JFK once held a state dinner for all American-born Nobel laureates. At one point during the festivities, he rose to offer a toast, remarking that there hadn't been so much talent gathered in the White House dining room since Thomas Jefferson ate there alone.
The laureates took the unintended slight with good grace. How could they have not? Thomas Jefferson was without doubt our most cerebral president. He may not have had the academic discipline of a Woodrow Wilson or the native wisdom of a Lincoln. But as we all know, and as Kevin Hayes documents in impressive detail in his splendid Road to Monticello, there's never been a more bookish president, nor a wider-read one, than Jefferson.
Hayes has written an old-style (I mean this as a compliment, by the way) intellectual biography. Jefferson's public career is mentioned in passing, but what Hayes is primarily concerned to do is chart the course of Jefferson's thought from his earliest to his final days by charting his reading. Who were the authors that especially impressed him? That he found especially wanting? What connections between his diverse readings did he make? What were the blindspots and lacunae in his thinking and reading? Why did he select the quotes he jotted down in his Commonplace Books? In short, what Hayes wants to do in The Road to Monticello is get a clearer picture of Jefferson the thinker from examining the books he thought about.
Jefferson's erudition is impressive. He read in six languages (including Anglo-Saxon), and was interested in Asian, Indian, and Semetic languages. And he read everything: law, politics, philosophy, geography, history, the occasional theology tome, anthropology, science, music, fiction, poetry, agronomy, cookbooks. His curiosity was boundless, and never abated as the years rolled on. He cross-referenced his readings with marginalia: his law books, for example, frequently contain scribbled references to Greek tragedians and historians. He collected books avidly, during a time when book collecting wasn't all that easy. Hayes tells us that whenever Jefferson rolled into a city, he quickly made his way to the bookshops. By the end of his life, he'd amassed one of the finest collections in the early Republic, which (characteristically) he catalogued according to a system of his own invention. (Hayes' description of it is fascinating, especially for those of us who know a little about Francis Bacon.)
But Jefferson was also an extremely secretive man, and even though Hayes provides us with an excellent account of the cerebral food that fed Jefferson's intellect, I closed the book feeling that Jefferson the man still remained more enigmatic than not. Hayes tells us what Jefferson thought about, but what made him tick remains elusive. This isn't Hayes' failure so much as Jefferson's refusal to leave no personal memoirs, no tormented self-examinations in his Commonplace Books, and very few epistolary revelations. Ultimately, then, Hayes helps us penetrate the mind of Jefferson. But the third president's soul remains unexplored, as it probably always will.
Highly recommended. A genuine treat.