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Understanding Thomas Jefferson
ISBN 0060957611 / 9780060957612 / 0-06-095761-1
Publisher Harper Perennial
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Thomas Jefferson's life seems to be riddled with contradictions: he wrote "all men are created equal" yet owned hundreds of slaves; he feared mixing the races yet fathered children with a partially black slave. Joseph J. Ellis took this Jefferson-as-enigma approach in American Sphinx, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1997. E.M. Halliday, however, argues that "the 'sphinx' approach tends to mystify rather than enlighten" and attempts to reconcile some of the contradictions in Understanding Thomas Jefferson.
Halliday starts off with a comprehensive sketch of Jefferson's life, from his father's death when he was 14 to his own death on July 4, 1826. Halliday describes Jefferson's college days, his passionate marriage, his trip to Paris, and, of course, his relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave and concubine.
Halliday's analysis of the Jefferson-Hemings affair is refreshing, given that many biographers have felt Jefferson lost all interest in sex after his wife's death (or, to quote Nick Nolte, who played the man in Jefferson in Paris, "The historians like to think that after Jefferson's wife died, his dick fell off"). Halliday lays out all the evidence, also noting that "most biographers have paid insufficient attention ... to the probability that some of her traits, of both appearance and character, were reminiscent of her half sister, Jefferson's greatly beloved wife." He then criticizes the "blinkered historians" who ignored or dismissed ample evidence of the affair--that is, before DNA testing proved that Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings's children.
A series of related essays follows the biography, including a clear-eyed view of the relationship between history and fiction. Throughout the book, Halliday writes in a chatty, almost gossipy tone, noting the Marquis de Lafayette's "formidable expanse of forehead," describing Jefferson's "tall, lean but muscular figure," musing that "September in Paris, while less celebrated in love songs than April, can be a wonderfully sexy time of year." Entertaining, informative, and eminently readable, Understanding Thomas Jefferson will leave readers feeling that they do. --Sunny Delaney [via]