Understanding Thomas Jefferson

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Recent biographies of Thomas Jefferson have stressed the sphinxlike puzzles of his character—famous champion of freedom yet lifelong slaveholder, foe of miscegenation yet secret lover of a beautiful slave for 30 years, aristocrat yet fervent advocate of government by the people. E. M. Halliday's absorbing and lucid portrait recognizes these and other puzzles about this great founder, but shows us how understandable they can be in light of his personal and social circumstances.


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Understanding Thomas Jefferson

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Recent biographies of Thomas Jefferson have stressed the sphinxlike puzzles of his character—famous champion of freedom yet lifelong slaveholder, foe of miscegenation yet secret lover of a beautiful slave for 30 years, aristocrat yet fervent advocate of government by the people. E. M. Halliday's absorbing and lucid portrait recognizes these and other puzzles about this great founder, but shows us how understandable they can be in light of his personal and social circumstances.

Halliday takes readers deep into Jefferson's private life—exploring his childhood, his literary taste, and his unconventional religious thinking and moral philosophy. Here, too, are his adamant opinions on women, the evolution of his ideas on democracy and freedom of expression, and fresh insights into his relationship with Sally Hemings.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
If Thomas Jefferson was, as Newsweek asserted, "our most human Founding Father", then E. M. Halliday's Understanding Thomas Jefferson is one of the most humanizing portraits of the third president. In relaxed, lucid prose, the longtime editor of American Heritage discusses Jefferson's private life, including his literary tastes, his unconventional religious views, and, of course, his much-debated relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. Halliday presents Jefferson not as a sphinxlike 18th-century political thinker but as a complicated man we can all understand.
Library Journal
This book has great merits as well as great flaws. Its merits include the author's commonsense, balanced approach to his subject, his solid grasp of the material, and his effervescent style. Halliday, a longtime editor at American Heritage and author of previous works on the poet John Berryman and on the Allied invasion of Soviet Russia in 1918 19, persuasively argues that historians Andrew Burstein (The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist, 1995) and Joseph J. Ellis (American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson) are wrong to claim that Jefferson was a bundle of unfathomable contradictions and mysteries. Halliday maintains that many of Jefferson's apparent contradictions are understandable, given his position in society and the era in which he lived. Despite Jefferson's failings in his views on blacks and women, Halliday says that his championship of human liberty gives him a deserved place on Mount Rushmore. The book's most serious flaw is its scope. Over half of the book is devoted to Jefferson's sex life (or lack thereof), particularly with his slave Sally Hemmings; this preoccupation is compounded by the author's overuse of words like erotic. (In two places he even notes that the weather was "sexy.") The book says almost nothing about Jefferson's work in the Continental Congress or his two terms as President. Recommended for larger public libraries. T.J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060957612
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 464,377
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

A longtime senior editor of American Heritage, E. M. HALLIDAY is the author of a memoir of the poet John Berryman and an account of the Allied invasion of Soviet Russia in 1918-19, as well as a number of articles for The New Yorker. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"The Vaunted Scene of Europe"

In June 1782, a few months after he had proudly played a crucial role in the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, was an honored guest at possibly the most lavish full-dress ball that Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, had ever given at Versailles. Still only twenty-four, Lafayette was already a general in both the American and the French armies, and lionized in both countries. A startling amalgam of ultra upper-class French snobbery and passionate dedication to liberté and the rights of man, he had gone to help the American cause entirely on his own, even purchasing outright (from an exceedingly large fortune) the vessel that took him there. Now, back in his native land, he dances a quadrille "flawlessly" (according to an observer) with the young queen in the Gallery of Mirrors, which scintillates with the reflected light of five thousand candles. The king has gone to bed, but his twenty-seven-year-old blue-eyed consort and diamond-bedecked entourage of courtiers dance, sip, and sup the night away, finally wandering off to one bed or another as the sun is rising and the peasants of the metropolis are trudging sullenly to their ill-paid travail -- if they are so lucky as to have jobs at all.

The sexual mores of this haut monde, on the fringe of which widower Thomas Jefferson, the newly appointed American minister to France, soon was to find himself, are rather touchingly hinted at by the story of Lafayette's marriage. It had been arranged by his noble family and the more or less equally noblefamily of his bride, Adrienne de Noailles, and took place when she was fourteen and he sixteen. Quite to the surprise of both families and probably of the adolescent couple themselves, they promptly fen in love, and stayed much that way until her death, thirty-three years later. Yet when they entered Parisian society soon after the wedding, young Lafayette almost immediately realized that he lacked one thing essential to being perceived as à la mode: a mistress. This was quickly remedied, and Adrienne, although she adored Gilbert, did not complain -- either then or as the succeeding years brought a train of other mistresses.

Such a combination of true conjugal affection and extramarital gallantry, however, was unusual. About the time of the queen's great ball in 1782, there appeared a book that became an instant bestseller. Les Liaisons dangereuses, published almost but not altogether anonymously under the initials C[hoderlos] de L[aclos], depicts the sexual adventures of two wickedly attractive nobles, the fictitious Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, who, having become jaded with their own love affair, have now entered into a ferocious contest to see which one of them can more viciously ruin the happiness of other human beings by luring them into deep erotic intrigues and then betraying them. Their sadistic pleasure is derived not through inflicting physical pain, but by deliberately breaking hearts and arousing suicidal despair. "There is nothing more diverting," says Mme. de Merteuil, "than the misery of the lovelorn," and Valmont wolfishly agrees. The book, though not quite pornographic, was found to be enormously exciting by literate Parisians, and the first edition sold out rapidly, to be followed by many others, some of them pirated. Marie-Antoinette, aware that her courtiers were feverishly reading it, acquired a copy that she had specially bound with no title on the binding, perhaps to avoid the notice of her royal husband.

Les Liaisons dangereuses was a well-written novel, but its chief attraction was that in it the society swirling around the court of Louis XVI saw their own behavior etched with cutting precision. Allowing a little room for artistic hyperbole, they had no difficulty in making the identification; in fact a lively parlor game of the season was guessing who among their acquaintance most perfectly fit the roles of Valmont, Merteuil, and their various victims.

Although the sexual roundelay of the fashionable nobles was not quite matched by the behavior of the Parisian public, the general atmosphere was subtly erotic. It was epitomized, during the years of Jefferson's sojourn in Paris, by the entertainment offered at the Palais-Royal, an enormously popular amusement arcade near the Jardin des Tuileries that resembled the midway of an unusually permissive world's fair. There were cafés, puppet shows, mimes, jugglers, improvisational theaters, freak shows, magic-lantern shows, wine and beer stalls, hawkers of sweets and hawkers of bawdy songs, strolling musicians and strolling filles de joie, all bathed, as it were, in an anything-goes aura that most citizens seemed to find delightfully titillating.

While theoretically there were restrictions on pornography, the Paris book stalls and shops abounded with obscene items, many of them illustrated and many with a political slant. An especially favored subject -- a straw in the wind of the revolution that was coming -- was the alleged sexual depravity of Marie-Antoinette. A purported confessional autobiography that depicted her as an insatiable nymphomaniac, masturbator, and lesbian was a big success and frequently reprinted. Another work, more specifically political, featured among its illustrations an engraving showing Lafayette kneeling in adulation before the queen (whose dress and petticoats she has pulled up above her navel) with his hand on her pudendum; the caption reads, "Ma Constitutlon." A particular irony was that in reality, according to the best available evidence, Marie-Antoinette, though certainly frivolous and flirtatious, was much less inclined toward debauchery than most of her courtiers. A more general irony was that along with the popularity of such scurrilous stuff as this, there was in the last years of the Old Regime a widespread fad for the sentimental pieties of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, including his idealization of sexual innocence and purity. It was thus possible to advocate these virtues as expressive of the true spirit of la belle France...

Understanding Thomas Jefferson. Copyright © by E. M. Halliday. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Introduction XI
1 "The Vaunted Scene of Europe" 1
2 Surges of Youth 13
3 "Unchequered Happiness" 29
4 My Head, My Heart, and... 56
5 Sunny Interlude 70
6 End of an Affair 81
7 A Big Surprise: Sally Hemings 86
8 Eros on the Champs-Elysees 97
9 Return of the Natives 113
10 On the Bridge of the Ship of State 124
11 Salve Master--and Racist 141
12 Blinkered Historians 161
13 The Heart of the Matter 180
14 "The Tender Breasts of Ladies": A Retrospective 211
15 Two Cheers for Thomas Jefferson 220
16 Postscript: History, Fiction, and Probability 240
Notes 251
Acknowledgments 269
Index 271
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2004

    Not a book I'd recommend...

    I expected to learn more about how Jefferson formed his philosophy, with a thorough analysis of all the influences that helped to develop Jefferson's approach to government and the new democracy. Instead, this is more of a psychosexual analysis that gives greater weight to 'Tristam Shandy' than to Locke, Newton or Bacon. The author is critical of other historians for overlooking the sexual aspect of Jefferson's life ... and then obsesses on only that aspect. Titled as it is, I expected something different and am very disappointed in this book. Glad I bought it at a discount!

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