As no doubt have you, I’ve read many biographies, and lately have been going through some recent ones about our Founding Fathers. As a rule, they are, as one might expect, quite good.
But I’ve come to see how really very good most of my reading has been due to one that was very bad indeed. It can, in fact, best be described as a hagiography of Thomas Jefferson. There were three remarkable problems with this book.
First, according to this author, Jefferson’s virtues emanated from every crevice of his character and illuminated every aspect of his life and of those of others who were so fortunate as to have attracted his favorable notice. We learn of these not merely from the narration of events of his career, but from a veritable flood of glowing remarks about him from admirers’ letters.
Second, on the occassions when the author couldn’t avoid at least acknowledging Jefferson’s flaws, he invariably attributed them to the overwhelming influence of his great virtues, as if they were mere detritus thrown up and suspended in the penumbra of his greatness. They must be suffered for their very indication of those underlying virtues – indeed, they should be overlooked because they are the mere inevitable accompaniment of them, and thus it would be petty – or, at least, shortsighted – of us to dwell on them.
Third, while in such a treatment you would expect at least to be presented with detailed explanations of his great accomplishments, there is, in fact, amazingly almost nothing at all. For the Declaration of Independence, for example, we get a torrent of quotes from contemporary observers about how great was its author for producing it – but we learn nothing about how he did that – nothing about his sources of inspiration, his literary guides, his adaptation of these to the Revolution’s ideals – not to mention nothing about how it evolved in the committee and in Congress before adoption (other than a brief reference to Benjamin Franklin’s insistance on describing rights as “self-evident.”) His roles in the Washington and Adams presidencies are just as mysteriously nondescript, as almost is that in his own presidency.
To learn about how the Declaration of Independence actually was written and adopted, how the Louisiana Purchase actually transpired and the associated Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as everything in between, we have to read the biographies (reviewed in these pages, beginning here) of the other Founders, where these events are covered in some – certainly greater – detail. As for this biography of Jefferson, the only details you’ll garner from it are the names of every horse he ever owned (seriously), and the like.
But the authors of these other biographies have in mind to present to us the importance of their subjects to our nation’s history and culture, and this importance derives from all of their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and their failures, and are all best understood with a full appreciation of both sides of their coins.
When you’re considering purchasing a biography, be sure to screen for the objectivity and breadth of vision of the biographer. You will learn more that is useful, appreciate the subject’s value more, by receiving a comprehensive, frank presentation of the story.