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Thomas Jefferson: The American Presidents Series: The 3rd President, 1801-1809 Hardcover – February 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Thomas Jefferson, so multifaceted and long-lived, tries the skills of most who venture to write his biography, especially a short one like this. But UCLA historian Appleby (Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans) has succeeded in writing as good a brief study of this complex man as is imaginable. Another in a series on the American chief executives edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., her elegant book is a liberal's take on the complex, sphinxlike founder of American liberalism. Appleby convincingly argues that the third president's greatest legacies were limited government (breached, however, by the opportunism that characterized his own presidency) and the great expansion of democracy. If some of her criticisms of Jefferson seem more perfunctory than heartfelt, she fully explains the man's sorry record and tortured views on slavery and race. Providing along the way a short, up-to-date history of the early 19th-century nation, she also concisely surveys the day's great issues-voting, democracy, political parties, commerce, westering and religion. Yet such a balanced picture of Jefferson remains somehow unsatisfactory, no doubt because a man of so many contradictions slips away from every biographer, the tensions in the man mirroring those of his times. Appleby tries to toss a bouquet to the man who vanquished the Federalist Party and purchased the Louisiana Territory. She wants to convince us that Jefferson was "one of history's most intuitive politicians," but even in Appleby's capable hands, Jefferson remains the most unfathomable political figure in our history.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Jefferson's tarnished reputation receives a slight boost in Appleby's interpretation of his presidency, part of a series about the presidents that includes Robert Remini's excellent John Quincy Adams [BKL Jl 02]. Appleby analyzes Jefferson's belief that his election in 1800 was comparable to 1776 in revolutionary import, a task she embarks on through extended comparison with the outlook of the Federalist whom Jefferson and the Republicans ousted. After the tumults of the 1780s, which in part motivated the formulation of the new Constitution, the Federalists regarded themselves as having rescued America from democratic excess. More optimistic about human nature, Jefferson was unworried by democracy--for white men, at least--and his presidency has proved enduringly interesting, significant, and contradictory; hence the oscillations of his reputation. Appleby fluidly unites evidence and argument not just to narrate Jefferson's eight years in office but to persuade readers of the importance of the democratic example he set. Hers is a fine, expert brief on the controversies surrounding, as Joseph Ellis memorably titled his biography, the American Sphinx. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Series: The American Presidents
  • Hardcover: 184 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books; 1 edition (February 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805069240
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805069242
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #199,859 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Robert Moore HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Few American presidents have experienced such a fluctuating reputation as president as has Thomas Jefferson. To a large extent this is also because of his pivotal role in the creation of the American republic. His contributions are by any standard vast: principal author of The Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War, ambassador to France following the War, first Secretary of State, second Vice President, third President, creator of the American party system (as well as of the old Republican party, that ironically evolved into the Democratic party under the leadership of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren), and author of a host of documents that have become part of the heart of American political literature. He is also viewed as the principal founder of liberalism in the United States, and is usually contrasted with John Adams, who is perceived as the founder of conservativism (though I personally find that Adams has virtually nothing in common with contemporary conservativism, which has less and less to do with Burkean ideals and concerns). This biography of Jefferson is by Joyce Appleby, one of the most renowned and respected of contemporary historians of the American Revolution and the early republic. In recent years many historians have taken aim at Jefferson to provide unflattering portraits, based either on the mercurial or inconsistent nature of his personality, the hypocrisy of his years as Adams's vice president, or his complex relations to slavery in general and Sally Hemmings in particular.Read more ›
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Steven Peterson TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 24, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In his biography of Thomas Jefferson, titled "American Sphinx," Joseph Ellis tellingly says at one point (Page xvii): "As I have found him, there really is a core of convictions and apprehensions at his center. Although he was endlessly elusive and extraordinarily adroit at covering his tracks, there were bedrock Jeffersonian values that determined the shape of the political vision he projected so successfully onto his world. . . ."

Joyce Appleby, author of this brief volume in The American Presidents series, attempts to capture that elusiveness. As noted many times, this series provides brief, readable, and often (but not always) insightful analyses--but at the cost of depth. For many, that tradeoff is well worth it, and I would rather someone read a brief biography and think a bit about the subject rather than not read anything at all about the subjects. Appleby begins by noting that Jefferson (Page 1) ". . .instilled the nation with his liberal convictions," the two most important, in the author's eyes, being participatory politics and limited government. These were clearly central aspects of Jefferson's political philosophy. However, his enmity toward a hierarchical, ordered society dominated by an elite is undermined by his ambivalent views on, for example, slavery. Jefferson, as a person, is someone who often manifest conflicting elements to his thinking.

This book, to its credit, gives credit to Jefferson for his accomplishments, whether as ambassador to France, his role in authoring the Declaration of Independence, his advocacy for the political equality of white males--including those who were not persons of means.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Zachary Koenig on November 16, 2009
Format: Hardcover
To be fair, this third installment of The American Presidents Series from Joyce Appleby does indeed provide some interesting information about both the personal life and administration of our nation's third President, Thomas Jefferson.

However, in terms of understanding the position of Jefferson in the context of the birth of our young nation, the "John Adams" installment of "American Presidents" is actually just as effective (if not more so) in defining the most important aspects of Jefferson's thoughts, philosophies, and actions towards politics. The disputes between Adams (pro-government) and Jefferson (almost no-government intrusion) laid the backbone for party politics in the United States, and while reading this book I never really felt as if Appleby gave Jefferson a fair shake in laying out "his side of the story".

Thus, I still recommend reading this book for the useful information it expouses about other aspects of Jeffersonian America, but if (like I was) you are looking for a continuation of the fascinating Adams/Jefferson philosophical battle, you may be disappointed.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By William J. Shepherd on February 28, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Professor Appleby has provided a generally thoughtful overview of the life, thought, and public service of our third president. She presents a thoughtful examination of his contradictions, such as being a champion of freedom but not including slaves or advocate of states' rights while increasing the power of the federal government when it suited him. However, in the end, there is just too much hand-wringing about his failure to live up to (21st century) liberal standards. She continually harps about his failures in regard to race and gender, but what more exactly was he supposed to do, given the times he lived in? How long would he have lasted in any public capacity (or even stayed alive) if he had freed all the slaves, stopped settlers from moving to Indian lands, and appointed women to high office? What's next? Will the next generation of historians attack Jefferson (and other founding fathers) for their failures to protect the environment, enforce animal rights, and promote gay marriage? What ever happened to judging historical figures by the standards of their times? This should at least be as an important of a factor as judging them by the standards of ours, should it not?
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Thomas Jefferson: The American Presidents Series: The 3rd President, 1801-1809
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