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Thomas Jefferson: A Life Hardcover – August 15, 1993

79 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

A biography of Thomas Jefferson, who despite his legendary intelligence and political savvy, could be ruthless, not to mention lawless, in his efforts to preserve his causes. Jefferson operated on two levels, as his opposition to slavery as a slaveowner attests. But as Willard Sterne Randall argues, this duality is what made him so effective. Whether Jefferson's 1784 draft of Virginia's constitution "prefigured the founding documents of republics in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, as well as the Confederate States of America," as Randall claims, is questionable, but his impact on international trade, diplomatic discussions and the success of the state of Virginia cannot be disputed. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Randall's masterful, gracefully written portrait brings us closer to Jefferson than any previous biography. The self-taught stoic who tried to make himself an embodiment of the Age of Reason was also, in Randall's view, a tortured romantic who kept a pledge to his dying wife not to remarry. Jefferson fell passionately in love with at least two married women, including British painter Maria Cosway with whom he gallivanted in Paris. As a statesman he could act illegally and ruthlessly if he perceived a serious threat to one of his causes, as in his drafting of secret orders that enabled George Rogers Clark to seize territory for Virginia under cover of the Revolution. Randall, biographer of Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin, finds that Jefferson as president was an "ambivalent pragmatist" who often set aside his principles to achieve his goals. Randall dismisses as "preposterous" biographer Fawn Brodie's theory that the slave Sally Hemings was Jefferson's concubine; Brodie, he charges, relied on mere gossip and highly suspect, uncorroborated memoirs by ex-slaves.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (August 15, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805015779
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805015775
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 2.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #607,913 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

After a successful seventeen-year career as a feature writer for the Philadelphia Bulletin, magazine writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, investigative journalist for Philadelphia Magazine and stringer for Time-Life News Service, Willard Sterne Randall pursued advanced studies in history at Princeton University. Biographer of Benjamin and William Franklin, of Benedict Arnold, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Ethan Allen, he has co-authored collections of biographies and e-books with his wife, the biographer and award-winning poet, Nancy Nahra. As a journalist, Randall won the National Magazine Award for Public Service from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the Standard Gravure Award, the Hillman Prize, the Loeb Award and the John Hancock Prize. His Benedict Arnold biography received four national awards and was a New York Times Notable Book. Publishers Weekly chose his biography of Jefferson as one of the ten best biographies of 1993. He received the Award of Merit of the American Revolution Round Table. He taught American history at John Cabot University in Rome and at the University of Vermont and Champlain College, where he was a Distinguished Scholar in History and is a Professor Emeritus. He is a contributing editor to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. He lives, writes, teaches, lectures and likes to swim in Burlington, Vermont.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Gregory Maier on May 7, 2003
Format: Paperback
If one can get past the fact that Willard Sterne Randall's prose is ponderous, uneven and repetitive (he shows improvement in his latest biography of Alexander Hamilton), a reader will certainly be able to appreciate the diligent research, remarkable detail and exploration of Thomas Jefferson's early life as given us by the author. The early life and formative years of America's third president has never been rendered better or in greater detail, and the first few hundred pages of this book --up to Jefferson's first years in France-- are absolutely worth reading.
Randall strikes one as somewhat prudish when it comes to exploring the more human frailties of his mighty subject, almost smugly downplaying Jefferson's sexual relationships throughout his life, and dismissing, with a scholarly sniff, the notion that Thomas Jefferson might have had an intimate relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. Scientific tests performed after the publication of this almost epic biography have raised some relevant questions, and though certainly not the centerpiece of Jefferson's life and myriad accomplishments, it is evidence of the author's almost protective prose.
Nonetheless, the complex Thomas Jefferson, a pixilated, self-absorbed genius who was also voraciously patriotic and far-sighted, is clearly painted for the reader. His ability to compartmentalize his many desires and inner conflicts is fascinating --apparently, the many facets of Jefferson seldom, if ever, communicated with each other. Yet, to watch Jefferson studying law, natural science and the classics (to name but a few fields in which he would become an authority), molding himself (with a good deal of generous patronage and good fortune) into an indisputable man for all seasons, is marvelous.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Having read, what i believe to be the best book regarding Jefferson, "Understanding Jefferson" previous to this, i felt that there was no way Randalls book could compare. However, by the end of the book I was amazed at how incredible to book was. While most books on Jefferson examine the same famous aspects of his life, the Declaration of Independence, the Lousiana Purchace, and his presidency, this book does not focus on those subject. Instead it examines less famous aspects of Jeffersons life. From his early childhood to the time he spent in France. This provides another different look at Jeffersons life. I would highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about our most accomplished president. However, if you are looking for an introductory "quick" read on Jefferson I would also suggest "Understanding Jefferson."
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By James Yanni on July 6, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Other reviewers have complained that this book gives too brief a treatment to Jefferson's presidential and post-presidential years, and certainly, if you're interested in a thorough study of Jefferson's presidency, this isn't the book for you. But it is, after all, called "Thomas Jefferson: A Life", not "Thomas Jefferson: A President". About 50 pages are devoted to the eight years of Jefferson's presidency, out of a touch less than 600 pages. Not an unreasonable percentage to devote to eight years out of a touch over eighty. Granted, his post-presidential years are skimmed over quite briefly, and could have been given a bit more attention, but it's a minor quibble.
The major quibble is that the writing style can get a bit ponderous at times; I occasionally found myself struggling to keep my eyes open if at all drowsy. But the book is certainly worth a read for anyone interested in a close look at our third president, and the writer of the Declaration of Independence.
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45 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Marc Pieroni on April 24, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Randall may have uncovered just about every fact there is about Thomas Jefferson. The fact that he dedicated pages evenly to each one is where this book fails. Thomas Jefferson could be the most complex figure in American history, but most people won't realize that fact from reading this biography because their minds will be numb from reading the first 300 pages of the book dedicated to his early law career that really played little role in the development of Jefferson. The author tries to justify his inclusion of all this material by theorizing that his contempt for the law system turned Jefferson's mind towards changing the system and thus revolution, and once committed to revolution his ideas on government were influenced by his law teachings, but dedicating 50 pages to Jefferson part in exploting a loop hole in Virinia law to help the First Families acquire more land serves more to make the reader flip through the pages scanning for interesting dates to resume reading. The real dissapointment in the book is that in spite of all this research, Randall fails to really tackle Jefferson's hypocricies and puzzling political movements. Perhaps he was unable to find good cause for Jefferson's motives, but to ignore his obvious faults makes this biography toothless. His borderline treasonous behavior as both Washington's Secretary of State and Adams' Vice-President, his obvious hypocrisy between champion of human equality and slaveowner, and his change of heart about the institution between his authorship of the Declaration and his ascension to the Presidency (along with the glossing over of his decision-making process during the Louisiana Purchase), are all controversial actions of a man usually considered "great" without much examination.Read more ›
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