Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THOMAS JEFFERSON by Willard Sterne Randall


A Life

by Willard Sterne Randall

Pub Date: Aug. 9th, 1993
ISBN: 0-8050-1577-9
Publisher: Henry Holt

 In the 250th anniversary year of Jefferson's birth, Randall (History/Univ. of Vermont) offers a brilliant, magisterial, and gracefully narrated biography of the sage of Monticello--a worthy successor to the author's Benedict Arnold (1990) and A Little Revenge (1984). Randall argues that much Jeffersonian scholarship relies on misinterpretations of the Founding Father's writings, or even ignores the bulk of his voluminous papers. By drawing on this newly assembled (at Princeton University) trove, Randall makes significant reinterpretations of important, though often overlooked, periods in Jefferson's life. He contends that Jefferson's underexamined early years as a law student under legal scholar George Wythe and as a preeminent member of the colonial Virginia bar, together with his encyclopedic mastery of the works of the French philosophers, explain his emergence as the chief legal spokesman of the Thirteen Colonies. Jefferson became Virginia's leading expert on land law, largely as a result of his frequent legal challenges to titles of landed gentry, and, eventually, he fundamentally rewrote that law. His interest in land law led also to his becoming a strong proponent of westward expansion, both while ending the Revolution (the Paris peace treaty doubled American territory) and during his presidency, through the Louisiana Purchase. Randall also views Jefferson's years in Europe as significant preparation for his formulating foreign policy as President, and he argues convincingly that Jefferson's antislavery views were sincere (despite his status as a major Virginia slaveholder, he worked throughout his life to bring an end to slavery in Virginia, beginning with an emancipation measure--which was shouted down--that he'd helped introduce in 1769 in Virginia's colonial legislature). Throughout the text, Jefferson emerges as a person in whom Enlightenment rationalism battled with powerful passions, both in affairs of the heart and matters of state. A superlative contribution to Jeffersonian scholarship that rebuts some canards in recent literature (Fawn Brodie's sensational allegations about the President's personal life receive short shrift) while revealing the tensions latent in Jefferson's complex personality.