The years at Monticello; For a monumental Jefferson biography -- a grand finale; The Sage of Monticello, Vol. VI, Jefferson and His Times, by Dumas Malone. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. $19.95.
Thomas Jefferson gladly exchanged the powers and prestige of public office for the privacy and political tranquillity of Monticello. He became its "Sage"; it became his hilltop retreat. And in this final volume of Dumas Malone's comprehensive biography of America's third President, Monticello provides the setting for the last years of the man who was, for America, the voice of independence.
Jefferson assumed a number of important roles in his retirement. He appears on these pages as a conscientious farmer and land- owner, determined to develop his considerable properties to the point where he could overcome his debts and achieve some measure of financial security. He was also a man of ideas, surrounded by books and, whenever possible, interesting people. As a father and grandfather he was solicitous of the well-being of his family. And as an avid supporter of education, he worked tirelessly to establish the University of Virginia, beyong doubt his greatest achievement in this period of his life.
But Jefferson, being Jefferson, obviously had to be concerned with much more. Monticello may have been a retreat, but he never allowed it to become a cloister. He watched the world with the passionate eye of an elder statesman. There was the disturbing record of the central government, stumbling through one diplomatic crisis after another, being "consolidated" by its own judicial branch and its casual indifference to states' rights. There was the stagnant political climate of his native Virginia, burdened by slavery, yet more concerned with its former greatness than its future needs. And he was genuinely uncomfortable with the course of developments in Europe alarmed first by Napoleon and then by the Old World's obsession with "legitimacy" and monarchical absolutism. He felt the French Revolution had done more harm than good: the promise of the Enlightenment had been shattered, at least in Europe.
A network of friends, associates, and acquainances kept him informed about contemporary developments, and his books kept him in touch with the intellectual currents of the time. The fortunate renewal of his friendship with John Adams, the "sage of Quincy," generated the richest correspondence of all. They sat on their respective intellectual thrones and as elder statement sparked one another's genius. It reinvigorated both of them.
The flow of letters from Monticello never stopped. Jefferson wrote about the insidiousness of banks, the unfortunate inevitability of slavery, the obvious superiority of republican principles, the curse of a national debt, and the need to constantly consult national self-interest in our diplomatic dealings with others. On and on he went, a tireless advocate. He was usually prudent, sometimes pragmatic, and often philosophical, and, when he wanted to be, hopelessly prejudiced.
In this volume Dumas Malone has Jefferson all to himself. There is no possible public office lurking around the next corner of his subject's life. As a result Malone is able to construct a brilliant and carefully crafted summary of Jefferson's opinions on the matters that concerned him most during his lifetime -- the form and structure of government, slavery, "political economy," education, and, of course, the contemporary scene.
The Introduction reveals the depth of Malone's commitment to this project: "At the end of my long journey with him I . . . salute him with profound respect." The words may justly apply to the author himself: At the end of our long journey with this distinguished biographer, "we salute him with profound respect."