I do not think a biography should be written, or at least published, during the life of the person the subject of it. It is impossible that the writer’s delicacy should permit him to speak as freely of the faults or errors of a living, as of a dead character. There is still a better reason. The letters of a person, especially of one whose business has been chiefly transacted by letters, form the only full and genuine journal of his life; and few can let them go out of their hands while they live. A life written after these hoards become opened to investigation must supercede any previous one.
To Robert Walsh, April 5, 1823
From Koch & Peden’s Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, P. 643-4
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders hope for a thorough biography (after they’re dead).
Walsh was a writer and historian. He had written Jefferson, asking him to supply the material necessary to write a biography of the 80 year old statesman. Jefferson declined for three reasons:
– Earlier in this letter, he said he wasn’t up to the task. His health was too poor.
– The biographer of a living person couldn’t be objective.
– He couldn’t turn over his correspondence, essential for any biographer.
There isn’t much in Jefferson’s writing that suggests humor, but there could be a wry bit in this letter. As further justification for biographies of the dead only, he wrote, “it may be observed too that before you will have got through with the dead, the living will be dying off and furnishing fresh matter.”
“I want to thank you for your high degree of professionalism.
We have a small staff, and working with presenters who are reliable,
self-reliant and efficient makes my job a whole lot easier.”
President, National Association of Workforce Development Professionals
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