cover image Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Willard Sterne Randall. Henry Holt & Company, $35 (736pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-1577-5

Randall's masterful, gracefully written portrait brings us closer to Jefferson than any previous biography. The self-taught stoic who tried to make himself an embodiment of the Age of Reason was also, in Randall's view, a tortured romantic who kept a pledge to his dying wife not to remarry. Jefferson fell passionately in love with at least two married women, including British painter Maria Cosway with whom he gallivanted in Paris. As a statesman he could act illegally and ruthlessly if he perceived a serious threat to one of his causes, as in his drafting of secret orders that enabled George Rogers Clark to seize territory for Virginia under cover of the Revolution. Randall, biographer of Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin, finds that Jefferson as president was an ``ambivalent pragmatist'' who often set aside his principles to achieve his goals. Randall dismisses as ``preposterous'' biographer Fawn Brodie's theory that the slave Sally Hemings was Jefferson's concubine; Brodie, he charges, relied on mere gossip and highly suspect, uncorroborated memoirs by ex-slaves. (Aug.)