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Tom Chaney R739: The Pleasures of Biography

Tom First posted this column in the 10 December, 2006 Hart County News-Herald.
The next earlier Tom Chaney: Of Writers and Their Books Tom Chaney R738: Essay, Seize the Day.

By Tom Chaney

President John F. Kennedy hosted a dinner for 49 Nobel laureates in the White House in 1962. At that dinner he quipped that the event was "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Jefferson fascinates us.

We learn early about his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776.

In grade school we named the Presidents. There he was as number three buying Louisiana from the emperor Napoleon and sending Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on a voyage of discovery -- spanning the continent to dip their feet in the Pacific Ocean.

We know he was one of the early governors of what would become Kentucky -- then a part of Virginia.

And as we read we learn that Kennedy was not far off the mark. The knowledge of those Nobel laureates may have been more up to date than that of Jefferson, but it was not necessarily more broad and deep than that of the philosopher, naturalist, politician, architect, inventor of Monticello.

I have recently begun a long-term project -- reading the Dumas Malone six-volume biography, Jefferson and His Time published between 1948 and 1982. Volume One, Jefferson the Virginian (1948), spans his life from birth in 1743 up to his departure for France as minister plenipotentiary in May of 1784 at 41.

Only a good biographer can lure me into such a project. I was familiar with but one biography of Jefferson before pushing off Malone's shores. That was the somewhat sensational 1974 Jefferson biography by Fawn Brodie. I remember it as a highly readable, informative account of a fascinating life.

Brodie's book is known for two major reasons. In the first place Brodie is a psychological historian who brings a Freudian approach to Jefferson which may or may not be to the reader's taste in explaining a life.

The second and more sensational aspect of her book is her telling clearly of the relationship between the widowed Jefferson and his mulatto slave Sally Hemings who accompanied Jefferson to Paris and with whom Jefferson is believed to have fathered at least two children. More recent DNA tests upon her descendants have tended to confirm this relationship.

But I jump ahead -- the time of that story is a couple of volumes ahead.

In Jefferson the Virginian we meet the young Jefferson -- the Virginian committed to the agrarian expansion of the new nation. Virginia was indeed an empire when Jefferson was its governor. It stretched from the Atlantic across several mountain ranges to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the west thence north to the Great Lakes including what is now Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It was Jefferson who promoted the settlement of this territory into new states rather than as a mega-Virginia. And his purchase of Louisiana while President continued that vision of expansion.

We see Jefferson as the major author of the Declaration of Independence -- with, of course, a little help from his friends Ben Franklin, John Adams, and George Mason.

Malone gives us a sketch of the Walker affair which came to haunt Jefferson during his term as President. From 1768 before his marriage until 1779, sometime after his marriage, Jefferson had a liaison with the wife of his friend and political ally John Walker.

This early period is the time of the first draft of Jefferson's only published book -- Notes on the State of Virginia -- wherein he details the natural history of the state and its denizens.

Malone blends the roles of scholar and storyteller quite nicely. I like footnotes. I want them on the page with the text. This is especially true when the notes frequently expand the details of the text rather than simply cite sources. Malone puts them there.

Yet his telling of the story is vibrant and well paced.

Two events related to the end of the Revolution and the founding of the new nation under the Articles of Confederation show the fragility of the national experiment. For a time the Congress met in Annapolis, Maryland. The United States were not terribly united. It was necessary for representatives of at least nine states to take official action on any matter. The members came irregularly if at all. The peace treaty with England had been negotiated in 1784 but had to be ratified by a date certain. Only England's willingness to extend the date kept the effort of separation from being in vain.

Related to this situation, and perhaps its cause, is the fact that few of the members of the Congress in Annapolis evinced a concern with national affairs that matched their concern over the affairs of the individual colonies.

This disunion was to lead two years later to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. By then Jefferson was abroad building the new nation's bridges with the governments of Europe.

My taste for Jefferson is whetted. I've five more volumes to get me through the winter.

When I'm done, I'll gladly give Professor Malone a spot next to biographies of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and others which I've recently read. It may even rank up there with Gore Vidal's biographical novel Burr.

I won't promise not to share the rest of a compelling life somewhere down the road.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-12-04 07:04:25
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