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A spirited and carefully crafted look at Jefferson 250 years after his birth



William Sterne Randall

John MacRae/Henry Holt

676 pages, $35 Who was America's first man for the ages? George Washington? He was a little too aloof and somber, and calculating. Benjamin Franklin? Not quite serious enough. Alexander Hamilton? Too conservative, and anyway he dreamed banks and putting Washington on a king's throne.

Consider awarding the golden ring to Thomas Jefferson in this 250th anniversary of his birth. He surely would get President Clinton's vote, as well as John F. Kennedy's. It was Kennedy who told a group of Nobel Prize winners in 1962 that "this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever gathered together at the White House -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Even people who are hazy about who wrote the Declaration of Independence -- Jefferson did, when he was 33 -- can quote his soaring words: "that all men are created equal," that they have "inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." With the stroke of a pen, he helped invent America and alter the world's consciousness by wrapping equality and liberty in imperishable rhetoric.

Such thoughts crowd into the mind after reading Willard Sterne Randall's spirited, admiring "Thomas Jefferson: A Life." Mr. Randall acknowledges Jefferson's faults but bathes him in a far more favorable light than any other recent writer. The author is eminently qualified; he's a descendant of Jefferson's first major biographer (Henry S. Randall, who interviewed Jefferson's descendants and discovered valuable sources in the mid-19th century) and the author of well-received books on Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin.

It takes true grit -- or audacity -- to tackle Jefferson today and try to squeeze his 83 active years between single covers. The six stout volumes of masterful biography by the late Dumas Malone stare accusingly at the faint of heart. So do older, still useful tomes from Henry Adams, Claude Bowers, Marie Kimball and Adrienne Koch. Then there's Merrill Peterson's acclaimed books, including his thousand-page opus from 1970, "Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation."

To most scholars, Jefferson was a great man, but from the '60s onward his reputation has taken a nose dive as racial sensitivity has heightened. He owned a lot of slaves. His conscience troubled him, but he did little -- save foster illegitimate children by his slave-mistress, according to one rumor that historian Fawn Brodie recklessly popularized in 1974.

Unlike Washington, Jefferson didn't even free his slaves at his death. Even in his last years, when he no longer needed to heed public opinion, he ignored the rising generation of abolitionists inspired by his words. As one of my students observed: "All talk and no action."

That's shortsighted and misleading, Mr. Randall would reply. He acknowledges that Jefferson's life of public service was "utterly dependent on slave labor," but stresses that he repeatedly -- early and late, publicly and pointedly -- condemned slavery as an evil. He made sure the historic Northwest Ordinance outlawed ++ slavery in the territories.

His draft of the Declaration of Independence denounced slavery, but his congressional colleagues deleted his fiery words, much to Jefferson's anger. Had he pushed his views further (in 1776 or later), he would have eliminated himself forever from American politics.

Like most scholars, Mr. Randall dismisses the charge that Jefferson had sexual dalliances with his slave Sally Hemings, or with any woman other than his wife, who died after giving birth to five daughters. At his own death in 1826, Jefferson was so deeply in debt (no presidential pensions or fat book contracts in those days) that he couldn't free his slaves -- or provide for his beloved Monticello to remain in his family's hands.

But there's so much more than race in Mr. Randall's carefully crafted and beautifully written biography. He brings Jefferson, the whole man, to life -- the student so "bold in the pursuit of knowledge" that he studied 15 hours a day; the writer, said John Adams, with a "particular felicity of expression"; the gardener who loved planting peas as much as reading authors in their original languages (Plato in Greek, Horace in Latin and Montesquieu in French); the naturalist who wrote the encyclopedic masterpiece, "Notes on the State of Virginia"; and the architect who designed Monticello. (Has anyone ever designed a more beautiful house?)

Mr. Randall expertly captures Jefferson's mind and personality. At heart a conservative moralist, -- greatly repressed by today's standards -- Jefferson argued against the death penalty and for liberalizing divorce laws. A man of strong personal beliefs and a rigid code of conduct, he campaigned tirelessly for religious freedom. Mr. Randall writes:

"His thinking was pragmatic, always as unfinished as his house at Monticello would be. But that was the whole point with both his thinking and his constructions, the doing of them. The delight was to finish neither, but to revise, constantly."

Mr. Randall is particularly good, and expansive, on Jefferson the diplomat -- his five years in Paris in the 1780s when he ably represented the new nation, fell madly (but chastely) in love with a married woman, and prepped for his coming duties. On return as Washington's secretary of state, he battled Hamilton and his love of centralized government. Mr. Randall treats these years and Jefferson's stint as Adams' vice president even-handedly, though his heart is always with Jeffersonian ideals.

Surprisingly, Jefferson's presidency (1800-1808) gets rather scant attention. His two terms -- filled with partisanship, rumors of war and the momentous Louisiana Purchase, receive little bTC more than a gloss. Maybe Mr. Randall feared that his book, already good-sized, was getting too long; or perhaps, as he says in the beginning, that Jefferson's years of preparation for greatness were the important ones.

In retirement, the aged and often infirm Jefferson entertained hosts of visitors, whether great or humble; tended his garden; read a great deal; repaired his friendship with Adams, and watched events with a keen eye. Still a visionary who believed in education and the power of ideas to change the world, he persuaded Virginia to build a statewide system of public education and a university.

A true son of the Enlightenment, comfortably at home in all the arts and sciences, Jefferson single-handedly designed the campus of the classically beautiful University of Virginia, planned its curriculum and recruited a distinguished faculty. As rector, his duties included drawing up course schedules and campus rules. (The mind grows numb counting the number of committees and memos today's world would demand in order to accomplish any one of those tasks!)

The methodical Jefferson even planned his own burial plot and inscription: "Here was buried/Thomas Jefferson/Author of the Declaration of American Independence/of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom/and Father of the University of Virginia." These, Mr. Randall reminds us, were Jefferson's contributions to the ages.

One of Jefferson's granddaughters recalled fondly that "Our grandfather read our hearts to see our invisible wishes." One comes away from this perceptive biography convinced that Jefferson came as close as anyone to seeing America's perils and promises, even its "invisible wishes."

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

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