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Jefferson and Lafayette

ISSUE:  Summer 1942

Jefferson. By Saul K. Padover. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $4.00. Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution. By Louis Gottschalk. The University of Chicago Press. $4.50.

The two biographies which are reviewed here deal with two eminent men who were contemporaries, but otherwise the books have little in common. In most respects they stand in sharp contrast.

Professor Gottschalk, author of “Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution,” has already published a couple of volumes on Lafayette, and in this one he covers only four years (1779-1783). His references, while unobtrusive, are numerous, and to each chapter he adds discriminating comments on bibliography, thus strengthening the already strong impression of the reader that he is entirely at home in the literature and history of the period. While he never loses sight of the young Marquis, his book constitutes military and diplomatic history of a high order. This is genuine historical biography, more detailed than most writers or readers have time for, but richly rewarding to scholar and intelligent layman alike.

In a volume of approximately the same length Mr. Pad-over gallops through eighty-three years of a life that was equally illustrious, if not more so. In the back of the book he puts his notes, which in number little exceed Professor Gottschalk’s for a single chapter. He avoids all danger of distracting the rapid and impatient reader by omitting from the text the superior numbers by which notes are commonly identified. He quotes extensively from Jefferson’s printed words, but obviously he hasn’t taken the time to master the extensive historical literature of the period. This is popularized biography, retelling a familiar tale with sincerity and a certain freshness. It is a tract for the times, seemingly prepared in haste, and its chief merit lies in the fact that it again makes Jefferson’s own words accessible to the many who are doubtless unfamiliar with them. Its freshness is owing to the fact that the author has studied Jefferson’s writings more than he has studied books about him.

Nothing is easier than to make mistakes and no author is impeccable, but Mr. Padover, in his haste, has made more of them than a thorough workman should have. A few may be cited by way of illustration. Patrick Henry’s “Tarquin and Brutus” speech was in 1765, not 1764, and there is doubt about his exact language; it was in 1769 and in Jefferson’s first session as a burgess, not in 1773 and in his fifth, that he drafted resolutions in reply to the Governor’s speech, and the person whom he blamed for his discomfiture was Robert Carter Nicholas; if his name was put on a bill of attainder for proscription following the publication of his “Summary View,” most scholars are unaware of it. Many of Mr. Pad-over’s errors are attributable to his following the Autobiography too closely, but some of them are corrected by the editor of the “Writings” on the very pages that he cites. The general reader may not know this, but he has a right to expect greater accuracy.

It is difficult to do full justice to the myriad-mindedness of Jefferson in a single volume, or in many. Therefore, inadequacies are to be expected. Mr. Padover’s interest appears to be chiefly political. Hence one wonders at the absence of reference to the Northwest Ordinance, which owed so much to Jefferson. The omission of the Lewis and Clark expedition may have been because of its scientific emphasis, but even in connection with the Louisiana Purchase Mr. Pa-dover seems unaware of the political significance of Jefferson’s interest in the West.

Primarily he views Jefferson as a prophet and exponent of democracy, and as such he presents him with contagious enthusiasm. He properly expresses wonderment that this fastidious and hypersensitive gentleman should have become the symbol of democratic hope, but he misses numerous other contradictions and inconsistencies. Many who look at this over-simplified picture, however, may be inspired with similar enthusiasm. They won’t see the whole man but they will see an important part of him. The selections from Jefferson are well chosen, the style of the book is brisk and slangy. It is easy to read.

So too is Professor Gottschalk’s mature and carefully constructed story. Much of it also covers familiar ground, but the eye of the guide is as discerning as his step is sure. Well known events take on fuller meaning and the character and services of Lafayette stand out with unforgettable clarity, He is vain, officious, and avid for glory; he is generous, dauntlessly enthusiastic for American independence, and indispensable to its attainment. The day-by-day story of this part of Lafayette’s impetuous career leads to the unavoidable conclusion that without him victory could hardly have been gained at that time and place. For his invaluable services we repaid him not merely with honor. It was here, not in France, that he became genuinely concerned about reform and freedom. Thus the young Marquis became a symbol— not of democracy, it may be—but of the international co-operation of the friends of human liberty.


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