The Problem of Hagiography in Presidential Biography

If you read enough history and biography, it’s inevitable that you’ll come across books that can only be described as hagiographic towards their subjects. In the right hands, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s only natural that some writers will feel that their subjects deserve a tremendous amount of praise. At the same time, the hagiographic biographer can stumble in defending some of his/her subject’s less admirable qualities. Case in point: Dumas Malone and Thomas Jefferson.

As most Jefferson biographers note, Jefferson made unwanted sexual advances towards Betsey Walker, the wife of a friend who was away on business. Malone acknowledges that Jefferson made a mistake in the Walker affair, but in the next sentence begins to make excuses for Jefferson. “He was then unmarried, full of physical strength and vigor…” This comes off as if we should give the man some leeway for his sexual urges. As if he was simply a young man in his sexual prime who can’t be expected to control himself.

Young Jefferson. Clearly full of vigor.

Young Jefferson. Clearly full of vigor.

He also praises Jefferson for his response much later in life. “A generation afterwards John [Walker] said that during his absence Jefferson’s conduct towards Mrs. Walker was improper; and the President of the United States candidly admitted to certain particular friends that at one time it was…he said this privately: ‘I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady. I acknowledge its incorrectness.’ Also, when he was in his sixties, he did what he could in private to make amends to his alienated friend, and to relieve Walker’s mind in a time of embarrassing publicity by exculpating the lady from all blame. Such action was in full accord with his strict code of manners and morals. [emphasis added]” Perhaps I’m being too critical, but should we view actions done candidly and privately as evidence of a strong character? Is this the behavior of a man accepting full responsibility for his actions?

In noting that Betsey Walker waited several years to tell her husband about Jefferson’s sexual advances, Malone concludes “the natural supposition is that the lady did not regard to the offense as grave.” Considering Jefferson’s social standing, it is also possible that she worried about leveling such an accusation. Which makes Malone’s conclusions anything but “natural.” Unless, of course, you want to believe that Jefferson was the best of men.

Once she does reveal what happened, we learn that it was far more of an issue than Jefferson (and Malone) suggest in their muted language. “Mrs. Walker told her husband about Jefferson’s designs on her. When he was at a safe distance she unfolded a lurid story of ‘base transactions’—in 1769 and 1770, when he was still a bachelor, and extending into 1779, when he had been for some years a married man.” What Malone depicts as a moment of youthful indiscretion is, in reality, a years-long effort on Jefferson’s part. 

And yet, given the choice between the testimony of Jefferson and Walker, Malone comes down firmly in the former’s camp. What I find particularly troubling is how much of Malone’s defense rests on his belief that Jefferson was too much of a “good guy” to do such a thing:

“In the absence of other testimony, such an incredible story cannot be accepted in detail. All we can be sure of is that Jefferson made advances of some sort to his friend’s wife while he himself was single, that he deeply regretted his actions afterwards, and that he accepted all the blame. He may possibly have erred more than once in his youthful ardor, but this sensitive man was not bold toward women and the awkward maneuvers which Mrs. Walker reported suggest none of the accomplishments of a rake. He was much more in character as a devoted husband and kind father than as an aggressive lover, and it is hard to believe that he would have persisted in the face of rebuffs at any age. He generally observed the proprieties almost to the point of stiffness; he was notably loyal to his friends; and there is no reason whatever to question his complete fidelity to his own wife. [emphasis added]” 

There’s a lot to unpack here. Malone seems to think that the initial charge is somehow less of an issue because Jefferson was not married at the time. But why does that matter? Making repeated sexual advances on a woman who rejects them is no more acceptable coming from a single man. More importantly, Malone can’t help contradicting himself. He wants us to see that Jefferson was a man of rigid virtue and morality, but then chalks his behavior up to “youthful ardor” and “vigor.” Jefferson is either a man of great self-control or a man driven by sexual passions. It’s hard to see how both are true. He rejects Mrs. Walker’s claims by saying that Jefferson was “notably loyal” despite Jefferson’s own acknowledgment that he was guilty of this accusation. Malone may want us to dismiss these charges, but I come away from this passage feeling like he protests far too much.

Having not written a biography myself, I can only imagine that it is an extremely fine line to walk between critiquing and honoring your subject. At the same time, I would encourage all biographers to take this moment in Malone’s epic project as an example of how not to behave in the face of your subject’s indiscretions—youthful or otherwise.

Note: All quotations come from pages 154-155 in Dumas Malone's Jefferson the Virginian