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The Sage At Sunset

ISSUE:  Winter 1982

The publication on Independence Day 1981 of the concluding volume of Dumas Malone’s great Jefferson biography has inspired almost as much celebration of the author as reflection on the post-presidential years of his great subject.

That is fitting. We prize gallantry where we find it. And there is gallantry in Malone’s splendid conquest of what Mr. Jefferson himself called the tedium senectutem: the weariness of age. The Sage of Monticello (Little, Brown, $19.95), undiminished in scholarship and felicity of style, is the serene and sympathetic, if not uncritical, chronicle of one distinguished octogenarian by another who long ago earned the right to call him a friend. The sage of Monticello was a marvel. So is his biographer.

When Thomas Jefferson left Washington forever at the end of his troubled second term in 1809, he was judged by not a few to be a failed chief executive and a political theorist of dubious influence. By all this, if not by the tormenting personal debts he shared with the Virginia gentry of his time, Thomas Jefferson was largely untroubled. His was a sunny spirit, not easily downcast. Not much earlier he had written that “our cloudless sky . . .has eradicated from our constitutions all disposition to hang ourselves, which we might otherwise have inherited from our English ancestors.”

More than a decade and a half of active life, which he planned to key to the stoical philosophy of the ancients, lay ahead as he crossed the Potomac in blustery March weather, leaving his friend Madison in charge. In this eventful postlude to public life, he would cultivate his acres, mill corn and manufacture nails, design and build another house (Poplar Forest, 90-odd miles from Monticello in Bedford County), correspond voluminously (renewing, by mail, his lapsed friendship with John Adams), supervise the education of his grandchildren, ride horseback for hours every day, and finally preside as master spirit and builder, later as first rector and faculty-recruiter, of the University of Virginia. He would contemplate, with a seriousness made the more urgent by his personal situation, the enduring vexations of public finance; he would receive the Marquis de Lafayette and scores of other visitors at Monticello, And occasionally from behind the scenes he would discreetly counsel his party on various crises of the Republic.

As Malone shows, however, it is a sentimental misconception to view the post-presidential Jefferson as a thoroughly domesticated creature, an extinct volcano. One young British visitor to Monticello remarked how “violent and vindictive” his political opinions remained.

What, after all, did Thomas Jefferson wish to make of his evening years? Above all, perhaps, he wished to achieve economic security for his large and constantly growing family, a goal that was to elude his best efforts. When he left the White House, aged 67, he owned more than 10,000 acres of land in Albemarle and Bedford Counties, 157 at Natural Bridge, random lots, and 200 slaves, the latter being the legacy of an institution he at once detested and was entrapped by. Despite these assets, he could not control the weather (a storm inflicted $30,000 worth of damage to his mill dam on the Rivanna), and he lived well. He also gave generously to others—a farm to this grandson, a house to that one, $1,000 to the infant University of Virginia; and debt mounted. His balance sheet was parlous, his creditors understanding but importunate.

In 1815, after the British burned Washington, debt forced him to sell his library of more than 6,000 volumes to the nation. It would become the nucleus of the Library of Congress. It was a nonpareil collection. Yet Federalists and other foes (including Daniel Webster) caviled when the purchase bill lay before Congress. One unreconstructed critic, old Cyrus King, complained that Congress was buying books “good, bad and indifferent, old, new and worthless, in languages which many cannot read and most ought not,” and likely in accord with “true Jeffersonian . . . philosophy to bankrupt the Treasury, beggar the people, and disgrace the nation.” But Congress bought anyway, and the nation got a bargain. Jefferson realized $25,000 from the sale, directing well over half the immediate proceeds to the settlement of pressing debt.

As the end of life approached, in 1825—26, accumulating interest had pushed his liabilities to well over $100,000. He thought of a national lottery, with Monticello the prize. But in spite of the energetic promotion of his grandson (and right arm in financial matters) Jeff Randolph, the scheme failed. He died deep in debt.

Remarkably, this immense personal tribulation never soured Mr. Jefferson’s open and generous view of life, nor narrowed his generosity to kin, nor distracted him from public interests. What Malone has to show about the public Jefferson of the last years will exert some needed corrective influence on our view of political “Jeffersonianism.” There are, as Merrill Peterson showed in his masterly study of some years ago, as many Jeffersons in the American mind as there have been occasions for invoking his name or influence. Yet it is the testimony of this book that there was, ultimately, only one—even if that one was not lacking the normal amount of human contradiction.

Jefferson’s passion remained republicanism in political forms (we should not forget the novelty of it in the early 19th Century) and imperial extent for the nation—never mind the possible incongruity between the two. He still dreamed, for instance, of the annexation of Cuba and deemed the Constitution “well calcuated . . .for extensive empire and self-government.” As always, in his mind, the two were corollary. His republicanism was so passionate as, amusingly, to lead him to promote a bowdlerized version of Hume’s History of England. It was an old favorite of his, but he feared that weaker minds might be poisoned by its defense of monarchy.

By “self-government” he meant self-government in all but federal essentials by the people of the states as the great “empire” stretched westward. It was the signs of an erosion of this self-government that so much disturbed him in the Missouri controversy of 1819—20, the famous “firebell in the night.” No one can close Malone’s book believing, as some have, that Thomas Jefferson was ever a relaxed friend of state rights. He deplored the effort of the House of Representatives to close the issue of slavery, before admission, for the people of Missouri. It was not the protection of slavery as such; it was what later apostles of his doctrine would call “popular sovereignty,” that engaged his passion. He also foresaw that if party lines ever came to be drawn sectionally that would “brood in the minds of all who prefer the gratification of their ungovernable passions to the peace and union of their country.”

It is certainly right to say that Jefferson began, in old age, to mute the vigorous anti-slavery views of his earlier writings, especially in the Notes on Virginia. But these views did not essentially change. The slaves, he believed and wrote, were destined to be free, even if he himself was not at liberty, legally or economically, to free his own. He probably agreed with his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, who as governor of Virginia in 1820 pressed the legislature to begin emancipation and condemned “the new morality which tolerates the perpetuity of slavery.” But like his grappling with debt, like his expostulations on the Missouri question, his thoughts on emancipation were ultimately unavailing.

Equally unavailing was his effort to make sense of the political economy of the era. A private debtor, he hated public debt. Believing as he did that the earth belongs to the living, he abhorred paper credit (largely in the form of bank notes) promiscuously circulating in this period. He scorned it as “trash” furnishing, he waspishly wrote, “aliment to usurers and swindlers.” He wanted to restrict the legal duration of debt to adult life expectancy, which he calculated at 19 years. He touted the monetary views of Destutt Tracy, a French economist. He was a precious-metal, hard-money man. But so much for another fond Jeffersonian aspiration!

Of all the public ambitions of his old age, the fondest was the University of Virginia. “It is,” he movingly wrote, “a bantling of 40 years’ birth and nursing, and if I can once see it on its legs I will sing with sincerity and pleasure my nunc dimittas.” His goals for the university were not trifling. It was to have the best “academical village” he could design, with Palladian pavilions for the professors. Its first professors would be imported from Europe, free of the “consolidationist” (i.e., Federalist) heresies of “northern seminaries.” Traces of sectionalist sentiment began to creep into Mr. Jefferson’s advocacy of the university. By 1821, disillusioned by the Missouri fracas, he was writing to John Taylor of Caroline (the last man likely to disagree) that “these northern seminaries are no longer proper for Southern or Western students. The signs of the times admonish us to call them home.”

This, then, is the Jefferson of Malone’s sixth and final volume—a Jefferson still battling on all sorts of fronts on which the war was to go badly for him: against mounting personal debt, against “consolidationism” (the centralizing impulse) in the national political doctrine, against public debt. Yet there is a serenity in the elderly sage of Monticello— maybe it sprang from his reading of the Greek philosophers—-that rises, unimpaired, above the storms. Mr. Jefferson remained even in old age a visionary, challenging conventions. On occasion Malone, who can see the limits of the visionary outlook, gently chides. He speaks, for instance, of Mr. Jefferson’s “obsessive” anticlericalism, so strong that it threatened to alienate even the few sympathetic Valley Presbyterians whose support was needed for the founding of the University.

But what is a friend for, except to praise what is excellent and chide, with sympathy and charity, what falls short of it? This has been, throughout, the duty Dumas Malone has accepted: to understand, to sympathize, but never uncritically. Excellence in life and statecraft, in art and intellect, was Jefferson’s legacy to the nation. Excellence in biography is Dumas Malone’s legacy to Thomas Jefferson—and to us.


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