Dumas Malone

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Portrait photograph of Dumas Malone. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Dumas Malone (January 10, 1892 - December 27, 1986) was a professor and biographer who spent the majority of his career teaching at the University of Virginia, where he served as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History. He is best known for his six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, which became the preeminent authoritative work on the life of the founding father.


Early life and academic background

Malone was born in Coldwater, Mississippi on January 10, 1892 to an impoverished religious household. After Malone's birth, the family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where his father John Malone served as president of the Women's College of Oxford. They later moved to Georgia, where John Malone served as president of Andrew College.

In 1906, Malone enrolled in Emory College (now Emory University) at the age of 14, where he graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in 1910. He recalled not being a particularly good student while in college (despite later being inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society in 1930) and played center for the school football team; he also was a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity.

After graduating from Emory, Malone sought a career in ministry and acquired experience in teaching at several small schools. He briefly taught biblical literature as an adjunct professor at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, where two of his sisters had previously been educated. He later enrolled in Yale Divinity School and earned a Bachelor of Divinity in 1916. His studies were interrupted by the entry of the United States into World War I, with Malone enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1917 and becoming a Second lieutenant after graduating from Parris Island; however, he never saw active combat and was discharged in January of 1919.

He subsequently returned to Yale, earning his master's degree in 1921 and his Doctor of Philosophy in history in 1923. His dissertation, The Public Life of Thomas Cooper, was awarded the John Addison Porter Prize and was later used as the basis for Malone's first book of the same name that was published in 1926. During an interview at the American Historical Association later in 1923, Malone was persuaded to join the faculty of the University of Virginia by its president, Edwin A. Alderman.

Career at UVA

Full volume set of Malone's biography of Thomas Jefferson. Reproduced from Amazon.

In the fall of 1923, Malone took up a position as an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. His office was located at the top floor of Alderman Library. The university had been relatively small at the time, and the whole of the history faculty consisted of Malone himself and Richard Heath Dabney, the father of Virginius Dabney. Dabney had been encumbered with the entirety of the history curriculum which spanned from the ancient to modern era. Malone undertook the courses in European and American history, later relinquishing the courses in European history upon the arrival of Stringfellow Barr, and thereafter introduced new courses in colonial history and more contemporary American history.

During this time, Malone began an interest in the life of Thomas Jefferson, the university's founder. In 1923, he had already authored a 14-page summary of Jefferson's life for the university's Extension Series in March 1924. Despite doubts by other scholars, Malone resolved to write a voluminous biography on Jefferson by the fall of 1926. The next year, he traveled to France with his wife Elizabeth Gifford (who he had married in 1925, eventually having two children with her) on a Sterling Traveling Fellowship to do more extensive research. His findings later formed the basis of an article entitled "Polly Jefferson and Her Father," which was published in the January 1931 edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Malone's tenure at Virginia came to a sudden end when he was extended an offer to take the co-editorship of the Dictionary of American Biography (DAB) in 1929. He mulled heavily over the choice, consulting friends as to whether or not he should accept the position. After reluctantly choosing to leave the university, Malone moved with his wife to Washington, D.C., to assist Allen Johnson with the dictionary. In January of 1931, Johnson was unexpectedly killed in an automobile accident; his death made Malone the editor-in-chief of the DAB, a capacity which Malone continued to serve in until 1936. When the dictionary was finally completed nearly a decade later in 1942, it contained 20 volumes with the aid of more than 2,000 fellow biographers under his guidance.

In December of 1935, Malone was appointed as the third director of the Harvard University Press, a position he held until April of 1943 when he resigned and moved back to Charlottesville.

Return to Charlottesville and death

Gravestone of Malone. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

Malone spent the majority of his time in Charlottesville writing the first volume of his Jefferson biography. Because Malone's personal finances remained burdened after years of amassing debt (despite his contract's generous payment and royalties), the historian Douglas Southall Freeman recommended that Malone be supplemented by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in early 1944. Since Malone was then unaffiliated with any institution and thus unable to satisfy the requirements for the grant, UVA President John Lloyd Newcomb and the university's librarian, Harry Clemons, arranged for him to be given an honorary position so as to be affiliated with the University of Virginia. With these requirements satisfied, the Rockefeller Foundation granted a sum of $21,000 in order to fund Malone's work in May of 1944.

Earlier in 1944, Malone had been selected to be the "chief historian" of a short-lived secret committee of historians stationed at the Pentagon tasked with advising Allied bombing policy during World War II. In 1945, John A. Krout, chairman of the History Department at Columbia University, extended an offer to Malone for him to be appointed as a professor of history at the school. Malone was at first reluctant to accept the position (as it would disrupt his work on the first volume of his Jefferson biography), but accepted when the Rockefeller Foundation mended the terms of the agreement to fit a part-time teaching post.

In 1947, Malone finished his first volume, Jefferson the Virginian, and published the work on the date of Jefferson's birthday during the next year. This volume achieved great success and was well received by audiences, prompting Malone to complete his series across the new few decades.

Malone died of a brief illness at his home in Charlottesville on December 27, 1986. He was buried at the University of Virginia Cemetery and Columbarium.[1]

Brand portrait

Dumas Malone as depicted by Frances Brand.


  1. Web. DUMAS MALONE, EXPERT ON JEFFERSON, IS DEAD AT 94, The New York Times, 12/28/1986