship in American history.) Madison, Hamilton and Washington appear in later chapters, while Jefferson was Secretary of State. Also included is Malone’s account of the famous dinner deal that enabled passage of Hamilton’s financial package (thus making provision for the national debt while at the same time launching American capitalism), and moving the nation’s capital from New York City to a pasture on the Potomac. Also covered is the rift between Jefferson and Hamilton that resulted in the creation of the two-party system, whereby Malone puts Jefferson in a favorable light and makes Hamilton out as the villain. Indeed, he gives Jefferson every favor of the benefit of doubt while giving Hamilton none at all. No matter. I enjoyed the book. Four stars
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2011
The best that can be said of this, the second-volume of Dumas Malone's sweeping six-volume biography of our third president, is that it is impressively detailed. Though a considerable quality, the sheer scope of the work is not enough to overcome its crippling flaw: the staggering bias of its author in favor of his subject.
The first 240 pages of the book, which cover Jefferson's five years as a diplomat in France (1784-89), are, to put it mildly, a bit of a slog. Surprisingly little of consequence happens: Jefferson indulges his appetite for European luxury goods to the point of excess, carries on an affair with the married Maria Cosway, meets with little success in making treaties, observes the beginnings of the French Revolution, and plays a modest and indirect role in shaping revolutionary events through his counsel to Lafayette. It sounds more eventful than it actually is, it probably could have been covered in about half-the-space, and Malone's turgid prose makes it doubly tedious. Just as problematic, Malone fails to adequately convey just how this five-year French interlude changed, affected, or otherwise shaped Jefferson and his political philosophy. The reader is never given a sense of the importance of this period in Jefferson's life.
Thankfully, the pace picks up almost immediately upon Jefferson's return to the United States and his acceptance of the post of Secretary of State in Washington's administration, and it makes for an engaging read from that point forward. Spanning from 1789 through the 1792 elections, all the major developments are covered exhaustively - the dinner table bargain (assumption of state debts-for-a-Potomac capital); the battles over the national bank, implied powers, and the size of government; the birth of the republican "faction"; the newspaper wars; the growing and increasingly bitter internecine feud between Jefferson and Hamilton - as well as some lesser-known but no-less fascinating episodes in Jefferson's life, such as his oversight as Secretary of State of the planning and construction of Washington, D.C.. and his attempts to carve out a viable foreign policy for the nascent republic.
Notwithstanding the more compelling second-half, the entire book is plagued by Malone's naked idolatry of Jefferson. Whereas Hamilton's motivations are always claimed to be sinister, partisan, and borne of a lust for power, Jefferson's are without exception presented as sincere, pure, and honorable, and Malone blithely dismisses any contention of a Jefferson contemporary as to his remarkable duplicity and extensive political machinations as a partisan attack - while, of course, denying that same generous treatment to Hamilton vis-a-vis his opponents. What's more, Malone wholly suspends his critical eye towards Jefferson, always taking his subject's representations at face-value, unwilling to confront both the frequent contradictions between his words and actions and the reality that Jefferson was astutely aware he was writing for posterity. Jefferson was one of the most masterful political manipulators in human history, but the author here does everything possible to avoid coming to grips with that demonstrable fact. As a result, his characterizations of the antagonists are two-dimensional, with Jefferson cast as nothing short of a saint and Hamilton as a mustache-twirling villain.
In another manifest instance of bias, Malone excuses Jefferson's bald-faced lie to Adams that Jefferson was not referring to Adams' "Discourses on Davila" when he referred to "political heresies" in the foreword to Paine's "Rights of Man" on the grounds that Jefferson was just a very polite man and wanted to spare his old friend's feelings. This explanation is hogwash, as everyone already knew the reference was to Adams and Jefferson, in the same letter, disingenuously tried to blame a pseudonymous defense of Adams written by Adams' son for the vitriol then being directed at the Vice President from republican newspapers.
Likewise, Malone can't even bring himself to admit Jefferson's significant and obvious role in getting Freneau to create the National Gazette as an attack organ against the Administration. Jefferson offered Freneau an interpreter's job in the State Department for which he was wholly unqualified for, directed a substantial portion of the State Department's publishing business to Freneau's press, promised him access to the Department's collection of foreign newspapers, and expressly promised Freneau that the interpreter's job was not at all time-consuming and would leave him plenty of time to devote to his other enterprises - all after Jefferson wrote privately that he would do all he could to ensure Freneau's effort to establish a national republican newspaper was successful. Malone once again buries his head in the sand and writes it off as Jefferson just being hospitable to a friend of a friend (Madison) rather than recognizing it for what it was - Jefferson giving Freneau a nominal job and government printing business as a means of income in order to lessen the financial burdens of the paper and access to State information and resources so it could publish foreign stories. It truly is something when Malone tries to absolve Jefferson of a role to which Jefferson himself admitted!
Malone is unable or unwilling to see his subject's flaws and admit that Jefferson, in conjunction with Madison, was orchestrating the republican opposition behind-the-scenes and actively trying to subvert an administration of which he was a part.
As a result of such rampant bias, Malone loses all credibility and the analytic value of the work is irreparably compromised, rendering it useful only for narrow factual information.
8 of 15 people found the following review helpful
What can be said about this monument to Jefferson scholarship? I am sure that somewhere in universities around the United States there are "scholar squirrels who want to put down this invaluable resource in Jefferson studies. It is always the way that mice attempt to gnaw at lions. This is not a perfect work (and my remarks refer to all of the books in the series as a whole), there are somethings, namely Sally Hemmings references which are wrong and will not sit well with American 21st century mores. There is the issue of slavery which was handled much differently 50 years ago than it is now.
Jefferson is not worthy of our interest because of Sally Hemmings and because he kept slaves. Jefferson is great because of the Declaration of Independence and his fight for the rights of man. While it may have been hypocritical to preach liberty and keep slaves, it is doubtful that slavery ever would have been abolished if Jefferson had never gained the prominence that he did. This book and the others that follow show why we should continue to honor the public man even though his private side may have been wanting.
2 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2003
The book primarily focuses on Jeferson's political career, namely secretary of state, starting with the formation of the presidency (1788). The book sometimes focuses too much on the political front, and less on Jeferson's personal life and character.
2 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2002
Thomas Jefferson was no Satan. But, I will implore all the fanatics and sycophants who revere him as a 'man of justice and freedom' to wake-up from their slumber. Don't let the world laugh at your ignorance!
Mr Jefferson was by every means a slave-holder. Thus, this idea of linking his name to the Rights of Man is a contradiction.
If Dumas Malone must continue on this track, then he should mention the names of John Adams, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln, and we shall listen to him. Thomas Jefferson does not fit in this realm. He doesn't belong here! But, I am not really surprised. This book was published in 1951: at the peak of Color-Bar.