Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

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Thomas Jefferson Book Cover Thomas Jefferson
Fawn McKay Brodie
Biography & Autobiography
W. W. Norton & Company
1974
594

Here for the first time we meet Jefferson as a man of feeling and passion. With a novelist's skill and meticulous scholarship, Fawn M. Brodie shows Jefferson as he wrestled with issues of revolution, religion, power, race, and love-ambivalences that exerted a subtle but powerful influence on his political writing and his decision making. The portrait that results adds a whole new depth to those of the past.

“What country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

–Thomas Jefferson

This is another book that I found both surprising and interesting.  While it is true that Thomas Jefferson has been handed down to us as one of our founding fathers, the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the great defenders of individual liberty and state’s rights — there is much that doesn’t appear in the basic history books. Brody presents a more in-depth look into the life of this very private man, his relationships, passions, and weaknesses.

While it is common knowledge that Jefferson had a lasting passion for his home in Monticello, less known is the fact that it is the one place that he preferred, even over statecraft and politics. Brody points out that Monticello was more than simply a home, but rather a place to retire from public life — something that Jefferson apparently did on a regular basis. Brody makes the argument that his political beliefs were as equally true on a personal level as they were applied to the governmental scene. “He was never truly comfortable with power, and his avowal that ‘government is best which governs least’ was a personal as well as a political statement.” (Brody as quoting Jefferson, pg. 25) When public life and service became too much for this great man — he would take up his retirement and return to the one place he always found solace and acceptance.

Brody also explores the breadth of Jefferson’s beliefs on the dangers of government, and the need to make sure that the power of a central government was carefully controlled and managed. The entire book resonates with the argument that “[a] passion for politics stems usually from an insatiable need, either for power, or for friendship and adulation, or a combination of both.” (Brody, pg. 27). This belief and assertion, as it applied to Jefferson, was true of not only government, but individual men, and particularly the newly conceived banking system. Jefferson saw danger in all power, in all aspects — because it is inevitably wielded as an instrument of control over others.

Brody also meets the more challenging questions of Jefferson’s life — namely is closest and most private relationships in his life. Not only does she explore the depth of his love and devotion to his wife, but also the lesser known and much more controversial connection to Sarah “Sally” Hemings. Brody presents the argument that this relationship, more than any others, goes to the heart of the paradox of Thomas Jefferson. Caught between his love and passion for this mulatto woman and his ardent beliefs that all men are created free — she represents the struggle between Jefferson’s personal beliefs and his outward actions. The book demonstrates that while Jefferson failed to manumit the majority of his personal slaves — he would go to extremes to ease his conscience in his treatment and keeping of other men in bondage.

Overall, this is a fascinating look into the life of this very complex man — and explores not only the written record he maintained but also the inferences that can be made through records kept by his contemporaries.  It demonstrates that there is more to Jefferson than simply a passionate belief in the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But he was also a man of contradiction in actions that conflicted with his written and professed verbal beliefs. The book is a dense read and requires careful thought and consideration. But it is worth the effort, in order to gain an understanding of the challenges that made the men, this one in particular, who changed precedent and forged a nation.

“Almighty God hath created the mind free . . . Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions of physics or geometry. The opinons of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction. . . Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself. . . She is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”

— Thomas Jefferson

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