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.
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 TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved