The subtitle of this biography of Thomas Jefferson is "In Pursuit of Reason" and that theme is expanded upon in the quote by Jefferson with which Cunningham chose to head the text: It rests now with ourselves alone to enjoy in peace and concord the blessings of self-government, so long denied to mankind: to show by example the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs and that the will of the majority, the Natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of man. That quote captures how Jefferson saw the connections between his life, reason and politics. You can see it in his passion for education, architecture, books, in so many of the details of his life and expressed so eloquently in his speeches and writings. His intellect was so dazzling, his defense of liberty and democracy so inspiring--and then there's slavery.
It's said slavery is America's "original sin." Except there was nothing original about it. It was as old and wide-spread as mankind when America was young. So I do tend to make allowances for the times. But the picture Cunningham presents makes the question of slavery and Jefferson, if not exactly worse, well, then complicated, and very perplexing. As a young lawyer, Jefferson took on cases that challenged the ownership of slaves--for free. Early on he'd make arguments in such cases about the right of every human being to freedom as their birthright. He'd write a condemnation of slavery into the Declaration of Independence (cut by others) and wrote a provision--which didn't pass--into a draft of the Virginia constitution emancipating slaves. For the rest of his life he maintained the institution of slavery was evil and threatened the very republic he had helped create. Yet Flexner, in his biography of George Washington, compared Washington's treatment of his slaves to Jefferson--and the contrasts are telling. There was no rumor Washington ever sexually exploited his slaves, and he refused to sell them or even move them without their consent. He grew increasingly disturbed by slavery and towards the end of his life turned his beloved Mount Vernon upside down to prepare his slaves to be freed, and he did so in his will, providing pensions for those not able to work as well as providing for the education of those still children. You can't say any of that in defense of Jefferson according to Flexner. Cunningham does deny Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings was ever his mistress, saying that belongs "to fiction, not history." (The book was published in 1987, before the DNA tests in 1998 that substantiated the Jefferson/Hemings relationship). Cunningham also claimed Jefferson "never grew wealthy on slave labor" but admitted Jefferson sold slaves "to pay his creditors." He also admitted that Jefferson, unlike Washington, never intended to free his slaves. So in the end it's hard not to conclude that when it comes to slavery, Washington did better, while you can't deny that Jefferson knew better--that he did know owning human beings demeaned the owned and owner both. I don't think anything I read in this biography really resolves that conundrum.
The other issue the biographies of Washington and Adams I recently read brought to the fore was Jefferson's conduct as one of the founders of the first American political parties, the Democratic-Republicans, particularly in opposition to Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists. Flexner's account reflected well on neither Jefferson nor Hamilton. Ferling, in his biography of Adams, excoriates Hamilton and the Federalists, claiming they served to "enrich the few" and "foster corruption," that Hamilton had a "low, cunning dishonesty" and Washington was Hamilton's "puppet." I didn't expect Cunningham would take the Federalist side in this, and I think I can detect an understandable bias towards the subject of his biography, but to his credit he's much more fair than Ferling to both sides, presenting actions that do not reflect well on Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans, even if he doesn't address some of the worst things of which Flexner accuses Jefferson. And he makes it clear Washington was no puppet but tried hard to reconcile Jefferson and Hamilton, both members of his cabinet. And really, in the end I find it hard to be shocked or condemn Jefferson for *gasp* acting like a politician rather than an aloof philosopher-king.
Rather, in the end, despite his flaws, the biography leaves me with a great appreciation of all that Jefferson contributed to America. Flexner justifiably claimed for George Washington that he promulgated and preserved a republican form of government. Ferling highlighted the ways John Adams secured American independence, not just in breaking from Great Britain, but in avoiding domination by Britain or France. If Jefferson's contribution could be summed up in one word, it would be: democracy. Jefferson's legacy included fostering religious freedom, public education, widening of the political franchise and helping to create the American political party as a way to channel political conflict and the will of the people. This is a fairly short biography--only 349 pages. Given all Jefferson witnessed, participated in and accomplished in his long life, this can only give an outline of this complex man and his accomplishments, but there's certainly plenty I learned reading the book, and I certainly was never bored.