Halliday begins his book with frequently salacious asides about Jefferson’s sex life, which rather sets the tone… badly. Taken in and of itself, the erotic life of our third president is a valid path of inquiry, but his probing is written in the language of a nineteen year old trying to show off his supposed sexual sophistication in conversation with sixteen year olds. Like any normal adult eavesdropper on that hypothetical conversation, I was not amused. The whole thing is not improved by improvidently titling the second chapter, Surges of Youth.
Really, it feels like a rather juvenile and often tone deaf excuse to delve into the sex life of our third president. And it gets downright icky at times. He bemoans that when Abigail Adams measured Polly, Jefferson’s youngest daughter, and the young slave who was accompanying, a certain Sally Hemings, that no record of Ms. Hemings measurements survive. So sad that we don’t get to know the cup size of a girl was fourteen at the time. He later suggests that maybe Sally seduced Thomas, which is supposed to make conservative commentators who can’t stand the idea that he fathered her children feel better about the whole thing. It seems a shame that this has to be mentioned, but an adolescent girl who is also owned by someone does not have the independent capacity to seduce a middle aged man, nor to give anything like genuine, informed consent to sex.
On several occasions, he explicitly describes his project as in opposition to the premise of Ellis’ Pulitzer Prize winning American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (which is on my list, but which I haven’t read yet). Towards the end, in the penultimate chapter, he asks if his book, thus far, has elucidated Jefferson’s character so far as to say it is not Sphinx-like. While admire that he believes Jefferson can be understood, unless he is best understood as a somewhat sex-addled figure, I’m not sure this book has succeeded in that laudable mission.
I was also personally miffed by his remark that ‘Jefferson’s tenacious adherence to the moral-sense theory of psychology must be judged as scientifically rather dubious.’ First, I’m not sure how much that is the case. And I assume he is referring to Jefferson’s general acceptance of the sentimentalist theory of morals which was so eloquently argued by prominent figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, which adherence made him quite forward thinking for his time (with the caveat that many contemporary elites would have agreed with him). However, he almost made up for that by praising Gore Vidal’s Burr.