Thomas Jefferson

Biographies of Jefferson are published almost constantly, each new addition boasting to cover uncharted territory on the man. The Library of Congress holds tens of thousands of letters and papers that have been consulted and consulted anew. Yet the man’s inner life remains a paradoxical sketch; the vast paper trail is the frustrating work of a genius self-editing his life and political career. The last truly successful biography may be Jack McLaughlin’s 1988 volume Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. McLaughlin wisely surmised that to understand Jefferson he should stick to the architect and his prime obsession, his hilltop plantation outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson unwittingly left, in extensive farm and family records, ample evidence of the man behind the President–his failures as an engineer, his spendthrift nature, his brutal handling of slaves, and his indifference to the comforts of his own family, who lived in a house that was repeatedly rebuilt and never completed during his lifetime. Because of his obsession, Jefferson saddled his family with staggering debts, a burden borne by a grandson into old age.
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Trying to understand him through the women in his life is like viewing Monticello’s architectural details through Virginia’s early morning fog. But it’s worth the effort.

As a young man, attending the College of William and Mary, in booming Williamsburg, Jefferson struck out with women. He developed the kind of scorn and condescension toward the “weaker sex” that can come after rejection, especially in a humorless man. In Mr. Jefferson’s Women Kukla describes, in unadorned prose that plays well off Jefferson’s ornate English, a young man we might today call a geek–insecure, self-absorbed, and obsessed with the teenaged sister of a college friend.

Was Thomas Jefferson a Misogynist?” by Jillian Sim,, October 15, 2007

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