Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

By Fawn M. Brodie | Go to book overview

Foreword

Lionel Trilling, in giving the first annual Jefferson lecture in 1972, chose to speak on Jefferson and the life of the mind. He thus carried forward a tradition set in 1826 by William Wirt, who when delivering in Congress the funeral eulogy on Jefferson concentrated on his vision of liberating "the imprisoned intellect" of man throughout the world. Almost every scholar who has since written about this philosopher‐ statesman has centered upon his luminous mind and its impact on society. This is a book about Jefferson and the life of the heart.

Before his death Jefferson tried to discourage those contemporaries who wished to be his biographers. "I do not think a biography should be written, or at least not published, during the life of the person the subject of it," he wrote to Robert Walsh on April 5, 1823. "It is impossible that the writer's delicacy should permit him to speak as freely of the faults or errors of a living, as of a dead character. There is still a better reason. The letters of a person, especially one whose business has been chiefly transacted by letters, form the only full and genuine journal of his life; and few can let them go out of their own hands while they live. A life written after these hoards become opened to investigation must supersede any previous one."

The "hoards" of Jefferson letters and his meticulous plantation records are now available as never before. The magic of microfilm brings them to the desk of any serious student, and the scholarship of Julian Boyd has provided, with masterly notes, printed volumes of letters written to Jefferson as well as those written by him, up to 1791. It is now possible to discover with some exactness which Jefferson letters have been lost or destroyed, and while exasperating to the biographer, these very lacunae are sometimes peculiarly meaningful.

Though this volume is "an intimate history" of Thomas Jefferson, it attempts to portray not only his intimate but also his inner life,

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