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Another Young Jefferson

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

The Young Jefferson. By Claude G. Bowers. Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.75.

Having dealt with “Jefferson and Hamilton” and “Jefferson in Power,” Ambassador Claude G. Bowers has now taken up “The Young Jefferson” and carried him to the year 1789, when he quitted Paris and returned to America to become the first Secretary of State under the new Constitution. When “Jefferson and Hamilton” appeared in 1925, Calvin Coolidge sat in the White House and the prevailing school of historians was inclined to give the nod to the Champion of Federalism over the Protagonist of Democracy. Now the scene is changed and marble dome as well as printer’s ink proclaim the merits of the Sage of Monticello.

Mr. Bowers is not even the first in recent years to devote a volume to the earlier career of our third President. In 1943 Marie Kimball published “Jefferson, the Road to Glory,” which carries the great Virginian through the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Yet there is little overlapping between these two books. Mrs. Kimball spent much time on family background, the Albemarle country, and the personal life of the young Jefferson. Previous writers had gone little beyond Randall in dealing with these matters, and much delving into the sources was necessary in order to shed new light upon them.

Mr. Bowers, on the other hand, brings Jefferson to 1776 in five chapters. His main interest is in the political theme, and the background is treated in the conventional manner. Indeed, this was inevitable, since he has made little use of any material other than secondary works and Jefferson’s published correspondence. Such superficial research has resulted in various instances of inaccuracy, The Virginia Piedmont of Jefferson’s youth has usually been pictured as  »

a raw frontier and Peter Jefferson as a rugged frontiersman. This fitted in with the frontier theory of American democracy, and it went practically unchallenged until Mrs. Kimball presented a more realistic picture. Mr. Bowers made some use of Mrs. Kimball’s book, but he profited nothing from her more essential contributions.

Though he does not dig deep, he cultivates his ground with skill. He has a good eye for significant facts, and a lively historical imagination enables him to present them with vitality and charm. His early chapters are weak because of his unfamiliarity with Jefferson’s Albemarle surroundings, but when his hero emerges upon the political scene, the author is at home, and though there is nothing strikingly new in his presentation, his account is adequate and interesting. The last six chapters deal with Jefferson’s five-year sojourn in France, and these are definitely the best of the book. One gets an intimate picture of the daily life of the amateur philosopher and diplomat, living graciously among charming people, fascinated by European art and culture, but distressed by his contemplation of the governmental and economic situation. In close association with Lafayette and the other early leaders of the Reyolution, he found his ideas in accord with theirs, and he thrilled at the thought that France would soon be free.

The theme song of the book is, of course, Jefferson’s championship of democracy, and this story is well-told, although no special effort is made to analyze his ideas on the subject. Since they were the usual ideas of the eighteenth century, they might seem to need no analysis, but in these days of political controversy, resounding with the cry that all men are created equal, it might be well to remember that Jefferson was a leveler-up, not a leveler-down. He did not advocate indiscriminate universal suffrage, unrestricted legislatures, or social equality. He at first favored a property qualification for voting, but later was willing to extend the suffrage to all who served in the militia or paid taxes.


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