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The Problem of Jefferson Biography

ISSUE:  Summer 1994

Jefferson the symbol, Jefferson the man. His legacy is either clouded in myth or mercilessly exploited. He seems to be what each generation needs him to be. His stirring words remain with us, but his character often changes. Historians have long been engaged with competing Jeffersons: Jefferson the classical republican, Jefferson the liberal; Jefferson the cosmopolite, Jefferson the master of 200 slaves. Popular biographers have added the self-induced demand of making him in vogue. It is their half-conscious dictate to keep renewing Jefferson’s appeal which this essay will focus on, pointing out weaknesses in recent efforts before offering, finally, some suggestions on how to approach this fascinating, if elusive, American icon.

From the very beginning, Jefferson’s biographers have looked to their subject’s prodigious letter-writing for the nature of his thought and the meaning of his life. When the long-lived statesman died on the Fourth of July 1826, he left behind a 656-page index of his private correspondence. His eldest grandson published four volumes of these letters in 1829, ranging from political topics to an essay on love and friendship, the 12-page dialogue between “My Head and My Heart.” From this point, biographers began to toil, all claiming to capture the real Jefferson.

In 1839, Federalist editor Theodore Dwight, secretary of the purportedly disunionist Hartford convention, published The Character of Thomas Jefferson, As Exhibited in His Writings. His Jefferson was a deceitful, mean-spirited political operative and demagogue, whose calculated goal was self-preservation. He was “insincere and hypocritical” due to “feelings of selfishness,” a conniving man, impatient with the true diversity of his nation, who was in fact dictatorial, not democratic. Dwight justified these conclusions by his reading of Jefferson’s published correspondence.

When Henry S. Randall penned the preface to his threevolume Life of Thomas Jefferson in the autumn of 1857, he praised Jefferson’s “vigorous thoughts” in “extra-political” as well as political themes. He, like Dwight, relied heavily on Jefferson’s correspondence, but found in contrast that Jefferson’s letters were “clothed in that felicitous diction which is apt to enlist the sympathy of the ear as well as that of the understanding.” Over two thousand pages, Randall portrayed a man of sensibility and apostle of reason who refused to play dirty when political enemies sought to blacken his name. In addition, Randall drew upon his own extensive correspondence with Jefferson’s several surviving grandchildren who had lived at Monticello through most of their grandfather’s retirement years. Laudatory by design, Randall’s Life emphasized the straightforward, good-hearted Jefferson (“There was a sympathy between his heart and the great popular heart, which nothing ever did, ever can, shake.”) Where Dwight saw duplicitous posturing, Randall saw a man of warmth, grace, eloquence—true gentility. But which, if either, could be said to have captured the “real” Jefferson?

Jefferson was always a controversial public figure, and the most visible representative of a social order led by men whose humanitarian outlook was sustained by a slave economy. In the 1850’s and 1860’s, North and South both claimed him—and both critiqued him. Of the antebellum confusion over his legacy, Merrill D.Peterson has written that the “political rage surrounding the Jefferson symbol was the principal obstacle to discovery of the historical Jefferson.” It was the sectional division Jefferson symbolized to which the antagonistic Dwight was directly responding and the uncritical Randall, on the eve of the Civil War, was attempting to relegate to history.

Word-of-mouth traditions were still on people’s lips when Jefferson descendant Sarah N.Randolph came along and popularized treasured family memories, highlighting old correspondence once more in her 1871 The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson. Her announced purpose was to eschew political discussion and concentrate on her great-grandfather’s private life, correcting a character that had been “foully assailed” and “wantonly exposed to the public gaze.”

Since then, the political divisions which Jefferson’s life evoked have become obscure for the most part. Both political parties of the 1990’s identify with his political values. It has been nearly two centuries since the Jeffersonians’ triumph over Federalist politics, and Americans continue to react with strong emotions to the Jefferson image. The character, the impulses, we attribute to our third president remain somehow tied to America’s self-concept. If so much of what we are goes back to Jefferson, people muse, then what is it about Jefferson which reminds us of us? Scholarly historians and popular biographers alike have felt obliged to address “the need to know.”

Recent students of Jefferson have, with thoroughness and considerable sensitivity, risen to the challenge of reconstructing and reassessing Jefferson’s political philosophy and practice. The leader in this enterprise was Dumas Malone, who brought forth six volumes from 1948 to 1981 (three more than originally anticipated) and devoted nearly half a century to researching and writing Jefferson’s life. But Malone and his successors have been less successful in illuminating Jefferson’s private life. Malone complained from the outset that his subject was made up of contradictions and inconsistencies and used “stilted language” even in intimate correspondence. At the end of his career, Malone remained convinced that Jefferson “made too little allowance for emotions and counted too much on the sufficiency of reason.” The private Jefferson, unavoidably central to any understanding of the whole Jefferson, thus eludes even the best.

The most celebrated attempt to compile an “intimate history” was Fawn M. Brodie’s 1974 biography, which presented the biographer as detective and sought to prove that Thomas Jefferson was racked by guilt, but could not help loving a mulatto slave named Sally Hemings. Subsequent efforts by journalists Alf J.Mapp, Jr.(Thomas Jefferson: A Strange Case of Mistaken Identity [1987] and Passionate Pilgrim [1991]) and Willard Sterne Randall (Thomas Jefferson: A Life [1993]) to humanize Jefferson in comprehensive biographies designed for the voyeuristic public of the 1980’s and 1990’s may be at present the most visible books on Jefferson in the marketplace, but they are far from adequate treatments and serve only to give the popular audience what it wants—simple formulas and, where possible, titillating copy.


Just as Merrill Peterson identified the “rage” over Jefferson’s political symbolism at the time of the Civil War, we can say that in the two decades since Brodie’s provocative book appeared, the rage to portray character, to enter the bedroom, to uncover intimate acts and conversation, has created a new kind of Jefferson symbol and once again obscured the historical Jefferson. Biographers seek to make Thomas Jefferson familiar, and that may be the most dangerous aspect of their pursuit.

It was biographer Peterson who generated this interest with an inadvertent challenge. His unsurpassed single volume Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation was published in 1970.In the preface, while noting that “the student of Jefferson cannot be truly detached and disinterested,” the author added significantly: “Although he left to posterity a vast corpus of papers, his personality remains elusive. Of all his great contemporaries, Jefferson is perhaps the least selfrevealing and the hardest to sound to the depths of being. It is a mortifying confession but he remains for me, finally, an impenetrable man.”

In the first chapter of her own work, Brodie invokes Peterson’s “mortifying confession” as a stimulus in her quest to discover the “real” Jefferson, to solve this mystery Jefferson had so effectively concealed from history. But her often penetrating analysis of Jefferson’s character falters because of her tin ear for language and her insistence on invoking currently fashionable psychological explanations. She overinterprets unconscious patterns in Jefferson’s writing and construes psychic dilemmas apart from a consideration of 18th-century social norms. In Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, for example, the one book he authored in his lifetime, Brodie links his hyperbolic imagery in descriptions of the sublime in nature with “earthquakes of psychic discovery in his childhood.” Jefferson deployed hyperbole— and other figures of speech—in order to create deliberate rhetorical effects. But Brodie makes no attempt to understand this, or she would have discovered in Jefferson’s hyperbole, over a range of correspondence, a common technique for adding power to words and a means of being playful and lighthearted. Brodie is caught again in the 20th century when she asserts, even more destructively, that “nuances” in letters from Jefferson’s daughters show an “almost palpable seduction” in the words of the two affected young women responding to the supposed intimacy that they witness between their father and his enslaved mistress. Brodie misreads language when she tracks the number of times Jefferson uses the word “mulatto” to describe the color of a European landscape. This supposedly represents evidence that the 15-year-old Sally Hemings had already become “a special preoccupation” in “the most subtly illuminating of all his writings.”

Any attempt to uncover the private Jefferson must contend with the Virginian’s dramatic dialogue between “My Head and My Heart,” a letter which he addressed to the Italianreared English painter Maria Cosway in 1786, while serving as the American minister in France. This self-indulgent document plainly reveals its writer’s infatuation with a female, without hinting whether the correspondents had or would share physical intimacy. Cautious scholars Malone and Peterson vary in their assessments; the former does not deny the strong possibility that Jefferson succumbed to temptation, while the latter sees little actual passion in Jefferson’s discursive exercise. In tackling this emotive composition, Brodie has less far to go to prove a case, unlike the case for miscegenation, so she subordinates psychological devices to a mild narrative unfolding of the well-crafted love letter. More interesting to her than its content is the suggestion that Jefferson knew how to be discreet when necessary. In the first of his two volumes, Alf Mapp enlarges on Brodie’s exposition of the Cosway affair, attributing thoughts to Jefferson on the basis of the author’s apparent inspection of a painting of the woman. At the domed Halle aux Bleds in Paris where the two first met, Mapp writes, “privately one part of his [Jefferson’s] mind admitted that his ecstasy owed more to the way the sunlight touched the gold of Maria Cosway’s hair than to any other feature of the celebrated interior lighting. And surely her large, luminous eyes were bluer than the sky glimpsed through the overhead windows.” The author’s portrait of Jefferson, here and throughout his book, is imprecise, all things subordinate to an attempt at poetic pleasantry. Mapp’s Jefferson is as “strange” as he is brilliant, noble yet “with the earwig of anxiety always gnawing in his brain.” He is supposed to accept gender equality “as a matter beyond argument.” Proceeding with the Cosway meeting: “Which was more beautiful, the smoothly curving cheek or the slender hand it rested upon. . . . From those perfect lips—cupid’s bow above, a little sensual fullness below—flowed words in a soft voice tinged with an AngloItalian accent.” And a little later: “But the liquid syllables of her Anglo-Italian speech could drown the voice of reason. And he lost all perspective when gazing into those blue eyes. . . . Jefferson was gambling more on one pair of blue eyes than he ever would on the eyes of any pair of dice.” As an “enchantress,” Mrs. Cosway has clearly stimulated Mapp, so that he loses sight of Jefferson’s century and plays to his modern romantic readership.

Yet Mapp is less insistent than Willard Sterne Randall, who states that Jefferson “fell in love with Maria Cosway the moment he met her.” Portraying Jefferson in an odd construction of 20th-century pathology as a man “developing a way of opening himself up and revealing himself to people he had no reason to dislike or fear,” the author boldly asserts: “No wonder that Jefferson saved all her letters, and copies of all his letters to Maria, even if he had destroyed his correspondence with his wife [who had died four years earlier]. One day Jefferson’s children and grandchildren would know how much he had loved Maria Cosway.” Randall goes so far as to proclaim (without a shred of evidence) that Jefferson did not enjoy a warm relationship with his wife.

Randall shows equal sloppiness in distorting Jefferson’s public record. Like his 19th-century namesake, he wants his readers to admire Jefferson; but this Randall speaks with considerably less authority than the earlier one. He is often extravagant in his praise, making Jefferson’s legislative achievements more far-reaching than they actually were. He celebrates the Virginian’s desire to credit blacks for mental achievements, while refusing to come to terms with the “real” Jefferson’s insistence that blacks were unquestionably, and by nature, inferior to whites. He gives the reader no sense of soul-searching, or any torment Jefferson may have felt, such as James Madison exhibits in The Last of the Fathers, Drew R.McCoy’s illuminating biography (1989). Though a fluid writer, Randall seems oblivious to the complexity of these and other issues.

Between Mapp and Randall, the confusion is quite pronounced. Mapp opens his book conscious of the tendency to identify with Jefferson, hoping to “chip away at the encrustation of legend.” He concludes the second volume by paradoxically terming Jefferson “a passionate artist” who “followed Reason with deadly seriousness.” Jefferson is said to have pursued reason as his fellow Virginians pursued the fox, “though not out of any desire to capture it, least of all to possess it, but for the sheer joy of the chase.” This reveals nothing about Jefferson’s motivation or manner of thinking. What is the reader to conclude? For his part, Randall opens with an Acknowledgement, protesting his “flagging courage in taking on the daunting life of Thomas Jefferson.” Unfortunately, the subsequent narrative is bloated with irresponsible guesswork. One has to wonder what Jefferson biography these two authors thought theirs would supplant.

As for accounts of Jefferson in the company of Maria Cosway, Max Byrd’s Jefferson: A Novel (1993), provocatively set in Paris, seems far more persuasive than Mapp’s and Randall’s purportedly factual depictions. Though he rejects all claims to “academic objectivity,” confessing that he is a “Jefferson partisan,” Byrd, a professor of English who has written brilliantly on 18th-century literary developments, is sensitive to the conventions of the age. He notes correctly that Jefferson liked his women “decorative and invisible,” thus explaining why his feelings for Maria Cosway could not endure. The book’s creative shortcoming is its reliance on Jefferson’s literal constructions; the author largely confines his Jefferson to verbatim mouthings of the contents of his published familiar letters, rather than playing out the less self-censored act of speech. In this context, it is interesting to juxtapose the 1954 biography by novelist John Dos Passes, appropriately entitled The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson, in which Jefferson is in effect given the brush-off by the coquettish artist. Capturing the seductive mood of prerevolutionary Paris, Dos Passos relates: “Her mass of curly hair under the broad hats, the scent of her ruffles, the sweet intimacies while the phaeton whirled through the dry lanes of early autumn: the idyll had gone to Jefferson’s head. He felt like a boy again.” The images of Dos Passos are emotive, yet the novelist is careful not to take too much literary license. He concludes that the affair was but “a few weeks’ flirtation.”

If it were not so responsibly conceived, Byrd’s commercial fiction, the latest in a lengthening tradition, would be the logical extension of today’s voyeurism. We know why all of this is happening to Jefferson now: this is the age of the John F.Kennedy-Marilyn Monroe exposes. Celebrities (and Jefferson remains one) are suddenly obliged to grapple with a technology which has fashioned spying into a sublime art. The interception of telephone calls from the bedrooms of Buckingham Palace is the most banal, if informative, example of the latest rage. The public curiosity has expanded along with the technology, so that science may next be called upon to carry out DNA testing on the skeletal remains of Sally Hemings’ offspring to compare with samples extracted from Jefferson’s tomb.


The gist of writing biography, today more than ever before, is to render the cold and dead warm and alive. To the extent that people have a need to possess the past, this need can provoke biographers to plant fanciful notions in gossip-prone minds. That certainly seems to be the case with Jefferson. An informal poll of Monticello tour guides suggests that a majority of visitors to Jefferson’s home of late either assume the Sally Hemings legend to be established fact or come to the mountaintop shrine eager to learn “the truth.”

James C. Johnston wrote in 1927: “Genuine biography aims at something behind the facts; its prime function is to recreate a life, to vivify a personality.” It was character, ideals, thoughts, aspirations—the spiritual nature of the subject—which distinguished a work. The freshest life of Jefferson in Johnston’s time was Gilbert Chinard’s concise Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism. Without overstating psychological effects, the French scholar from Johns Hopkins regarded his subject as a sensitive, conciliating public man, a sympathetic figure holding strong and compelling views. There seemed to Chinard no question that Jefferson strayed little from the pursuit of reason. While aware that Jefferson’s unmarried state intrigued the women with whom he became acquainted in Europe, Chinard emphasized Jefferson’s selfconscious and systematic effort to make an impression on his countrymen, and then the world.

A concern for motives grew, and amidst World War II, Dumas Malone undertook his life’s work, Jefferson and His Time. Introduced after an unprecedented amount of research, Malone’s Jefferson coupled intellectual versatility with an intensity of energy and moral power. Shortly thereafter, the first of what are up to this point 25 volumes of Jefferson’s correspondence and public papers were published by Princeton, edited by Julian P.Boyd. Malone had completed five of his six volumes (taking Jefferson to postpresidential retirement) and Boyd had compiled 18 volumes of the Papers by the time Fawn Brodie set out to characterize her passionate, impulsive Jefferson.

The mystery of the human personality is an everpresent concern to today’s biographers. But how is it possible to reach back and recover the internal world of someone like Jefferson? This is the question that will occupy us for the balance of the essay.

The past can hardly have been as we, its interpreters, construe it. The Jefferson biographer has to be extremely careful in reconstructing a strange cultural environment. Popular traditions tend to compound over time, and ultimately to obscure reality. We must vigorously attempt to remove our modern preconceptions. Political theorist Quentin Skinner has cautioned that historians tend to classify the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, constantly running the danger of ending up with a mythology rather than a history.

Catherine Drinker Bowen, who wrote biographies of such diverse historical figures as Francis Bacon, John Adams, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, described in 1968 some of the problems in understanding a biographical subject. Borrowing L.P.Hartley’s phrase, she called the past a “foreign country,” and took to task biographers who presented “facts” with “smug self-satisfaction,” presuming to know so much more than their hero himself. She pointed out that George Washington, in part through Gilbert Stuart’s portrait, had become an “historical cliche, a stereotype.” How could Americans presume to understand contemporary descriptions of Washington? He was said to have “a pig’s eye.” (For that matter, Francis Bacon had “a delicate, lovely, hazel eye, like the eye of a viper.”) Words no longer suggested the meanings they once possessed. When the artist Stuart told someone that Washington’s eye sockets were unusually large and his features “indicative of the strongest passions,” what was the full context of his impression? Did Washington speak with an English accent or the soft accent of 20th-century Virginians?

Merrill Peterson accepts that there is much we cannot know. He is influenced in his assessment of Jefferson’s worldview by what he perceives as Jefferson’s reliance on books over “direct acquaintance” for his acquisition of new knowledge. He states that Jefferson “approached the world through his understanding rather than his feelings.” This gave “a certain airiness to his traffic with reality.” To Peterson, Jefferson could charm, he could attract, but he remained opaque even to his contemporaries.”Most men caught him at the easy glasslike surface he exposed to the world.”

As Peterson’s self-sufficient Jefferson misdirected people in his own age no less than in ours, it is not at all surprising that the Jefferson scholar could only be contemptuous of Brodie’s dramatic exposition of something that, alas, was just not there. Yet those following Brodie’s lead are still waiting to hear Jefferson’s “Ouch!” when they prick him. It is Peterson’s assessment that, while Jefferson remained positive and energetic his entire life, his “dream of felicity became a delusion.” His universal call for human freedom and happiness was no mere slogan; he knew what he wanted for his country. But he was unable to personalize what he envisioned for others—to enjoy peace of mind himself, to be something other than that “easy glasslike surface.” Jefferson’s expansiveness, the generous Enlightenment spirit, has not dimmed. Thus we may romanticize him, but the timelessness of his eloquence does not assure us that we know him.

Yet if there are many difficulties in uncovering the inner Jefferson, it is not a lost cause. All Jefferson biographers, from the time of Theodore Dwight and Henry S.Randall, have emphasized their subject’s voluminous personal correspondence as the most useful body of evidence from which to extract the historic Jefferson, to assess his character and explore his private thoughts. Letter-writing enabled Jefferson to fashion a self and to pursue a sociability which brought him respect and facilitated essential political alliances. Behind it all, the letter-writing Jefferson was a man seeking emotional fulfillment.

Language is a part of human nature and human history. It is not a mere instrument, but, as Emile Benveniste has explained, that which produces for us the very definition of man. Without language, there is no subjectivity. In Jefferson and Monticello (1988), Jack McLaughlin has shown that Jefferson expressed his self not only through language, but through the language of architecture. He was an accomplished architect who built “a dwelling which mirrored himself.” In letters, Jefferson used metaphors of construction to convey thoughts of stability. To protege James Monroe, feuding with longtime ally James Madison, Jefferson wrote that both men represented the “two principal pillars of my happiness.” The architectural metaphor for something solid and durable cannot be accidental.”Happiness” itself, famous object of Jefferson’s rhetorical pursuit, must be traced carefully over time. Analyzing the self-expressive “My Head and My Heart” dialogue along with the larger body of Jefferson’s correspondence over several decades, we learn that at this moment of literary ecstasy, Jefferson chooses not “happiness” nor “pleasure,” but “delight” to express the sublime sense achieved in the compassionate commitment to another. “Happiness” is a rather general word in his vocabulary, reduced in energy and authority by its varied uses.”Pleasure, ” brought up several times in this momentous letter, is coupled with “pain,” “misfortune,” “monkish unsociability,” or “alloy,” meaning “diminution.” Jefferson, then, generally recognized that “pleasure” does not come free. He prefers the use of “delight” in the context of undiminished, unabased satisfaction, of pure friendship or pure intellectual enjoyment.”Delight” is spiritually potent for him, employed in Homeric depictions or other references to awe and wonder that capture his mind. Offering Abigail Adams a tribute to the collection of Greek figures he had acquired for her, Jefferson referred to the deities who commanded song and the chase as “our supreme delight.” To Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, he explained his own purpose on earth with the same phrase: “Nature intended for me the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight.” Jefferson expressed “delight” when Joseph Priestley, the preeminent Unitarian thinker whose work he admired more than that of any other living theologian, proposed coming to America to continue his controversial writing undisturbed. In the same letter, Jefferson termed his reading of Homer in the original Greek “this rich source of my delight.”

Once we better understand the linguistic environment in which Jefferson wrote, his original manipulation of language, the limits on what he could express comfortably, and influences on the style and content of his letter-writing, we will understand Jefferson as his correspondents did and begin to transcend the need of modern Americans for a more familiar personality. He had, as just evidenced, an enduring love of the Greek and Roman classics, which Karl Lehmann analyzes with great skill in Thomas Jefferson: American Humanist (1947). Lehmann shows the connection between the moral thought of the ancient world and Jefferson’s own. He further demonstrates how Jefferson adapted Greek concepts of friendship and Roman doctrines of law and power to contemporary notions of personal liberty and progress of the human mind in general. And as Peter S.Onuf has recently explained: “The [Greek] philosophers’ injunctions to self-control, the life of reason, and the passionate friendship of enlightened souls—all constituted a script for self-making and worldmaking.”


It is wrong to equate the life of the mind in 18th-century America with what we experience today. Jefferson was a genteel Virginian, a social being who reflected his culture. To know him we are obliged to explore beyond him, understanding the ways people of his generation viewed life, death, family, friendship, responsibility, and opportunity. Once we delimit boundaries of culture, we can proceed to delimit boundaries of thought, to see where Jefferson may have burst from that mold which produced more “typical” Americans. We pursue the sense of self in Jefferson’s world as we pursue the historical Jefferson.

We have already shown how single words can illuminate Jefferson’s inner world. However, in tracking a single word or idea through its development, we cannot assume too much. For example, “democracy” has not always meant the same thing to the writers of texts on America in the years since 1776.We know what we mean when we say “democracy.” Jefferson, however, described what democracy meant instead of using the term. To the sympathetic British political philosopher Richard Price he opined: “The happiness of governments like ours, wherein the people are truly the mainspring, is that they are never to be despaired of. Where an evil becomes so glaring as to strike them generally, they arouse themselves, and it is redressed. He only is then the popular man and can get into office who shews the best dispositions to reform the evil.” In Jefferson’s time, the word “democracy” could still possess the sense of a disorderly people subject to demagoguery or anarchic rule. Noah Webster, who vehemently opposed the Jeffersonian vision for America in the 1790’s and beyond, equated “democrat” with “Jacobin” and “secret intrigues” to undermine the Constitution. When Jefferson spoke of the American Revolution, or termed the Republican-Federalist contest which resulted in his election “the revolution of 1800,” he understood the word “revolution” within a certain range of meaning. Today, however, we might refer to a “revolution” in fashion when a new length of skirt reaches department stores. Words reflect the peculiarities of culture and, when overused, lose the power as well as the context of their original meaning.

Language charts the transformation of social concepts in often instructive ways. Before the end of the 16th century, “providence” and “religious” did not have secular meanings. When a certain element in European society wished to promote ungenerous financial practices, it associated the desirable workings of providence, and the word “provident” acquired a new and socially acceptable meaning which legitimized the rising commercial class. Similarly, the tendency toward exactitude in personal behavior was once thought inappropriate or unnecessary, until the lofty “religious” was borrowed to accord acceptability to punctual habits. Words taken from the praiseworthy world of faith thus adapted to a secularizing era, showing how social changes have affected language in often subtle ways.

For Jefferson, language determined self-conception and self-presentation. We can learn more than is immediately apparent, for instance, by probing Jefferson’s expression of respect for the Native American. While the hardy pioneers of Albemarle County struggled to establish a local identity in the 1740’s and 1750’s, hostile Indians still inhabited the county to the west. The Jefferson house was a popular way-station for the friendly Cherokees whose embassies were bound for Williamsburg. Writing to John Adams in 1812 of his presence in the warrior-orator Outasette’s camp on the eve of the Indian’s journey to England a half century earlier, Jefferson recalled: “The moon was in full splendor. . . . His sounding voice, distinct articulation, animated action, and the solemn silence of his people at their several fires, filled me with awe and veneration, altho’ I did not understand a word he uttered.” It is significant that Jefferson was impressed by the Indian’s use of words to make a noble display of his humanity, to move others. It is just as significant that Jefferson could retrieve stories from his younger years and, through this kind of introspective examination, raise those images which brought his conscious self to feel “awe and veneration.” From this we can begin to see Jefferson as a man of nostalgic feeling.

Though Peterson stresses the difficulty in aiming at Jefferson’s soul, we can point also to the personal warmth which surfaced in times of personal agony. In 1804, Jefferson lost his attractive but delicate 26-year-old daughter Maria due to complications arising from childbirth. He received a warm letter of condolence from Virginia governor John Page, his best friend in college, whom he had now known for more than 40 years. After Page wrote, calling earth “a Vale of Sorrow” from which Maria had escaped, Jefferson responded from the President’s House:

Others may lose of their abundance, but I, of my want, have lost even the half of all I had. My evening prospects now hang on the slender thread of a single life [his remaining daughter Martha]. . . . When you and I look back on the country over which we have passed, what a field of slaughter does it exhibit! Where are all the friends who entered it with us, under all the inspiring energies of health and hope? As if pursued by the havoc of war, they are strewed by the way, some earlier, some later, and scarce a few stragglers remain to count the numbers fallen, and to mark yet, by their own fall, the last footsteps of their party.

As he reread the latter part of the passage, Jefferson changed the period after “us” to a comma and inserted the phrase “under all the inspiring energies of health and hope” in the narrow space above, presumably to produce the ironic counterposition which better brought out his heartfelt thoughts. That Jefferson reserved such drama for the trusted Page gave credence to his earlier assurance that “the friend ships of my youth are those which stick closest to me, and in which I most confide.”

In many of his best known letters, we see primarily the careful construction of a sociable Virginian, the man whose words, as Carl Becker complained, emitted light but no heat. But there are other letters that offer glimpses of an uncensored Jefferson, a tormented human being unable to come to terms easily with his grief over the deaths of loved ones, a man for whom sunshine healed the spirit; he wrote, for example, in “My Head and My Heart” of his basic optimism: “[T]hanks to a benevolent arrangement of things, the greater part of life is sunshine.” He invoked poetic images of “bright beams of the moon on the desolate heath” to contrast his thoughts of family with the “malice” of a life of political contention. It is in this context that we can slowly, painstakingly get under Jefferson’s skin.

Fawn Brodie was, in a sense, on the right track to examine Jefferson’s use of words in diary records and familiar letters; but in the biographer’s eagerness to detect embarrassment over a sexual liaison, she became too involved in her own fantasies and construed words far beyond their actual or even possible 18th-century meanings. She became so caught up in the suspense she was building that she found what she wanted to find, though it was not real. Before declaring Jefferson to be in love, she failed—as Mapp, Randall and others have since failed—to understand fully love, courtship, marital and extra-marital relationships, and the liberties and social constraints in Jefferson’s world. Was Jefferson, normally a man of unusual self-restraint, capable of going against his own moral strictures, or his published proscription that whites and blacks were incompatible partners? The Jefferson biographer needs to appreciate, more generally, how a restless Jefferson coped with life’s uncertainties, how an essentially private man rallied so many to his cause, with what emotional issues he identified, how he tossed and turned, how important friendship was—and letter-writing was—to his private and public lives. Was his heralded gift for words the result of a monastic scholarship or the desire to be respected and loved or something else? No one has yet done with Jefferson what the astute biographer Peter Shaw deliberately did in his The Character of John Adams (1976), reconciling the public and private man by undertaking “to intellectualize his behavior and to personalize his ideas.”

The problem of Jefferson biography, the problem of revealing character, cannot be addressed without removing the modern imprint. Jack McLaughlin has explained that today’s Monticello, the Jefferson museum-shrine, like any museum, serves to “lift the past out of context and place it on display.” It lacks the marks of an inhabited house, “the ashes in the hearth, the fingerprints on the walls, the scuffs, knocks, scrapes, and rubbings of human contact.” The same is true with Jefferson’s unfamiliar—if tremendously appealing— language. We can read it and react to it, but we will not demythologize it or Jefferson until we speak and understand that language in some semblance of the way Jefferson and his intimates did.


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