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Dumas Malone: the Completion of A Monument

ISSUE:  Winter 1982

A distinguished biographer of our time, Sir Harold Nicholson, once remarked of his art, “Biography is always a collaboration between the author and his subject; always there must be the reflection of one temperament in the mirror of another.” Nothing so well illustrates the truth of this principle than the “collaboration” over half a lifetime between Dumas Malone and his subject, Thomas Jefferson. In his liberal and humane values, in his graciousness and sensibility, in the methodical discipline of fact, the touch of philosophy, the felicity of style, the dominant sense of order, form, and proportion given to his life and work, above all in his ability to conduct himself as a democrat while practicing the manners of a highly civilized human being—in all this, and more, Dumas has sensitively reflected the mind and temperament of Mr. Jefferson.

The danger in such a collaboration, of course, is that the author will confuse himself with the subject, intruding his own prejudices and opinions, forcing his own personality into the book, until it becomes more autobiography than biography. But Dumas has always been much too good a scholar—and much too strong a person himself—to fall into that error. The collaboration was founded on a basic sympathy, a harmony of ideas and feelings; and it is the genius of the great biography we are saluting this evening as it is, indeed, of almost every other. Sympathy is properly an aid, not an obstacle, to understanding. It is necessary to full, fair, and faithful representation. No one, as far as I am aware, has ever described Dumas’ work as a “warts and all” life of Jefferson. And it is not that, for which we are grateful. Neither is it a panegyric. It is a critical biography. No attentive reader can fail to observe in the more than three thousand pages Jefferson’s faults, errors, and foibles. Dumas sometimes disapproves of Jefferson as a party leader, for instance; and he is frankly skeptical of some of his theories. He emphatically disapproves of Alexander Hamilton, of course. The effort of a host of contemporary scholars to rehabilitate Hamilton has not impressed Dumas. Hamilton remains the villain of his story, at least in the middle volumes; yet the work has none of the polemical character of so many of its predecessors and is no more of a diatribe against Hamilton than it is a panegyric of Jefferson. Significantly, on the crucial point of constitutional interpretation, Dumas openly sides with Hamilton and “implied powers” against Jefferson and “strict construction.” But Dumas, while recognizing Jefferson’s errors and imperfections, does not dwell upon them. Nor does he fill his pages with gossip, trifle, and scandal that, although exploited by some writers, have added not one cubit to our understanding of the man. He does not trivialize Jefferson. Indeed, with such a subject, where everything is transformed into intelligence, almost anything but intelligence becomes irrelevant. “Every man,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely observed, “is entitled to be measured or characterized by his best influence.” How much truer is that of a great life, one that is not only worthy of being recorded but is bound up with the whole meaning and destiny of the country.

Dumas was an historian before he was a biographer, and this has profoundly shaped his life of Jefferson. It is true that virtually all of his oeuvre, beginning with the first book in 1926, proceeding through the editorship of the Dictionary of American Biography, culminating in the monumental work now brilliantly completed, is of a biographical character. But Dumas has always conceived of biography as a species of history, that species wherein the story of the past is drawn around the life of a single personage. Historical biography, in the hands of a master like Dumas, may be imaginative, it may be literature; but it is founded upon deep research and deep knowledge of the past. It has its beginnings in the stacks of libraries, in dusty archives, family attics, and newspaper morgues. It is never the work of a mere man of letters; it demands unceasing sweat and toil in the historical footsteps of the subject. Dumas has followed Jefferson’s footsteps through 83 years. He managed to accomplish the journey in about half the time it took Jefferson. Given the scale of the work, that is a pretty good pace, at least by Woodrow Wilson’s standard that it should not take a man longer to write history than it took the actors to make it.

I remember with what keen interest I—a graduate student— read Dumas’ first volume, Jefferson the Virginian, when it appeared in the spring of 1948. (In the Introduction he promised three more volumes, but Jefferson proved to be an even bigger subject than he had imagined, and five more resulted.) Not long after that I embarked on a doctoral dissertation that eventually became my first book, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. There, viewing Dumas’ biography—and the second volume had been published by then—from the perspective of the long and contentious history of Jefferson’s reputation, I said that it marked the triumph of historical scholarship over the old rage of controversy and for that reason alone was a turning-point in the history of the Jefferson image. Now, 21 years later, the series completed, I see no reason to revise that assessment.

In the Introduction to that first volume, Dumas wrote, “My main purposes for this work are that it shall be comprehensive, that it shall relate Jefferson’s career to his age, and that it shall be true to his own chronology.” Seldom has an author so well fulfilled his intentions. Jefferson and His Time is comprehensive, not only in fullness and detail, but in Dumas’ specific sense: treating the whole of a many-sided man. It always relates Jefferson to his age: that is what makes it a work of history as well as biography. And it is true to Jefferson’s own chronology: this, in fact, may be Dumas’ greatest achievement. The meticulous care with which he has ordered the multitudinous events of Jefferson’s life underscores his conviction—almost a religious principle with him—that that life can be understood only if the events are viewed in their proper relationship. It underscores, too, his belief in the value of narrative—in the ineluctable integrity of the story itself—as the main line of interpretation. This must seem a quaintly old-fashioned virtue to many presentday historians, who seem to care very little for individual lives or stories; but I venture to say it will endure, like Dumas’ six volumes, long after current fashions in history and biography have disappeared. This relentless concern for chronological narrative is important, finally, because Dumas is interested, fundamentally, in development and change. To most previous students, including the best ones, like Henry Adams, Jefferson had seemed an elusive person, a figure of paradox and contradiction, as changeable as a kaleidoscope, because they had wanted to stereotype him, to give him the static form and features of “a portrait on the wall.” But Dumas viewed Jefferson as “a living, growing, changing man—always the same man but never quite the same,” and in this dynamic context of experience Jefferson’s life assumed a clarity, unity, and consistency scarcely suspected before.

I should point out, in this connection, that one of the major challenges of the final volume for Dumas was the length and variety of Jefferson’s career in retirement. How was it possible to keep a fairly taut narrative not only through 17 long years but years when Jefferson was even more ubiquitous in his thought and activities than before? Obviously, on the scale of the previous volumes, two or three more and another lifetime would be required to complete the work. Some compromise, however painful, with the chronological narrative was called for. Happily, though I have thus far only skimmed The Sage of Monticello, Dumas has succeeded in balancing topical and chronological treatment so as to encompass these 17 years—never thoroughly canvassed before by any biographer—in a single volume.

The dominant image that emerges from Jefferson and His Time is not new. It is the old image of the Apostle of Liberty, at last brilliantly realized in a biography as rich and full as the life. “Liberty was his [Jefferson’s] chief concern, and his major emphasis was on the freedom of the spirit and the mind.” This was the theme Dumas established at the beginning of the work, and it is the coda at the end. It remains the core of Jefferson’s legacy to posterity. Dumas has always scrupulously kept the pages of the biography clear of current political controversy surrounding Jefferson and the legacy. As a thoughtful citizen, however, he has addressed questions of this kind in occasional essays. In 1933, for instance, in an article in Scribbler’s Magazine, he hailed Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal for imaginatively employing Hamiltonian means for the Jeffersonian ends of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “I think,” Dumas wrote, “he [Jefferson] would bestow his apostalic blessing on Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the new president buckles on his Hamiltonian sword.” Here was the recognition that, just as Jefferson himself had grown and developed, so must his legacy be constantly revised and revitalized, though the goal remained always the same. A decade later, in the depths of the Second World War, Dumas returned to this theme in “an imaginary letter,” “Mr. Jefferson to Mr. Roosevelt,” published in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Permit me to read a paragraph from this remarkable epistle.

If I were living now, you may be sure that I should oppose with all the force at my command whatever should seem to be the greatest tyrannies of the age, the chief obstacles to the free life of the human spirit; and I should favor what seem to be the most effective means of bringing appropriate opportunity within the reach of all, regardless of race or economic status. If there are those who quote me in regard to the limitations of government and the dangers of its power, proper inquiry may be made about the objects they have in mind. If they are sincerely concerned for the well-being of the individual citizen, however humble he may be, and are not disposed to buttress some existing inequality, their judgment about the means to be employed should be listened to with respect. But I must protest against the use of my name in defense of purposes that are alien to my spirit. If there is anything eternal about me it is the purposes that I voiced and the spirit that I showed. So far as methods are concerned, the supreme law of life is the law of change. It must not be forgotten that I was regarded in my day as a revolutionary. I was never a defender of an imperfect and unjust status quo. The road to human perfection has proved longer than I thought and men have employed the language of individualism as a cloak for selfishness and greed, but never has it seemed more important than it does now to reassert faith in the dignity of human personality and in the power of the human mind.

Here, too, is the mirror of Thomas Jefferson in the mind of Dumas Malone. For he has always been guided by the Jeffersonian axiom, “Nothing is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.”

I ask you now to join with me in a toast: To Dumas Malone and the Completion of a Monument.


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