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Understanding Thomas Jefferson by E.M. Halliday

HarperCollins (hardback), 2001, history/political science, 286 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

If you decided you wanted to read one book on Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, and were confronted with two titles from which to choose, the catchy AMERICAN SPHINX and the infelicitous, understated UNDERSTANDING THOMAS JEFFERSON, which would you be inclined to choose? For me, it would have been AMERICAN SPHINX, with its implied promise of illuminating the paradoxes and contradictions in the life of our third president.  Add that AMERICAN SPHINX won a National Book Award and the choice should be clear.  Consequently, it was not by design that Halliday's book popped into my
hands.  But I do not regret it for a moment.

We all are familiar with the highlights of Jefferson's life - governor of Virginia and founder of its state university, author of the Declaration of Independence, slave-holding gentlemen farmer, the president who authorized the Louisiana Purchase (without which, the notion of America as world power is laughable).  But none of these public roles tell us of the man himself, nor hint at why JFK once welcomed a group of Nobel Laureates to the White House for a state dinner with the comment (paraphrased) that "there's more brain power in this room than at any other time, except perhaps when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

By examining the 18,000 letters written by Jefferson over the course of his life, and their replies, and by scrupuluosly tracing the breadth of his interests, while at Monticello, while serving as special ambassador to France, and while participating in the creation of the American republic, Halliday creates a portrait of a complex, intellectually-ambitious polymath who struggled with the cataclysmic changes his world was undergoing.

But Halliday does something else, which was for me the highlight of the book.  He relates the tortured history of Jeffersonian scholarship over the last 200 years, documenting the systematic cover-up from most historians until the early 1970s, of Jefferson's 30-year affair with his wife's half-sister, the slave girl Sally Hemings.  It was Fawn Brodie's ground-breaking biography THOMAS JEFFERSON: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT that first took seriously the contemporaneous slave narratives that initially announced the liaison.  Then, recently, DNA evidence has confirmed that Jefferson fathered four kids by Ms. Hemings, and raised them in a manner so that they could obtain their freedom.  Halliday points out that subsequent Jeffersonian biographical treatments like Joseph Ellis's AMERICAN SPHINX, while seeming insightful, are actually hagiographies more interested in
protecting Jefferson's sainted reputation as Founding Father than delving deeply into the contradictions that Jefferson must have felt from being both a slave-owner and a secret miscegnationist.  This raised an age-old American problem: How can we ever respect our history if we bowdlerize it?  Why do Americans have such an aversion to looking at the darker sides of their
natures?  Are we really better off pretending we just don't see?

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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