Posted: July 6, 2009
homas Jefferson was a true polymath. As one of his early biographers put it, Jefferson "could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a case, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin." He knew seven languages, masterminded the expedition of Lewis and Clark, and helped to introduce pasta and ice cream to the American palate. At Monticello, his mountaintop estate, he experimented with the cultivation of grapes, tomatoes, and about 30 varieties of the green pea. As president of the American Philosophical Society, the New World's premier scientific organization, he promoted the study of archaeology and anthropology. At West Point he established the United States Military Academy and in Charlottesville he founded the University of Virginia. After the British in 1814 torched the Library of Congress, the U.S. government acquired from Jefferson his personal collection of 6,487 volumes, twice as many as had been lost in the blaze and, at the time, the largest assemblage of books in the western hemisphere.
Not long after dispatching to the capitol approximately 20 wagonloads of treatises on everything from Pierre Abélard to zoology, Jefferson began to rebuild his Monticello library. As he informed John Adams, "I cannot live without books." Thus it seems striking that Kevin J. Hayes's excellent new study, The Road to Monticello, is the very first literary biography of America's most well-read founding father.
Jefferson's biographers traditionally base their studies less on what he read and more on what he said and did. This is reasonable enough, and certainly no easy task. His life was long and controversial. In addition, he wrote about 18,000 letters—not to mention dozens of laws and addresses, the beginnings of an autobiography, and his book-length Notes on the State of Virginia. Even so, it is fairly straightforward for scholars to scan the indexes (and now conduct electronic keyword searches) of collections of his writings to find apt quotations that breathe life into familiar episodes, and linger over the wording of selected texts to make original points. This was the technique employed by Dumas Malone, the doyen of Jefferson biographers, whose six-volume Jefferson and His Time (1948-81) won the Pulitzer Prize for providing the fullest, fairest, and most perceptive account to date of the third president's life. Yet the approach has its limits. Merrill Peterson's Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (1970) comprised over 1,000 pages of meticulous research. Even so, Peterson found Jefferson "the least self-revealing" of the founders and "the hardest to sound to the depths of being. It is a mortifying confession but he remains for me, finally, an impenetrable man."
Hayes's approach is even more challenging but, in certain respects, more rewarding. The difficulty comes from the fact that interpreting all those letters seems downright breezy compared to making sense of thousands of books—encompassing a dizzying array of topics and appearing in several different languages—collected over a lifetime. A professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, Hayes tries to reconstruct Jefferson's earliest library (which burned during a 1770 fire at his boyhood home), pouring over letters and commonplace notebooks to find youthful references to Tom Thumb and The History of Fortunatus, the latter an improbable tale of a man who—not unlike a young and imaginative reader—could travel to any destination and remain invisible all the while. Hayes's technique might tempt less prudent scholars to engage in flights of fancy. How does one know when a story goes beyond capturing its reader's imagination and starts to shape his character? Jack McLaughlin's Jefferson and Monticello (1988), a generally admirable but occasionally far-fetched study, looked at Jefferson's life not through the lens of his reading but instead through his architectural designs. He suggested that Monticello's dome and the oculus that crowned it signified for Jefferson his mother's breast!
Hayes eschews this sort of psychoanalysis, presenting instead commonsense interpretations founded on his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the works on Jefferson's bookshelves. One of The Road to Monticello's great accomplishments is to demonstrate how Jefferson's life as a reader shaped his performance as a writer. Hayes points out, for example, that the wording and argument of the Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) reflected Captain John Smith'sDescription of New England and Generall Historie of Virginia. These 17th-century works, which aimed to spur transatlantic migration, imagined a new world in which a man of "small meanes" could rely solely on "his merit to advance his fortunes" as he endeavored to "tread and plant that ground [which] he hath purchased by the hazard of his life." Jefferson, Hayes suggests, echoed Smith's words when he contended that America was established not by the English government but by English individuals: "Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual. For themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold."
Jefferson's reading influenced his writing in other ways as well. In the months before he sat down to draft the Declaration of Independence, death claimed one of his mentors as well as his mother and second daughter. Hayes acknowledges the important influence on the Declaration of "the hundreds of pages and countless hours Jefferson spent reading about natural law and natural rights." He contends, however, "that grief prompted him to turn to works beyond legal theory and political philosophy. When Jefferson was in mourning, Locke, Kames, and Burlamaqui gave way to "the poetry and moral philosophy of Sherlock, Young, and Ossian." Considering the degree to which Jefferson structured and styled the Declaration to appeal to hearts as well as minds, Hayes seems on firm ground when he argues that "the influence of poets, devotional writers, and other belletrists...cannot be ignored." From such unlikely sources may even have come some of the Declaration's wording—for example, its praise of the colonial assemblies for opposing "with manly firmness" King George III's "invasions on the rights of the people." "Manly firmness" is a phrase from British poet James Thomson's Tancred andSigismunda, a tragic drama well known to Jefferson in which the words occur in a speech pointing out the difference between wars for conquest and wars for liberty.
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Such interesting revelations aside, The Road to Monticello tells us less about Jefferson as a man of state than it does about him as a man of letters. In many respects it is a reverse image of standard treatments of his life. These hop, skip, and jump past his upbringing, education, and the intervals enjoyed as a private citizen to focus on his public career. Hayes's biography, by contrast, devotes just over 100 of its 752 pages to Jefferson's service as America's first secretary of state, second vice president, and third president. Even within these pages, power politics gets less emphasis than the power of words to shape the political landscape. Jefferson's epic battle with Alexander Hamilton takes place chiefly in the pages of his Anas, a collection of anecdotes later manhandled by editors. Rather than detailing Jefferson's presidency, Hayes provides a perceptive reading of the First Inaugural's carefully-chosen rhetoric.
This, on balance, is all for the good. Certainly Jefferson appeared happier in the bookshops of Paris and Philadelphia than in the halls of government. Undoubtedly he was more at ease in private, unguarded moments, such as when one of his slaves, Isaac, observed him paging through his "abundance of books; sometimes [he] would have twenty of ‘em down on the floor at once" so that he could refer to one and then another. This, Isaac said, was evidence of his master's "mighty head." Jefferson always seemed reluctant to discuss his career on the national stage. His autobiography ends abruptly when he assumes office as secretary of state, a post that exposed him to a train of high-stakes controversy. Hayes's biography, then, captures Jefferson not only as he saw himself but also as he wanted to be seen. It stands in marked contrast to recent studies that portray Jefferson as a Machiavellian politico or dwell on his slaveholding—and his possible relationship with Sally Hemings, his deceased wife's enslaved half-sister.
This is not to imply that there were two Jeffersons. Whether acting as citizen-scholar or officeholder, his aim was the same. A true pillar of the Enlightenment, he believed that "knowledge is power." He could never quench his thirst for either. But as Hayes demonstrates, the road to Monticello was a two-way street. In a 1773 cataloging of his library, Jefferson noted that 42 volumes had been lent out to friends, and his willingness to share his books would continue. So would his practices of providing reading lists to friends and family members, advancing the cause of education, and attacking institutions and political arrangements that he believed bred ignorance. For Jefferson, success constituted more than merely advancing in politics. The campaign that mattered most was the fight for freedom and he never doubted, as he wrote in 1795, that "light and liberty go together."
One of his final literary achievements was his own epitaph:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia.
He directed that this text be inscribed onto an obelisk—a form, his books told him, that for the people of ancient Egypt signified light. He could have listed the many political offices he had held, but these were beside the point. Light and liberty did go together. He wanted to focus on the instances in which he had helped to free from oppression the body, mind, and soul. His real greatness, he wanted posterity to understand, came not from the power that men had given to him but from the power that he had given to men.