Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

An Enlightening Biography of Jefferson’s Biographer

• William Hyland Jr., Long Journey With Mr. Jefferson: The Life of Dumas Malone, Potomac Books, 2013, 328 pages, $34.95.

RALEIGH — Historian Dumas Malone is well known to those who study Thomas Jefferson. His six-volume biography of the author of the Declaration of Independence spanned four decades. Malone, who often was told to stay clear of penning a lengthy Jefferson biography because of the complexity of the man, finds a biographer of his own in William Hyland Jr.’s Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson.

Malone was born in 1892 in Coldwater, Miss. Hyland notes that, in many ways, the America Malone grew up in resembled Jefferson’s America more than our contemporary scene. Besides a short stint in the Marine Corps, which remained a proud and treasured experience for Malone, academia was his lifelong mission.

Malone was a member of the faculty in history at Yale University, Columbia University, and the University of Virginia. He served as editor of the Dictionary of American Biography, but it is Jefferson and His Time that secured his notoriety. Malone “wanted to bridge the gap between the scholar and the public with his Jefferson biography,” declared Hyland. It was because of Malone’s writing on Jefferson that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

A traditionalist in his field, Malone eschewed the rise of historians who psychoanalyzed the figures they studied. He believed these historians often valued ideology over accuracy. In a 1981 interview, Malone noted:

I don’t object to anybody using any tool that will help us arrive at a better understanding of people. The trouble about psychoanalysis as applied to figures of the distant past is that there were practically no materials to work with. Where are your materials when you’re dealing with people like Jefferson or George Washington or John Adams? You haven’t gotten them on the couch, you can’t question them. So I’m a little skeptical of [psychoanalysis’] value in dealing with the characters of the distant past.

It was the Jefferson-Sally Hemings controversy that consumed a great deal of Malone’s time as he came to the defense of Jefferson’s reputation into the allegation of the lifelong affair with his slave. He called the charges “bad history,” and wrote that Fawn M. Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Life is “psycho-history” and “largely a work of imagination.”

Brodie’s biography works largely from secondary sources and Freudian psychoanalysis to bolster the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. Hyland notes that, “Malone’s supporters depicted Brodie as a woman obsessed with sex and as a marginal historian who made a ‘scholarly specialty of oddballs.’ Brodie supporters, in contrast, depicted Malone as a hagiographer and a conservative defender of the national self-image.”

Malone was enlisted to fight CBS in the mid-1970s, when the television network sought to depict the Jefferson-Hemings affair in a miniseries. CBS ultimately dropped the project and Malone grew tired of having to lend his name continually in defense of Jefferson. Malone later would admit that it was possible Jefferson carried on an affair with his slave, but it never could be proven. Malone always believed it was much more likely that one of Jefferson’s nephews or his brother Randolph — whom one historian called a “half-wit” — had been involved with Hemings. DNA results eventually would prove that Sally’s offspring came from the Jefferson family lineage, but that failed to prove that Thomas Jefferson fathered any of her children.

Malone also bristled at historians and biographers who tried to cast moral judgments on characters outside of the time they resided. He preferred the more traditional standard of judging a figure by his times and contemporaries.

In the last few decades of his life, Malone suffered severely from macular degeneration. With the help of a magnifying machine for reading and his graduate assistant and secretary, he raced to finish his final Jefferson volume published in 1981, The Sage of Monticello. “To all who cherish freedom and abhor tyranny in any form,” Malone wrote in the final volume, Jefferson “is an abiding symbol of the hope that springs eternal.” The historian C. Van Woodward noted it was “a masterly achievement of scholarship,” and “a monumental triumph.”

“I must confess that after years of association with Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams and other giants of our early history, I am relatively indifferent to contemporary celebrities,” declared Malone. In the six volumes over four decades, Malone would note of studying Jefferson’s diverse interests and mind: “To live with him intimately is a liberal education.”

Columnist George Will named Thomas Jefferson the “Person of the Millennium.” Jefferson “is what a free person looks like, confident, serene, rational, disciplined, temperate, tolerant, curious,” added Will. Jefferson “expresses the American ideal.”

It may stand out to some that as the attention span becomes shorter for many Americans, they read books less often, and become more ignorant of their own history, Malone spent decades studying a single figure and his times. Even more so, Jefferson was not an easy man to study and one Malone called “perennially challenging” and an “inexhaustible subject.”

Still, we owe a great debt to Malone, who helps all of us to better understand Jefferson, who wisely told us, “the inherent and inalienable rights of man” never change.

Ray Nothstine is managing editor of Religion & Liberty at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.