Starred Review. Perhaps more than any other founding father, the author of the Declaration of Independence has been judged harshly by posterity for being a slaveholder and having a slave concubine. How did Jefferson assess himself at his life's end? Drawing on Jefferson's postpresidential papers, which Burstein says have been little studied, the University of Tulsa history professor (The Passion of Andrew Jackson, etc.) sheds new light on our most enigmatic and interesting founding father from a unique perspective. He presents a vivid portrait of Thomas Jefferson as an old man looking back on life, preparing for death and dwelling on both his successes and his sins.During Jefferson's dotage, as his finances collapsed around him, the old patriot had to confront not only the results of his lifelong fiscal excesses but also the fruits of other excesses. In his last years, Jefferson "permitted" two of his four children by the black slave Sally Hemings—both of whom could pass for white—to "run away." In his will he freed the remaining two, Madison and Eston Hemings, while at the same time making a request (granted) that the Virginia legislature permit them to remain in the state after emancipation—something not normally done. Jefferson had once written that "[t]he only exact testimony of a man is his actions." In his final years, he tangled with the philosophical and religious implications of his life as a holder of slaves and master of a slave concubine. In some moods, Jefferson hoped for God and an afterlife. In others, perhaps dreading what the Almighty might have to say to him, he described human existence as a brief space "between two darknesses."This splendid book shows old Jefferson standing at the precipice, taking stock and perhaps judging himself more harshly than any God might. This is a deeply moving portrait of the aged Jefferson's body, mind and spirit that takes the measure, as Burstein says, of the full range of the founder's imagination. Illus. not seen by PW.
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