on September 11, 1998
Having consumed most of the recent volumes on the life and times of our third president, I would have to say that Mayer's book is one of the strongest when it comes to the concrete exploration of his political thought processes.
One of the reviewers on the back cover copy says that "Mayer allows Jefferson to speak for himself. This alone would recommend the work." Indeed. This is one of the strengths of the book with its extensive referencing to the words of one of our founding fathers. It also does the same justice to the philosophers and statesmen who influenced Jefferson throughout his life.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the scholarly analysis of what it meant (to Jefferson) to be a Whig. I was also compelled by the discussion of the whig concept of a government is more republican (small r) if it is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence.
Mayer is not reluctant to point to many of Jefferson's overly optimistic or downright naive assumptions on the practical implications of running a government.
One area I wished Mayer spent more time exploring was Jefferson's thoughts on bicameralism and separation of powers; and more specifically on the original contention that the Senate served as a break on run away emotions protecting minority interests (to avoid tyranny of the majority that Madison was so fearful of, but not Jefferson).
All told, this book is of value for those who admire Jefferson, who are critical of his standing, and for those who quote his examples without really knowing what they are doing.
on April 28, 2002
I've always maintained that the best way to understand the founders is to understand them on their on terms. Mayer believes this too and does an excellent job at profiling the constitutional thought of Jefferson and his political philosophy. Too often, shoddy partisan scholarship like that of Richard Matthews gets it quite wrong on the founders. They do so quite purposefully choosing to dwell statically on one quote or episode instead of objectively highlighting the development of their subject. Mayer explains Jefferson on his own terms, as "whig," "federal," and "republican," hence his First Inaugural Address. Jefferson was an adament defender of federalism, state's rights and the Constitution. His alleged "radical egalitarianism" was more than tempered by his mistrust of central government and the huddled urban masses and his rejection of majoritarian tyranny. "Democracy is not practicable beyond the limits of a town," avows Jefferson. Despite his occasional contradictions, his early tenacity of youth and sympathies with the French Revolution, he was a true Whig and a classical republican, and advocate of limited government. He is an enduring founding father who deserves careful study and admiration for his statesmanship.
Also recommended: Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution by Clinton Rossiter.
on July 3, 1999
This is indeed the finest study of Jefferson's political thought to date. Unlike other authors, Mayer penetrates to the core of Jefferson's political philosophy, revealing him to be fundamentally a "real whig," with emphasis on his distrust of government.
on February 8, 2010
This single volume is the most comprehensive study on Thomas Jefferson's view of federalism and the limits of power, ergo simply that the states are everything unto themselves in domestic affairs and united in respect to all foreign concerns. In these pages Jefferson is no enigma, he is well grounded, and a recognizable libertarian even to us today. America is right because Jefferson was! An important addition to any serious admirer of the author of liberty.