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He Did Not Tarry in His Crossings : THOMAS JEFFERSON: A Life, By Willard Sterne Randall (Henry Holt: $35; 675 pp.)

September 26, 1993|Patricia O'Toole | Patricia O'Toole's last book, "The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends," was a Pulitzer finalist. She is currently at work on a history of money and morals in American life

Theoreticians of biography would have it otherwise, but readers are drawn to the genre by the same pleasurable force that pulls zoo-goers to the monkey house: a desire for the connectedness that comes from recognizing parts of oneself in the lives of others.

The life of Thomas Jefferson invites us to connect with our ideals. It was Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, who gave Americans the noblest tenets of their political creed: All men are created equal. Government's power derives solely from the consent of the governed. Human beings have unalienable rights to life, liberty and--how extravagant and strange, when you think about it--the pursuit of happiness.

It is thrilling to keep company, even vicariously, with a man who would think to say that one should not take pride in one's character except when it is used to disarm "the efforts of malice." He had a capacious faith in the collective wisdom of his fellow citizens. Convinced that they were the only reliable bulwark against political tyranny, Jefferson believed they would do the right thing as long as they were well informed. As Jefferson saw it, the prime duties of a democratic leader were to "inform the minds of the people, and to follow their will."

Few figures in American life have resumes as impressive and varied as Jefferson's. Besides writing the Declaration of Independence, he led the crusade that culminated in the separation of church and state, crushed a budding aristocracy, championed individual rights and a free press and public education, was secretary of state and minister to France as well as vice president and President, more than doubled the size of the nation through the Louisiana Purchase (at the bargain price of 4 cents an acre), founded the University of Virginia, proved himself an inspired architect there and at Monticello, authored the parliamentary rules still used by the Senate and sent Lewis and Clark off on their great expedition.

Most of this catalogue is so familiar that a reader (this reader, anyway) turns to a biography of Jefferson less curious about what he did than why he did it, and what kind of person he was. But in "Thomas Jefferson: A Life," Willard Sterne Randall appears to have set himself the more basic task of showing the man in action.

To a point, Randall's approach serves his subject well because Jefferson was no Hamlet, paralyzed by indecision. In most of his life the bridge between his thoughts and deeds was short, and he did not tarry in his crossings.

As a young lawyer he handled as many as 500 cases a year. As a revolutionary he poured his brilliance and ardor into writings that did much to transform the idea of American independence from heresy to hallowed cause. As a fervent egalitarian he channeled his distrust of power and wealth into an attack on Virginia's primogeniture laws, which fostered inequality by restricting the inheritance of land. Jefferson devoted more than 60 of his 83 years to public service, and during his spare time, he rarely stopped to lean on his shovel. There were houses to build, gardens to landscape, wilds to explore, a vast correspondence to keep up and a large plantation to run.

Where the biographer of Benjamin Franklin could drown in the abundance of stories he tells on himself, the biographer of Jefferson toils in a desert. Widowed at 39 after 11 happy years of marriage, Jefferson also suffered the early loss of other treasured companions, but his griefs go largely unmentioned in his letters. And for a man who crafted some of the most memorable lines in the English language, he was surprisingly ham-handed at turning a witty phrase.

Randall adds what flesh he can to this bony spirit, succeeding best in his accounts of Jefferson's relationships with his wife, his daughter and Maria Cosway, an artist's wife with whom Jefferson fell in love in Paris. Although Jefferson does flicker to life in these episodes, one senses that he would never be hit by a heat-seeking missile. Of his plans for educating his daughter, Patsy, Jefferson wrote, "The chance that in marriage she will draw a blockhead I calculate at about 14 to 1, and of course (conclude) that the education of her family will probably rest on her own ideas and direction without assistance. With the best poets and prose writers, I shall therefore combine a certain extent of reading in the graver sciences." Randall adds that Patsy was 11 at the time and that her father hoped she would soon read Don Quixote.

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