THOMAS JEFFERSON, LAWYER by Frank L. Dewey

THOMAS JEFFERSON, LAWYER

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A detailed study of a period of eight years in Jefferson's life previously unexplored comprehensively, even by thorough biographers like Dumas Malone. Dewey is an amateur in the best sense of the term. His research is a labor of love, and the book appears in his 80th year, the product of eight years of effort. Since Dewey spent as much time on Jefferson's legal career as Jefferson himself did, the results show careful attention to documentation and detail; the style is plain and spare. Jefferson was a failure as a lawyer; despite his best efforts to find business, he lost money in his attempt to pursue the profession. His legal education was guided by an independent-minded professor who allowed his students to read on their own initiative. The young Jefferson elected to spend much time doing other things. Dewey establishes for the first time, too, that it was not a five-year grind of preparation for the bar exam, as other biographers have assumed: John Marshall studied for only three months before the test, and Jefferson, with his myriad interests, certainly took less than a year. He was too busy playing the violin, riding horses, and courting. After he became a lawyer, most of the cases he dealt with were land disputes, not fascinating by any standard. But Dewey highlights a few efforts that do reveal much about Jefferson. One of his first clients was Patrick Henry, who hired him for no less than six cases. Still, the young lawyer earned only about 10 pounds his tint year, and things got worse. He participated in a get-rich-quick scheme, revealing his optimism and worldly innocence, as he was to be paid only according to the money the scheme earned. As during his presidency, his idealism was often bested by reality. Dewey deals with these matters in a way that is digestible for the non-scholarly reader. Among the other interesting cases explored are a defense of the victims of anti-inoculation riots, and an early case of divorce which includes a memo showing Jefferson's intellectual shorthand. Dewey demonstrates that going back to the original documents, even in a subject that seems thrice-familiar, can yield new information. This book will be of interest to anyone who treasures the great American, and wants to know every detail of his life in order to form an overall picture of how Jefferson conducted himself.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1986
Publisher: Univ. Press of Virginia