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Understanding Thomas Jefferson Paperback – February 5, 2002
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Thomas Jefferson's life seems to be riddled with contradictions: he wrote "all men are created equal" yet owned hundreds of slaves; he feared mixing the races yet fathered children with a partially black slave. Joseph J. Ellis took this Jefferson-as-enigma approach in American Sphinx, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1997. E.M. Halliday, however, argues that "the 'sphinx' approach tends to mystify rather than enlighten" and attempts to reconcile some of the contradictions in Understanding Thomas Jefferson.
Halliday starts off with a comprehensive sketch of Jefferson's life, from his father's death when he was 14 to his own death on July 4, 1826. Halliday describes Jefferson's college days, his passionate marriage, his trip to Paris, and, of course, his relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave and concubine.
Halliday's analysis of the Jefferson-Hemings affair is refreshing, given that many biographers have felt Jefferson lost all interest in sex after his wife's death (or, to quote Nick Nolte, who played the man in Jefferson in Paris, "The historians like to think that after Jefferson's wife died, his dick fell off"). Halliday lays out all the evidence, also noting that "most biographers have paid insufficient attention ... to the probability that some of her traits, of both appearance and character, were reminiscent of her half sister, Jefferson's greatly beloved wife." He then criticizes the "blinkered historians" who ignored or dismissed ample evidence of the affair--that is, before DNA testing proved that Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings's children.
A series of related essays follows the biography, including a clear-eyed view of the relationship between history and fiction. Throughout the book, Halliday writes in a chatty, almost gossipy tone, noting the Marquis de Lafayette's "formidable expanse of forehead," describing Jefferson's "tall, lean but muscular figure," musing that "September in Paris, while less celebrated in love songs than April, can be a wonderfully sexy time of year." Entertaining, informative, and eminently readable, Understanding Thomas Jefferson will leave readers feeling that they do. --Sunny Delaney --This text refers to the Unbound edition.
From Library Journal
This book has great merits as well as great flaws. Its merits include the author's commonsense, balanced approach to his subject, his solid grasp of the material, and his effervescent style. Halliday, a longtime editor at American Heritage and author of previous works on the poet John Berryman and on the Allied invasion of Soviet Russia in 1918 19, persuasively argues that historians Andrew Burstein (The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist, 1995) and Joseph J. Ellis (American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson) are wrong to claim that Jefferson was a bundle of unfathomable contradictions and mysteries. Halliday maintains that many of Jefferson's apparent contradictions are understandable, given his position in society and the era in which he lived. Despite Jefferson's failings in his views on blacks and women, Halliday says that his championship of human liberty gives him a deserved place on Mount Rushmore. The book's most serious flaw is its scope. Over half of the book is devoted to Jefferson's sex life (or lack thereof), particularly with his slave Sally Hemmings; this preoccupation is compounded by the author's overuse of words like erotic. (In two places he even notes that the weather was "sexy.") The book says almost nothing about Jefferson's work in the Continental Congress or his two terms as President. Recommended for larger public libraries. T.J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., New York
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Unbound edition.
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Top customer reviews
Try to find one crisp summary of Mr. Halliday's thesis anywhere in this book. You won't. Instead, you'll find a lazy summer day's read, drifting down a river of possibles. A little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit more back over here, some different stuff there... Who edited this thing for him?
Along those same lines, the book's organization could use some work. The "essays" making up the second half of the book are as muddled as the "history" of the first half. They should get their own "Part II" instead of simply having different chapter names.
Throughout, compute the ratio of "might/could have/may" to "did/was/had" and you'll understand how imprecise a view of Jefferson this is. Halliday himself muses on the transience of historical understanding. Better for him to take it to heart, and focus on the hard facts than try to read sheep's entrails to discern what might have been.
Certainly Jefferson deserves better than this! Certainly American Heritage deserves better than this!
By the way, wouldn't this suffice, instead of 250 pages of gumming the subject to death?:
1. TJ had a 10-year, very sexual marriage to Martha. He may have promised her on her deathbed not to remarry.
2. Sally Hemings was Martha's half-sister.
3. Perhaps out of family relation and resemblance, or perhaps out of his horniness and her availability, Tom/Sally were perfect for each other.
4. Why else would TJ have freed her offspring? He freed none of his other slaves; instead they were sold after his death to cover his debts.
Buy the book. Read the book. Don't believe you "understand" TJ any better after having done so.
Mr. Halliday OMITS from Mr. Jefferson's acknowledgement about the Walker affair, that in letters to his Secretary of the Navy, Robert Smith and his Attorney General, Levi Lincoln, that that was the only rumor that he would conseed is true among all the rumors spread about him, thus this was a blanket denial. Mr. Halliday has taken his well worn material from recognized books about Jefferson that have been hashed and rehashed over the years. He also makes reference to Annette Gordon-Reed's book, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, An American Controversy", but does not tell the reader that she states in her updated version, "The DNA test does not prove that the descendant of Eston Hemings was a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson."
In one of the earlier pages he again sets the scene that Jefferson is guilty by saying, "how could a man assert his disgust for sexual mixing of the races have taken as his concubine one of his own, the very young and beautiful Sally Hemings." My over 28 years of research as Jefferson Family Historian and one who assisted Dr. E. A. Foster with the DNA Study, have found NOTHING to indicate that Mr. Jefferson fathered any Hemings child. He takes two of our greatest Jefferson researchers, Merrill Peterson and Dumas Malone to task for giving the public the benefit of their vast knowledge by supporting the fact that Jefferson is innocent of the charges. Mr. Halliday chooses to bring the owners of Monticello, The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, formerly known as The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation who have decided to DROP the "Memorial" from their title, into the fiasco by stating that they had accepted the fact that Sally and her master had a long time love affair.
At this point I wish to enlighten the reader that ALL sides of an issue must be presented so a new book will be out in May, "The Jefferson-Hemings Myth, An American Tragedy" (available from Amazon.com), and so will a Scholars Commission Report researched and studied by 16 or more well known professors, NOT employees of Monticello but volunteer scholars who wish to give the public the benefit of their unbiased research. The book also states that Thomas Jefferson Randolph (Jefferson's grandson), wispy story that the Carr brothers had admitted to fathering some of Sally's children but now the DNA had completely blown away that story. Now if the author were such a careful and observant researcher he would know that only one DNA sample from the Hemings matched, there was NO available data for the four other children. My research reveals that they could be guily for some of the earlier ones. I also note an absence of any reference to Mr. Jefferson's brother, Randolph, and his 5 sons who are prime suspects. As Jefferson Family Historian, I have found the grave of Madison Hemings son, William, (a valuable and prime source of DNA) BUT the Madison Hemings descendants are happy with oral family history and WILL NOT give permission for exhumation. The Monticello researcers would not seek this very valuable information either and did not tell the public of it's availability. You will notice that Mr. Halliday does not mention this either. There are many other statements mentioned that tend to degrade Mr. Jefferson in the eyes of the public. We should NEVER place all our history in the hands of "authorities", some academia, some foundations and some writers. Politically correct historical revisionists are prevelant on many scenes. BUY THE BOOK........we must hear both sides of the issue.........let the reader decide.
Herbert Barger Jefferson Family Historian
There was also no mention of the mother-son relationship that other authors have talked about that certainly impacted him