Historian Halliday votes to keep Thomas Jefferson on Mount Rushmore.
First, in scarcely a hundred pages, the author sketches a profile up close and personal of his intriguing subject, with little detail about the statesman’s public service. The rest of the text counts Jefferson’s friends and relatives and reconstructs his views on such diverse subjects as literature, sex, religion, politics, and race. The writing of the Declaration is noted briefly, with more attention given to the composition of the descriptive “Notes on Virginia” and the famous “Head and Heart” essay. Much space is devoted to the women in the life of the famous polymath, who learned a lot from the ladies. Foremost, naturally, is Sally Hemings, the slave with whom the Virginia gentleman maintained a long, vibrant love affair—along with several children. Sally, half-sister of his late wife, had accompanied Jefferson’s daughter to France when he was there as US envoy. Halliday argues that the affair was, all in all, respectable and quite satisfactory to both master and servant. (One can almost picture them at Monticello in old age, comforting themselves with the knowledge that “We’ll always have Paris.”) The author reviews the biographical work of several of his predecessors, particularly Dumas Malone, author of six reverent volumes. To Malone he gives the back of his authorial hand, detecting “a distinct aura of racial bias, whether conscious or unconscious.” On the other hand, the work of Fawn Brodie is deservedly praised.
Jefferson was such an enigma that studies of him are almost as numerous as the volumes in the great man’s own library—but this valuable new account deserves a prominent place among them. (Illustrated throughout)