Willard Sterne Randall
Willard Sterne Randall
Thomas Jefferson: A Life
ISBN: 0805015779
Thomas Jefferson: A Life
Professor Willard Randall discussed his book, "Thomas Jefferson: A Life," published by Henry Holt and Company. In the 700-page book, the emphasis is on Jefferson's years in France as ambassador from the U.S., because there is less documentation of that period of his life. Professor Randall described much of Jefferson's life, his career, and his relationships with others. Mr. Randall describes Thomas Jefferson as a man who was intelligent, and extremely goal-oriented. He further explains that President Jefferson often resorted to ruthlessness in both personal and political settings.
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TRANSCRIPT
Thomas Jefferson: A Life
Program Air Date: December 26, 1993

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Willard Sterne Randall, author of "Thomas Jefferson: A Life," a couple of weeks ago when we were taking a video tour of the president's office, we found your book on the credenza behind his desk. Did you know about that, and if you didn't and you do now, what do you think of that?
WILLARD RANDALL, AUTHOR, "THOMAS JEFFERSON: A LIFE" I did immediately, because my students began to call me up day and night to tell me about it. Some of them had heard bits and pieces of it in class before and managed to connect it and me and, of course, President Clinton. They were very happy, and so was I, as a result.
LAMB: He has another book, an older book, on his credenza written about Thomas Jefferson, and he has the original biography that you write about in your book, "Notes on Virginia."
RANDALL: Yes.
LAMB: What's that?
RANDALL: This was written by Jefferson right at the end of the Revolution after he'd been a rather unsuccessful governor of Virginia. The French had asked most of the governors for reports on what it was like in their states. Only one person took it seriously. That was Jefferson. He produced a whole book, and I think it's the finest natural history of Virginia done for a long time, and it's full of his views on everything from the Natural Bridge to slavery. It's quite a remarkable book, and it's his only full-length book.
LAMB: I'm not sure this is a good question, but the president has all this Thomas Jefferson around him. What do you think it means if he absorbs all three of those books, and he's got a bust of Thomas Jefferson in his office?
RANDALL: It could be anything from a hobby to an inspirational shrine to the kind of man that I think Clinton admires. Jefferson was understated in a way that I think Clinton is. Jefferson was ill at ease with the office, very low key, very informal, remote sometimes, liked his privacy. I find an awful lot of touchstones between Clinton and Jefferson, and if this means that young President Clinton lives 40 years and accomplishes half of what Jefferson did, well then I see absolutely nothing wrong with it. There are other interesting gods in his shrine, I understand, too. I think a lot of very bright people think of three or four people that influence them. I think that's mostly what's going on here, Jefferson's writings. As long as he's reading Jefferson as well as someone writing about Jefferson, I'm very encouraged.
LAMB: What would be the big messages besides what you told us about Thomas Jefferson that a president could use to guide his term?
RANDALL: I think Jefferson managed to keep himself open to a great number of constituencies. I think he also believed in equality among the officers of government. He abolished normal seating arrangements, for example. Every department had to have an oval table so no one sat at the head, no one at the foot. He received visitors of all kinds, people from the hustings, diplomats with almost no fanfare. He was approachable. I know that's very difficult today, but I think any president today would do well to try to keep himself open instead of just being surrounded by the old China hands, the palace guard. I hope there's a message in the book about that. But also, the inquisitive mind of Jefferson never stopped, always looking for new approaches and not afraid to contradict himself frequently. He did rapid about-faces. He was a pacifist going into the presidency, he founded West Point, and made war in Algeria, just for an example.

He was against a strong central government and a strict constructionist on the Constitution and yet he used a congressional slush fund, not that I'm advocating that, when he needed to, to buy land, because he thought that was the wealth and the future of the country, the Louisiana Purchase. So I think the flexibility of Jefferson is one of the most important things about him.
LAMB: What were the government jobs that he had?
RANDALL: If you start when he's 27 years old, he went from member of the Virginia House of Burgesses from the farthest west, the frontier county of Albemarle . . .
LAMB: In Virginia.
RANDALL: . . . in Virginia. He was also the youngest lawyer to practice before the General Court of Virginia, which was also the supreme court of that colony. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress.
LAMB: What year?
RANDALL: He was in the Second Continental Congress, 1776, one year only, filling an unexpired term. He became a member of the first House of Delegates, the Revolutionary governor of Virginia, and in three years literally rewrote the law of the largest state at the time, Virginia, 126 new laws and a new criminal code. Then he went on to Congress again. He was the leading member of Congress for a few years, then became the American minister plenipotentiary, or ambassador, to France, replacing Franklin, his mentor. Washington wanted him in his first Cabinet, so he was the first secretary of state. Jefferson found it hard to say no to George Washington, as I think just about everybody else did. Then he became vice president to Adams by three electoral votes in the first contested presidential election. Then he defeated the Federalist, became the third president of the United States. So first secretary of state; second, vice president; third, president for two terms.
LAMB: And what other things, like the Library of Congress, did he start?
RANDALL: The Library of Congress he started only after the British burnt the first Library of Congress in the War of 1812. Jefferson offered to sell his entire library at Monticello -- I think it was 2,400 volumes -- at a bargain-basement price, so it's the nucleus of the modern Library of Congress. He was also vice president and then president of the American Philosophical Society. He sent off the first scientific expedition funded by the federal government, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, personally wrote its instructions, personally had Lewis trained as his guide. He invented the first modern plow. He brought the dumbwaiter from Paris to the White House and then to Monticello. He redesigned the capital after L'Enfant did a first draft. He changed the relationship so the president's house was down in a gully, and the president had to look up to Congress on Capitol Hill. That wasn't supposed to be that way originally, but always using his mind to rearrange and to adapt, if not invent things.
LAMB: If he was on the ballot today, would you vote for him?
RANDALL: Absolutely. I don't know if he'd have much of a chance in our brokered electoral system, but it's possible that he would. He was very good at operating behind the scenes. He appeared not to be running, but as Adams and Hamilton and others found out, the appearance wasn't the whole story. He was very good at lining up support, bringing around state committees, very good at working in secret, something he learned, I think, as a diplomat in Paris. As a president, I think, I'd have a very mixed view of him. I think he could be absolutely ruthless. I think while he founded the oldest political party, the Democrats, he trashed the Federalists, almost destroyed the two-party system for 40 years, and I think brought the spoil system into politics. When he believed in something, he believed in it so completely he couldn't see the damage that he might do. So I wouldn't like to see some of the things he did done again.
LAMB: Where do you hang your hat?
RANDALL: I hang my hat in Burlington, Vermont, where I've lived for 10 years.
LAMB: Doing what?
RANDALL: Mostly writing long books, it seems. This is the third I've written in Vermont and teaching more and more history and biography.
LAMB: At the University?
RANDALL: University of Vermont, yes.
LAMB: What are the other books you've written?
RANDALL: The first biography was called "A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin at War With His Son." I started to write a biography of William Franklin, the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin. It turned into a dual biography, and it was an eight-year task. Then, I became interested in Benedict Arnold. That was a difficult piece of work, because we have no archives celebrating our greatest traitor. In fact, he'd all been expunged from the public record, and then in the process became interested in Jefferson. On breaks from writing Benedict Arnold, I was living in France at the time where my wife ran the university's overseas program, and I'd taken along a limited number of books, and one thing I took along was Dumas Malone's "Jefferson."

I began reading about Jefferson in France to see what it had been like for an American living abroad, because that's a rough adjustment that I think people go through the first time, and I was going through it myself. So I became fascinated at the years of Jefferson's life that we know the least about, his five years in Paris, and I thought there was a good book in that, and then my editor persuaded me there was a good book in his entire life, but I still emphasize those years in France, because I think they affected his whole political career and his presidency afterward.
LAMB: Out of the 700 pages, your book publisher decided to put the following on the back flap. It says, "from 'Thomas Jefferson: A Life,'" meaning a quote from there, "Thomas Jefferson fell in love with Maria Cosway the moment he met her. For four years he'd been faithful to the vow he had made to his wife on her deathbed. There is no hint that he had made even the briefest liaison with any of the many French women he had met in Paris." It goes on a little bit more. Why did your book publisher think that was the most important thing and put it on the back?
RANDALL: I don't know if it's the most important thing, but I thought it was a good idea myself, because I thought that one things that happens to Jefferson and other leaders, especially the early leaders of this country, is they're turned into marble busts instead of human beings, and in looking at Jefferson in love in Paris, I think we have quite a different slant on the man. It's not only Jefferson in love but Jefferson discovering the importance of women. In Paris, he learned to respect the intellects of the women of the salon who really ran the French government, not all that well sometimes, as Marie Antoinette could attest, but Jefferson, I think, opened his mind in those years and had a wonderful time, I think, with Maria Cosway, an educated, brilliant painter, and I think it changed him into a much more sophisticated individual. So I thought those lines were telltale.
LAMB: How old was he when he lived in Paris?
RANDALL: He went to Paris when he was 41. His wife had died not long before that. He was desolate. He thought his life was over. He went mostly because Franklin had asked him three times to come, and as long as his wife was alive and sick, he couldn't see his way clear to leaving her behind. She wasn't up to the voyage. But when she died, he went, at Franklin's invitation, to help negotiate the peace with the British. That was all done by the time he got there, but he became the apostle of the new country, publishing "Notes on Virginia" over there for the first time, along with Franklin, trying to show what this new country was about, and he was there for five years, a vital five years. He was very close to Lafayette, and a lot of the early stages of the French Revolution took place at his dinner table in the American mission on the Champs Elyses, so it was fascinating to me.
LAMB: What years would he have been over there?
RANDALL: He was there from 1784 to 1789. He was there when the Bastille fell. The rioting was going on outside his windows. He went out in his carriage to investigate for months. The crowds recognized him, and they would stop hitting the guards long enough to let him pass and then let fly again at the Swiss Guards, but he stayed there about three months after the revolution began and then came home.
LAMB: And Maria Cosway was there, why?
RANDALL: She was married to a British portrait painter, Richard Cosway, and he came with a commission to paint a duke in Paris, and Jefferson was introduced to her by John Trumbull, an American artist, who was living with Jefferson and painting Jefferson's part of the Declaration of Independence, the famous portrait of Trumbull's The Declaration of Independence. So he took her around, took Jefferson around and introduced him to these painters. They hit it off. Many times they would all go off as a foursome, many times not. Jefferson saw her for the better part of six weeks before she went back to England, and then they corresponded for the rest of his life less and less frequently, but until he was a very old man. Very fondly, he was the patriarch writing to her. She became a nun and the headmistress of a girl's school in Italy, but it was always this wonderful literary affair, if nothing more than that, between them.
LAMB: Did they ever see each other after the six-week affair there in Paris?
RANDALL: No, I don't think they ever did see each other. He had several opportunities, but he decided to come back to America and go back into political life. I think those years healed him from the terrible years in Virginia during the Revolution when he lost his home, his farms, and when his political career looked wrecked as well.
LAMB: Was this information about her new information to you?
RANDALL: Some of it was. There have been earlier chapters on her in other books, but I spent a good bit of my time, including four trips back to France, going over the records, following their footsteps, seeing what they saw, finding out all I could about what they did. I thought it was not just interesting but very important in his life, so I spent a good bit of time on that.
LAMB: What else was going on in the world between 1784 and 1789?
RANDALL: For one thing, things were not going so well in the United States, depending on your point of view. There was Shay's Rebellion in Massachusetts that so shocked Washington and Adams and Madison that they called a convention, and then there was a new constitution. Jefferson was off base for that. He was in France, and if he'd been here, I think he might have objected to a lot of the new constitution, because he thought revolution was a good thing. He wrote long letters to Madison trying to influence Madison during that constitution, but it took six months before the letters went back and forth, and I think Jefferson had absolutely no effect whatsoever on that convention.
LAMB: Let me ask you about this cover right here. Where does this painting come from?
RANDALL: This is from the National Portrait Gallery. That's Jefferson while he's president, I believe. There are a few very good portraits of him, and that's one of them.
LAMB: How do you know this is a good one, I mean, compared to all the others?
RANDALL: I've seen quite a few. It's as I imagine him, so it's a subjective view that it's a good one. I think there's a twinkle to the man. I think he's been made stiff and dry and humorless, but I don't believe that was so. I think he was charming if he knew you, and I think that picture captures some of that.
LAMB: Where was he born?
RANDALL: He was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, the farthest settlement west, the last ridge basically before you got into the frontier. His father had settled Albemarle County, one of the two original settlers. He was a pioneer, I guess you could call him, a great giant of a man, Peter Jefferson, legendary strength, sort of the Paul Bunyan of the Virginia frontier. He helped draw the boundaries of Virginia. He rode out on expeditions with chains and surveyors. Jefferson worshipped him and learned surveying and a love for books from his father whose entire library was only 40 volumes, but compared to the libraries of most people on the frontier at the time, that was quite a lot. So Jefferson emulated his father, but he's very much like his mother, who was a Randolph, very refined, and he got his love of education from her.
LAMB: And when he was growing up, how many kids in the family?
RANDALL: There were so many that he basically had to move out and go away to school. Our picture of a plantation at the time is something more out of "Gone With the Wind" than reality. These were small farmhouses with eaves and dormers, and Jefferson was a tall boy, and with five children at home with them, and then seven children at home with them by the time he was a teenage boy, there just wasn't room for him, and he went off to school. It was a big family. He was the older of two boys with a half-dozen sisters, and when his father died, Thomas was only 14, and he became the man of the family at 14.
LAMB: Did his father have slaves?
RANDALL: Yes, his father had slaves. They had been introduced into the family gradually. As the indentured white labor supply dried up, the Jeffersons, like others, bought more land and bought more slaves. When Peter Jefferson died, he left his family 34 slaves. Most of Jefferson's slaves came by inheritance from his father, and then when he married, almost immediately his father-in-law died right after buying a whole shipload of slaves that nobody wanted and nobody could afford. So he instantly became the largest slave owner in Virginia.
LAMB: How long did his mother and father live?
RANDALL: His mother lived until the Revolution. His father was, I think, in his late 40s. He died in 1757 when Jefferson was 14 years old. His mother lived almost 20 years more.
LAMB: When you set out to write a book on Thomas Jefferson, what kind of burden is it, compared to all the stuff that's been written over the years?
RANDALL: I wanted a challenge, especially after writing about Franklin and Arnold, I had learned a great deal about that period, and I really did consider the ultimate challenge to try to write about Thomas Jefferson, but I didn't imagine how much of one it would turn out to be. For a year, I think, I was somewhat close to terror at the man's intellect and accomplishments, but as I read and read and found that I liked him more and more, then it became easier to contemplate writing a book about him, because most of what I read, I found things that I didn't quite agree with. I think that's part of what a biographer goes through, and there was an awful lot that I thought that historians had learned in very recent years that weren't in any earlier biographies, so I thought it was possible to come up with somewhat a fresh interpretation of the man.
LAMB: What are some of the new things you learned?
RANDALL: Jefferson, the lawyer, was much more important than he's been made out to be. Other biographers have touched on or summarized his career, but in tracking him through his life, I very quickly learned that his legal papers and his casebook and his record books still existed. They were out in a private collection in California. I was able to go out there and sit and hold them and study them and see that the man had almost 1,000 law cases on the eve of the Revolution, many of them in areas that mattered a great deal to him. He would represent slaves without fee to try to win them freedom. He was one of the first to think about divorce reform. Divorce was illegal, as Henry VIII could have told him. Many of the areas that are considered quite modern he had struggled with as a lawyer, and he had been shouted down by the slave-owning oligarchy and the British officials in Virginia.

So out of the law courts we get Jefferson the revolutionary, on his feet, writing brilliant opinions, very articulate, a better speaker than most biographers have let on, and that, to me, explained for the first time why such a good lawyer as John Adams would defer to him to write the Declaration of Independence and the key documents of the Continental Congress. That never made sense to me before. What I knew about Jefferson basically was at age 33 he dropped out of the sky in Philadelphia and wrote the Declaration of Independence, and what I found out in this research is those early years were terribly important.
LAMB: Is there a lot of pressure on a biographer based on all the stuff that's been written to get it accurate? I mean, is there a whole Jefferson world out there that we laymen don't know about?
RANDALL: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. There are, alive, good biographers. There are dozens of Jefferson scholars who have concentrated on aspects of his life or on fields closely related to aspects of his life. There are not too many people writing biographies of the man, surprisingly few.
LAMB: Who was the last one?
RANDALL: The last one, let's see -- 1974, Fawn Brodie; the mid-'80s there was another one but a scant one, surprisingly few considering how great he was. Merrill Peterson's was begun in the '60s and finished in the '70s. Peterson is still alive and is pretty much the head of a school of Jefferson historians. Dumas Malone was writing in the '40s, the '50s, and '60s, but there have been very few people to take on his whole life in recent years.
LAMB: How tall was he?
RANDALL: Six, two and a half is the best estimate I can come up with.
LAMB: How much did he weigh?
RANDALL: He was thin, probably no more than 180 pounds. I'm not sure of the weight. That's hard to find out. A slave overseer who specialized in knowing the statistics about human beings said he was six, two and a half, straight as a gun barrel with a wonderful bearing. He didn't walk with a cane until the last few months of his life. He exercised and rode a horse until the last few weeks of his life. He was virtually a vegetarian, although not slavishly so. He always had a glass of red wine for about 40 years that I can tell, and it was always a good one. He preferred country ham and French cuisine equally, but he believed in being outdoors as much as possible. So he took care of himself. He died with a full head of teeth, which was extremely rare in those days, and he had a shock of red hair.
LAMB: Did he wear a wig?
RANDALL: I think he did as time went on, for formal occasions, but usually not. He was not a foppish dresser. He usually wore the same things over and over again until they wore out. He liked a red doublet, and that became almost a uniform with him. When he went riding, he pulled coveralls on to keep his clothes clean. He could be fastidious. The one thing he wouldn't tolerate was somebody not taking care of his horses, so he would come out with a white glove and run it along the side of the horse, and if the glove didn't come off white, he would yell at whoever was supposed to groom it.
LAMB: What do you think he would sound like?
RANDALL: He did not have a strong voice. His voice would be a little on the high side, I think. At his inauguration, people at the back of the Senate chamber couldn't hear him. They passed out copies of the speech, but in court, according to Madison, his voice could be very strong when he was very passionate about something. I can't come up with a very good comparison for him, but he didn't have a deep, resonating voice.
LAMB: Where is the most that's been written about Thomas Jefferson or is available for research locating?
RANDALL: It's a dream and a nightmare to work around Jefferson, because he wrote, according to one estimate, 90,000 letters and documents. Twenty-eight thousand letters survive. The Princeton University project for the papers of Thomas Jefferson is editing and republishing them. They're already up to 20-some volumes, nearly 30.
LAMB: They publish them so you can buy them or publish them so you can go see them?
RANDALL: Well, they're published so you can buy them. The series of them is being republished. It's the first new edition since 1907. I've been getting them as they came out for years. The public can buy them. Princeton University Press offers them. Also, there are Jefferson research centers where his correspondence is available on microfilm which has been wonderful for me, because I'm up in the snows of Vermont half the year, and our university library can order infinite numbers of Jefferson letters on microfilm, and they'll come in batches of 100 reels which somehow I'm supposed to read in a month and then send back, but if you want to, the material's there.
LAMB: What was the actual publication date for your book?
RANDALL: August of this year, 1993.
LAMB: How have things changed for you since you put out that biography on Thomas Jefferson?
RANDALL: Well, one thing changed immediately, and that is Vice President Gore gave a copy to President Clinton along with a tie and some jazz CDs for his birthday, and reporters began to call me a lot when they couldn't get any answers from him about what was in the book and had he actually read it, etcetera. So for a former reporter, it was a new experience to be on the other end of the telephone. I've also been traveling a good bit talking to people about Jefferson. There seems to be a very large constituency for this man in the South especially, and people do want to hear what you have to say about him, because they haven't made up their minds. He was denigrated so much in the '70s, but I think people aren't quite satisfied with some of the explanations they've gotten, so I've been rather stunned at the response in such places as Nashville and Memphis. Everywhere I've gone, the questioning has been longer than the talk I went to give, which is unusual.
LAMB: Is the book a Book-of-the-Month Club selection?
RANDALL: It was the History Book Club main selection, a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate. Yes, it's already gone through its first printing. Its other printing has been brought out.
LAMB: How many did they print the first time around?
RANDALL: Twenty thousand hard cover. It's also going to be coming out in paperback next summer, so there's a new edition since then of several thousand, and I think that's pretty well spoken for, too.
LAMB: What was he getting banged around about in the 1970s?
RANDALL: Well, mostly at the same time that the Watergate hearings were going on, Fawn Brodie brought out "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History," which made a case that Jefferson had a slave concubine at Monticello, Sally Hemings.
LAMB: Is that the first that had ever been published?
RANDALL: I don't think it was the first time it had been published, but I think it was the first time it had been emphasized.
LAMB: The reason I ask you that is because you write in the book that this was an issue in his second campaign.
RANDALL: Absolutely. What fascinated me wasn't so much Sally Hemings. She existed, and this sort of thing happened all over the South, but what fascinated me is how it came about. Jefferson was attacked in his first presidential campaign by New Englanders as an atheist, as "a man with a Turkish harem," was the one phrase that was used from the pulpits of New England. He had a hired writer, a hack writer, James Thomson Callender, working for him attacking Hamilton and Adams for years, and when Jefferson didn't give him a high political office when he became president and basically refused to have anything more to do with him, Callender switched sides and attacked Jefferson in print in a Richmond newspaper. And what I did was try to dig out the genesis of the story and how it was handled at the time and actually found the first paragraph about Jefferson, and there's Sally. She's not given a last name, and there's the charge that they had a son and that she had gone to France with Jefferson when he became the ambassador there, . . .
LAMB: Named her son Tom?
RANDALL: . . . named her son Tom, and that she was the African Venus who presided as the hostess of Monticello, etcetera, etcetera. Well, there's never been any proof of Tom's existence, and there seemed to be other problems. A lot of Brodie's interpretation was based on an interview with one of Sally Hemings' sons when he was very old, after the Civil War, and had gone to Ohio to homestead.

The author of -- or rather "the author" is a bit of a slip -- actually the editor of that interview, I think, helped write it and rewrite it and rewrite it, and he was an abolitionist journalist who had also gone to Ohio, so slave narratives, if they're not supported, are problematical for historians. There were so many red flags on the field for me, I decided to dig into it as much as I could to try to find out, if possible, what the facts were. There was also a family story going back and forth in the private correspondence of biographers in the 19th century. The family's version of this privately was that there were mulatto children at Monticello but that they were not Thomas Jefferson's, that they were the children of Jefferson's nephews, and the evidence seemed to lean to one of the two nephews, nephews that Jefferson had raised, sons of Jefferson's sister. I came away from it wondering why it was so important still about Sally Hemings, why studies of Jefferson have been all but stopped by this one aspect, by this rumor basically.
LAMB: Why?
RANDALL: The public opinion after Brodie was that he was a hypocrite. Here was the man, we're talking about freedom and all men are created equal while he's got a slave mistress at Monticello and that Thomas Jefferson was reduced to that as far as what we should know about him. If we knew one fact now, it wasn't that he wrote the Declaration of Independence or founded a university -- well, that he had a slave mistress.
LAMB: Dumas Malone had a five-volume . . .
RANDALL: Six.
LAMB: . . . six-volume set. If somebody read all that and somebody read just your book, what would be the difference in the kind of information they were getting? Is there a difference in the slant?
RANDALL: I think I emphasize about six or seven different things in my book that he did not: his legal career, his travels in Europe, his years in Paris, who his connections were there, Jefferson the writer. I started out doing this, fascinated that he was the writer of the Revolution, the closest thing to a professional writer.
LAMB: You mean actually wrote the Declaration of Independence.
RANDALL: Not only wrote the Declaration of Independence, but this is what he loved to do. The very last thing that he did when he lay dying was to sit up in the middle of a coma, and his hand moved in front of him as he tried to write one more letter. I mean, that was his favorite activity in life. As a writer, that fascinated me.
LAMB: Was he a good writer?
RANDALL: He was a marvelous writer, and he set out to be. He thought that the law should be in simple language so you didn't need lawyers like him, so when he rewrote the laws of Virginia he put them in laymen's language, got rid of the cobwebs. The Declaration of Independence is not only ringing rhetoric, but it's beautifully done, beautifully crafted. It follows an argument. He knew exactly how to craft an argument, and you can hear the beat get stronger and faster, the excitement of the writing as it goes on. I think he was a brilliant writer, and I think others at the time thought so, too.
LAMB: What else did you emphasize in your book?
RANDALL: I thought that his relationship with his father and with his mother were very important, because there has been some spin put on his relationship with his mother since the '60s and '70s. Modern scholars have found that part of his correspondence has been misdated, giving the impression that he was 29 or 30 years old and hated women when he wrote things in his notebooks. Well, that's been found out recently that he was 14, and so when he wrote angry things about women in Greek and Latin, he was railing at his mother like many an adolescent boy does but doing it in Greek and Latin which she couldn't read, so he couldn't get in trouble. If you don't get that right, then you have a misogynist, because if you look at what he wrote, it's very angry.
LAMB: What's a misogynist, by the way?
RANDALL: A woman hater, and I think he had been turned into a woman hater in the last 20 years, and I don't find any evidence for that. I think, in many ways, he was much more liberal than other men of his time. He saw that his daughter was wonderfully educated, although he wrote terrible, klutzy, awkward letters to an adolescent girl. But I've written letters to adolescent children, and how do you make them anything but awkward? I think that's the one test. But I think he gave women a higher place as life went on, although he was not ready to put one in his government, so he's also been attacked for that. I don't think he thought he had enough support from the public. There were some things that he remained confused about all of his life. One of those was exactly what to do with women. I think he was always awkward about that, but I don't think he was a misogynist.
LAMB: Why did he promise his wife who died -- was he 41?
RANDALL: That's right.
LAMB: How old was she?
RANDALL: Oh, she was about the same age.
LAMB: Why did he promise her he wouldn't remarry?
RANDALL: First of all, we're not exactly sure that that's what he promised. Probably. It's what the slaves said that they heard. He was very devoted to her.
LAMB: How long was he married?
RANDALL: They had been married for 10 years. She had conceived half a dozen times. She'd had a terrible time in childbirth as most women did then. She had lost their only son. He was very fond of her, and she did not want and he did not want their children growing up by a stepmother, and I think that was why, if anything, she almost exacted a promise from him on the deathbed about raising those children.
LAMB: By the way, did he ever remarry?
RANDALL: No, he never did.
LAMB: Did he ever come close?
RANDALL: As close as he came, I think, was with Maria Cosway, but she was already married, and divorce was illegal.
LAMB: Let me just take a couple of minutes and get some more about you. Where were you born?
RANDALL: I was born in Philadelphia.
LAMB: How long did you live there?
RANDALL: Oh, about 30 years. I was a journalist there for a good long time.
LAMB: Where?
RANDALL: I started on a small-town daily in Pottstown, Pa., about 30 miles from Philadelphia, and worked my way closer to Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Bulletin, Philadelphia magazine where I was an investigative reporter, Philadelphia Inquirer where I was a frequent writer for the Sunday magazine and then the Time stringer, Time-Life News Service for Philadelphia and the surrounding area, so 17 years in one spot.
LAMB: Did you go to college?
RANDALL: I didn't go to college formally until I was 40. I went to work on a newspaper the day after I got out of high school as a proofreader, and I loved it. And my father almost talked me out of journalism, wanted me to find something reputable to do. He loved to write, but he had a low opinion of people who had to make a living as a journalist.
LAMB: What did he do, by the way?
RANDALL: He was personnel manager of a steel company in Philadelphia who bootlegged the company newspaper magazine and crammed it full of history articles. He loved to write. He just couldn't see his way clear to do it.
LAMB: What did your mom do?
RANDALL: My mother was the first woman time-study engineer in the country in defense plants, time and motion studies, and then she was a personnel administrator, American Red Cross, etcetera, and then one of the early women real-estate brokers, very strong woman.
LAMB: Are they both alive?
RANDALL: My father's dead; my mother's still alive, yes.
LAMB: So, Philadelphia. School at age 40, where?
RANDALL: I had started college in Philadelphia going to St. Joseph's at night, but it became awkward when I was editorial director of a city magazine to adjourn staff meetings and run off to classes, so I'd given it up. But after I left daily journalism to write history and biography, I decided I better go to a graduate school somewhere and find out what I was talking about, and Princeton was one of several schools that surprised me by accepting me, and I went to Princeton for graduate school.
LAMB: Did you get both an undergrad and a master's?
RANDALL: I didn't have an undergraduate degree, and I was almost not admitted because of that, but there are several states in the country where, if you can prove that you've done the college course work, and a writer can demonstrate that, then you can get college credits, so in seven months I got my undergraduate degree about six days before my fellowship offer from Princeton expired. It was a very near miss.
LAMB: Did you get a master's or go right to a Ph.D.?
RANDALL: I went into a Ph.D. program. I got a master's, and then I went right into teaching and went on writing books.
LAMB: Have you ever gotten a Ph.D.?
RANDALL: No, I haven't.
LAMB: Where was your first job as a teacher?
RANDALL: My first job as a teacher was actually in an art school in Ocean City, New Jersey, where I taught literature and writing four nights a week while I was a free-lance writer. Then I taught in a prep school in New Jersey for one year while I qualified to go to Princeton. I taught writing five days a week and took seminars at Princeton at the same time, which was pretty grueling, and my first university teaching job and my only one has been at the University of Vermont for the last 10 years.
LAMB: What year did you start working on this?
RANDALL: I started working on the book in the autumn of 1987 in France while I was still writing the Benedict Arnold book.
LAMB: You say in the opening that you physically retraced Jefferson's steps in travels in France. Where did you go to do that?
RANDALL: First I went to California, because his daily expense records are in the Henry Huntington Library on the backs of envelopes and in foolscap. He kept meticulous day-by-day expense accounts. The man was obsessive about record keeping, so we can tell what he paid for a drink and what he paid the valet and how much to get the carriage fixed, etcetera, so you know his itinerary. I know as a former investigative reporter, I try to find an expense account first. You have a paper trail, especially with somebody who's been in the government. With those records then we went off to France and tried to find the towns and the roots, many of which didn't exist anymore or weren't easily found, but we were able to reconstruct his travels that way.
LAMB: Where did you go?
RANDALL: The first installment was from Nice, where we had lived for a few years, because Jefferson actually went over the Alps in a mule train in the wintertime to try to find products in Italy that he could bring back to adapt to the United States to help its infant economy. Actually, he violated the laws of Italy and diplomatic immunity by stealing sacks full of unmilled rice, because he thought the Carolinas needed not only a better grain of rice but one that didn't use slave labor, one that would grow in the hills where so many slaves wouldn't be killed from malarial insects. So he actually risked his life going into Italy and smuggling out this rice, but he also brought back ice cream, pasta, several other things. He was always looking for new things to bring back to the United States, so I found that trip fascinating, and as much as I could, I retraced it. Some of the roads are gone, but mostly we went everywhere he did.
LAMB: There are a couple of little things I wanted to ask you about. You keep mentioning through the book, he had migraine headaches.
RANDALL: Yes.
LAMB: How debilitating was that?
RANDALL: For up to six weeks, he couldn't function in the daytime, and I don't understand why it would be worse in the daytime than at night, but there would be long periods, and they usually followed some serious loss. When his mother died, he had a migraine that lasted for six weeks. When his father died, well, there's a hint of that in his correspondence.
LAMB: Did they have medicine then?
RANDALL: I don't think so, nothing effective. Mostly they called in someone who bled you and purged you, which I'm not sure helped a headache or anything else very much, so he did that in Paris. He had one period in Paris for six weeks when he was absolutely flattened and called in a doctor who I don't think helped things very much. When he was secretary of state, he had another attack for almost two months, and what cured it usually was shutting down and absolutely relaxing, so he made his first real vacation as a U.S. government employee on horseback up through New York and Vermont with Madison, although, even there, the headache went away but he couldn't get away from politics. They were plotting the formation of the Democratic Party, but he hated office work, I think, is another way of putting it, and the periods of grief and intense study or when there were controversies with other political figures, these bouts would come for six to eight weeks.
LAMB: If he were here today and you had to put a label on him, would you call him a Republican or a Democrat?
RANDALL: I'd like to give a fast answer, and I guess I'm expected to say, since he founded the Democratic Party, he'd be a Democrat, but I'm not sure what camp he would be in, because a lot of his ideas then would make him much more conservative today.
LAMB: You said he was a decentralizer.
RANDALL: He was a decentralizer, and I'm sure that Reagan Republicans would be happy to claim him for that. Civil libertarians claim him; Unitarians claim him. All sorts of people have claimed him based on what he did then and what is happening now, but I'm not sure what he would do now.
LAMB: What about where John Adams and Thomas Jefferson came down on the Alien and Sedition acts? What would that tell us today?
RANDALL: The Alien and Sedition acts were used, if not designed, to stop Jefferson from forming an opposition party and targeted newspapers in the Jefferson camp. Editors and writers were actually arrested; 25 editors and writers were indicted. They were imprisoned. The U.S. Supreme Court justices rode around reading their writings in carriages like hanging judges and rounding them up and having them imprisoned. When that law expired, Jefferson saw that it was not renewed.
LAMB: Let me interrupt to ask you if there was an Alien Act and a Sedition Act. Two different ones?
RANDALL: Right.
LAMB: What was the Alien Act?
RANDALL: The Alien Act was to slow down the process of immigrants, mostly French immigrants, exiles from the French Revolution, from becoming citizens. There were so many of them crowding into the country, and they were on the Jeffersonian side, or rather he was on theirs.
LAMB: When did that pass?
RANDALL: That passed in 1798, and immediately after that, the Sedition Act, which made it a federal crime to criticize the president, the presidency, the government or the president's party in any way, punishable by a fine and prison.
LAMB: Was there a First Amendment then?
RANDALL: There was but there was only one party, and it had all the cards. The president was John Adams.
LAMB: And was Thomas Jefferson the vice president then?
RANDALL: He was the vice president, but it was already obvious that he was going to oppose Adams when Adams ran for a second term as president.
LAMB: Technically, how did he become vice president when they both were running for president before?
RANDALL: In those days, it wasn't winner take all. It was No. 1 in the Electoral College got to be president; No. 2 got to be vice president. Jefferson had miscalculated in his campaign, so he came out three short, or I think he would have been president instead of Adams the first time. As a result of that, the Constitution was changed, so it became winner take all, and so you chose your running mate. That didn't work very well either at first, because both the president and vice president had the exact number of votes, and the vice president happened to be Aaron Burr who said, "That doesn't mean I'm vice president. That means we're tied." So there was actually 37 ballots of Congress to decide who the winner of that election was. It was a clumsy system at first before it came out the way it is now.
LAMB: Thomas Jefferson served as vice president for how long?
RANDALL: He served for one term.
LAMB: And then the next election he ran against . . .
RANDALL: Against Adams and won.
LAMB: How big?
RANDALL: Because of the confusion with Burr, it was a dead heat that went into the House. When it was all over, he won by a comfortable margin.
LAMB: A comfortable Electoral College margin?
RANDALL: Yes. He actually won by about 10 electoral votes, which was a fair number at the time.
LAMB: And he served for how many terms?
RANDALL: He served for two.
LAMB: Second time in 1804, how big did he win?
RANDALL: He won very big.
LAMB: Ran against . . .
RANDALL: Good question. The Federalist candidate became so completely obscure. Pinckney.
LAMB: Charles Pinckney from South Carolina?
RANDALL: Yes, right.
LAMB: You write about where Thomas Jefferson came back and was in favor of the Sedition Act, or at least he was quite critical of newspapers.
RANDALL: I don't think he was in favor of the Sedition Act, but he shut down any criminal prosecutions that might have led to court testimony that was very unfavorable to him, so he tampered with the courts. He didn't go quite the step of a Sedition Act, but he went after key Federalist judges and replaced them with his own people, and where that didn't work, cases all of a sudden dried up if they got too close to Thomas Jefferson.
LAMB: When did you say, as you were doing all this research, "I don't really like that, that I found out about him"?
RANDALL: When I had to confront the question of was this man ruthless or not, and he could be quite ruthless in pursuit of something that really mattered to him, and I think his years as president are the most controversial. He did bring in the spoil system in this country that became one of the great political evils for almost 100 years. He did it in casuistic way. He kept very careful records that said he had given half of the political jobs to the Federalists and half to the Democrats -- yes, the bottom half to his opponents, the top half to his own people. So he really did set up a winner-take-all form of election, and sometimes he hounded people out of office or into prison, such as Aaron Burr, I think. Once he turned on Aaron Burr -- they'd been very close, and Jefferson couldn't have gotten as far as he did without Burr's support in New York --but once he turned on Burr, I think Jefferson was completely out of line as president in publicly indicting and convicting Burr before he'd even had a trial. Luckily, John Marshall shut that case down.
LAMB: John Marshall was his cousin.
RANDALL: He was his cousin.
LAMB: Did they get along?
RANDALL: Certainly not, and he wasn't at all intimated by him.
LAMB: Were they in the same party?
RANDALL: Oh, no, no. Marshall was very close to Washington, his first biographer, a staunch believer in the Federalists and thought that Jefferson and what he represented were very bad for the country.
LAMB: Who were Thomas Jefferson's pals?
RANDALL: His closest friend, I think, was Madison, roughly 10 years his junior. He also had a number of young men that he ran sort of the male equivalent of a salon. William Short was one, Humphreys and others who would be his aides for a while. Jonathan Trumbull was very close to him in Paris. He trusted Trumbull explicitly. Trumbull had been a soldier and was an artist, and he confided in him. Monroe, he liked Monroe. He picked him out when Monroe was a captain in the Revolutionary Army and brought him along, but these were always juniors. I don't find close friends for very long of his own age. For a while, he was very close to Adams, and he was very fond of Abigail Adams, I think, admired her greatly, but it wasn't until he was an old man and both Adams and Jefferson were out of power that they became close again. Jefferson could be very suspicious of people that he saw as potential rivals, and I think he trusted younger men more than most of the men of his own age.
LAMB: Some people say that Thomas Jefferson is so well thought of today because there's so much material left by him versus other people of that time who didn't leave the legacy of paper. Is that true?
RANDALL: I'm not sure whether a mountain of paper makes anybody more easily understood. It might work the other way. As biographers have to wrestle with this generation and its mounds of papers and computer-generated correspondence, we're going to find out. Because Jefferson believed in writing, I think we can find out a lot about him, but he wasn't a man of action so much. Other people you have to interpret by their actions. Benedict Arnold didn't leave many traces, but his behavior is a matter of public record. You would just have to look for him a different way. I'm writing a biography of Washington now -- didn't write a great deal of personal correspondence, and then apparently he ordered Martha to burn all of it, so we have a different problem with some that you have only a public figure, and you don't have the private life from the correspondence.
LAMB: In the front, you have a dedication, "For Nan and for my children, Christopher, Polly, Alice, and Lucy." Is that it?
RANDALL: That's right.
LAMB: I want to ask you who you dedicated your other books to and how come you decided to do the family this time?
RANDALL: I think in my Franklin book I made a horrible omission, which someone pointed out to me when it was too late. My son had helped me. As a young student he'd helped me a great deal, and I didn't mention his name. I had never mentioned Polly, who's 25 and a sweet girl, and Lucy is 6, and I couldn't just dedicate the book to her, I think, when I hadn't to the others, so I said, "I'm going to put them all in together," and Nan is my wife, and so the whole array, the whole family.
LAMB: What does your wife do today?
RANDALL: My wife is a poet, and she is rewriting her first novel.
LAMB: Is it Nan Randall?
RANDALL: It's Nancy Nahra, N-A-H-R-A. She writes under her own name. She taught for many years at the University of Vermont, taught French. She studied the classics. She's been extremely helpful to me in France, which she knows very well, and she knows the classics that Jefferson knew very well, so she's been a great help.
LAMB: Why did you decide to use the three names, Willard Sterne Randall?
RANDALL: That's my full name which I've used for a number of years, named after an uncle that I'm very proud of, Willard Sterne, an inventor, a bit of a cowboy at times, roared around in a ten-gallon hat in a Crown Victoria and told funny stories, and I loved him dearly. So I've always used his name.
LAMB: Was this a hard book to write?
RANDALL: It was extremely hard to write. It was excruciating at times, and I was a bit surprised that I was able to finish it. It's the hardest thing I've ever done.
LAMB: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything?
RANDALL: Fight for more time. But it was the 250th anniversary of his birth, and it had to be finished, and it had to come out. If I had it to do all over again, I'd probably spend more time on his presidency, but I'm not sure the public has the patience for a book of more than 700 pages, so . . .
LAMB: The presidency would end up being, what, only about a chapter.
RANDALL: It's actually a long chapter. It's about 100 pages out of the book. I think it's two chapters. Most is known about those years, so I felt it was much more important to emphasize parts that weren't known, but as time goes on, I keep finding out more about his presidency that intrigues me, so one of these days I'm going to suggest to my editor that we expand that part of it.
LAMB: How do you like the way the book's been handled by the reviewers?
RANDALL: Most of the reviews have been very kind and very favorable, and if I get a few unfavorable ones, well, those are the breaks, as the fellow said. We can't expect everybody to love us.
LAMB: William Sterne Randall is our guest and author of this book, "Thomas Jefferson: A Life." We thank you.
RANDALL: Thank you.
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