Book: Thomas Jefferson: A Life
Author: Willard Sterne Randall
1. Date published- This work was published in 1993 and the first single volume work in a generation on Thomas Jefferson. The hindsight in this work created an unique perspective into the lasting impacts of Jefferson’s life and policies. For example, the practice of not delivering the State of the Union Address in person was not practiced for over 100 years starting with Jefferson. Without the benefit of hindsight and modern manifestations the impact of that action would not be properly seen. Conversely, the long distance from the subject did create pitfalls, notably with the subject of slavery in which Jefferson was shown to be part of an expansive culture rather than the unique case he actually was. The lumping together with the more evil parts of the institution hurt Jefferson as a whole. Contemporary accounts were never cited, creating a modern conversation about a long diseased individual. This resulted in minimal emotional or irrational tugs that may have hampered a more contemporary individual.
2. Scope-As part of the essential criteria in this adventure, the Presidents Project seeks constantly to learn about the evolution of the presidency through the lives of the men who held the office. This book pays an incredible disservice to the third president and the aims of the Presidents Project. Often hailed by scholars as a top five and so-called “Great” President, Randall whittles the time in office down to 60 pages. Interestingly, the scope of the work is tremendous until this point. In the biography, the maturity of Jefferson as a man and as a scholar offers valuable insight into how an 18th century man would head the infant nation. In roughly 600 pages of material, his education borders on 100 pages, his time in France nearly 150. Jefferson returns to the new nation nearly 500 pages into the work. In the final 100 pages, Randall sprints through discussion of the first Secretary of State, the second Vice President and third President of the United States. The lack of attention seems to be saying that Randall simply lost interest before the apex of Jefferson’s career and the quality of the work plummets as a result. For example, both Adams works discussed during this project offer extensive post-presidency coverage of the Adams-Jefferson correspondence unanimously hailed by historians as being one of the most brilliant exchanges in political history. Randall gives it one paragraph in his work.
3. Author- Randall is a biographer who specializes in the American Revolution and usually does not produce works on the period at large. Prior to his work on Jefferson, Randall had explored the Revolution itself in chronicling Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin. As mentioned above, the strongest asset of this book overwhelmingly is in the discussion of pre-Revolutionary America and the subsequent war. Perhaps that is an indication of the lackluster discussion post-1790. After writing about Jefferson, Randall also published works on George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Throughout the biography, he offers a scholarly perspective that rarely degrades into conjecture and speculation. Randall’s authoritative voice shows throughout the work with breadth and depth in research.
4. Length-At 600 pages, this work comes close to being a solid one volume biography. In fact, the life story prior to 1790 is an excellent example of long biography style, documenting in depth discussions of the negotiations with the Continental Congress and his role serving America in France in particular. However, the book rapidly changes gears post-1790. All the ideal elements of a short biography dominate the final sprint leaving the reader little in depth discussion into key moments of American history. Items such as the Louisiana Purchase, the 1807 Embargo, and the Construction of the University of Virginia receive less attention than the discussion of a brief three month foray into Southern France combined. The length of the work is incredibly misleading, with a dense and thorough long biography book-ended by a dud of a short one.
5. Mission- In 1993, Randall sought to write a biography that “provides illuminating new insights into his public and private life.” As a mission, Randall is subpar at best. The complete lack of examination of the extraordinary transformation of the champion of Reason into a pragmatic bureaucrat fails the mission on arrival. Understandably, the stature and immense volume of works on Jefferson may have led Randall to take certain events for granted. However, items such as the 1807 Embargo Act and the Louisiana Purchase would have offered tremendous positives of another attempting to read about the presidency through biography. Perhaps more than the average President, Jefferson’s actions in office highlight the fascinating struggle between idealism and pragmatism. The struggle to conform to straight biography led to a disjointed narrative that seemed to constantly find something new to write about at the total expense of the well-known events that were revolutionary. It is not a hit job and it is not an undue adulation, but rather it is somewhere in the middle and unsatisfactory nonetheless.