Wrestling With the Past

In my quest for deeper dives and authoritative takes, I've encountered a number of older works that, despite their merits, are dated in staggering ways. A recent case-in-point comes early on in Dumas Malone's Jefferson the Virginian. Published in 1948, his first volume in a six-part study of Thomas Jefferson is, at times, a wonderfully engaging read. And yet, I can't help being stopped in my tracks by the following: 

Jefferson "was distinctive because he combined within himself the highest virtues of his native society (excepting the military), while escaping its chief vices." 

Dumas Malone. 

Dumas Malone. 

Malone makes no secret of his admiration for Jefferson and, were this a modern biography, I might wonder if he were simply papering over his subject's darker flaws. But, Malone hasn't shied away from talking about the presence of slaves or their importance as property to the Virginia elite. It seems, however, that Malone wasn't willing (or able?) to see Jefferson's slave holding and his treatment of Sally Hemings as a "chief vice." I can't help wondering if an eminent historian, writing in the 1940s, simply couldn't perceive the issue of slavery as a deeply problematic system tarnishing every individual involved. 

This moment suggests quite a lot about how far our history writing has developed over the years. Aside from ideologically motivated authors (see Barton, David), it would be astonishing for a modern historian to make this point about Jefferson. To do otherwise would ignore the deeply important and revelatory work of people like Annette Gordon-Reed in her award-winning books, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and The Hemings of Monticello

And yet, I feel compelled to continue reading Malone's work. Which makes me feel conflicted. Am I reading too much into these moments? Am I overlooking serious ethical failings on his part out of a deference to his authority? It's certainly too early to say, but it's something that I find interesting and troubling. And something I intend to keep tracking as I move forward. 

 

Malone's six-part series and his subject. 

Malone's six-part series and his subject.