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I Loved this Book. Very Concise and Insightful
on September 24, 2004
I really enjoyed this superb book. I highly recommend it as an excellent introduction to Thomas Jefferson. The concise book is only 198 pages of text, yet the author paints a vivid, fascinating portrait of the contradictory and accomplished Jefferson - especially his ideas and how asserted them. This book was a joy to read.
On the cover of the book is a comment from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood calling this book "The best short Biography of Jefferson ever written." Gordon Wood is the leading historian of the Revolutionary War era and the history of early America. I agree with Wood and would add that it's simply a great book.
Thomas Jefferson had a profound role in the meaning of the America Revolution, especially his enlightened ideas. He wrote the Declaration of Independence - essentially the American creed - "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Jefferson advocated freedom, learning, and individual rights for all, not to be infringed upon by the state. He was egalitarian in ideology and fearful of strong controlling powers over people in history, including religious powers. He later used the presidency to transform the revolution into his Jeffersonian ideals, and his legacy through time (taking different forms depending on who is using him as an icon) has helped to define the meaning of America.
The first chapter "A Young Gentlemen of Virginia (1743-1774)" gives the reader a fine understanding of the aristocratic, planter society Jefferson grew up in. The book succinctly details Jefferson's love of learning, his ideas, and how his ideas would play out his life and then into American history. Jefferson was an advocate of liberty, including religious freedom. When his wife died at a young age, Jefferson uncontrollably cried for a week. He loved books, architecture, agriculture, art, politics, philosophy, science and much more. He played the violin, became a lawyer, and held numerous political positions, including legislature, governor, vice president, diplomat, secretary of state, and president.
Brief chapters detail how Jefferson was faced with many difficult problems and how he handled them on a case-by-case basis. Bernstein says that Jefferson seemed to compartmentalize his problems which could make various solutions look contradictory. This book clarifies the "why" behind Jefferson's actions and ideas. You get a good understanding of who he was.
Jefferson strongly opposed slavery in his younger years due to his devotion to individual freedom and liberty. He sought to limit slavery to just the original slave states, but the measure failed in Congress by one vote. Younger in life, he and another fellow tried to introduce an anti-slavery bill in the Virginia Legislature, and Jefferson saw the other man attacked for that, so Jefferson learned the futility of trying to fight slavery. Jefferson later expanded his ownership of slaves, according the Bernstein, and became a defender of states rights, so he was hypocritical. He sincerely hated slavery and yet he relied on them for his livelihood. He believed in the brotherhood and egalitarian equality in spirit of all men, and yet he looked down on less educated city dwellers and considered African American inferior, which is not surprising considering the slaves he saw lacked the education he had. So Jefferson was a hypocrite in his contradictory positions against slavery (sincerely and assertively) and yet upholding it with his actions.
This book explains the facts transparantly without offering an opinion one way or the other. Jefferson also likely fathered children with Sally Hemings, who was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife (long dead). Bernstein explains the evidence surrounding this controversy in an unbiased way. (By the way, Monticello believes that Jefferson was the father.) For example, Jefferson's appointment book shows that Hemings and Jefferson were together around those times of conception. She and her children were the only slaves that Jefferson agreed to free when he died -- apparently a deal between them. Sally Hemings was similar in appearance to Jefferson's lovely wife, whom Jefferson adored.
I just loved Bernstein's description of the nasty politics during Adams' presidency and the really nasty election of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams. I could not put the book down. You must read this book to learn about that astonishing time in history. Hamilton and Jefferson, the brilliant founders that they were, could be very wily. They also had different visions of America, and this book gives you a good, basic understanding. Jefferson was agrarian and feared strong central powers, while Hamilton saw an economic future for America that was more modern and close to what actually happened, including the need for an organized national government.
Jefferson was mired in debt. Read the book and understand the society of aristocratic land owners requiring high debt and Jefferson's tastes in living, and Bernstein briefly explains the decisions that led to Jefferson getting over his head. This made freeing his slaves economically impossible. Bernstein does not mention, unfortunately, that Jefferson actually had a positive net worth several years before his death and could have covered all his debts but that a crash in property values caused his net worth to collapse.
I really enjoyed Bernstein's brief description of Jefferson's alliances and rivalries with other founders, especially Madison, Adams, and Hamilton. Jefferson was friends with Adams, then enemies, then friends late in life. They both died on the same day, July 4. Jefferson and Hamilton viciously hated each other and waged an enduring battle over the future of America. Jefferson the politician was very nasty compared to Jefferson the man of letters and sciences.
Jefferson was a strong advocate of religious liberty and successfully achieved a law allowing religious freedom in Virginia. He loved learning and founded the University of Virginia. He was a renaissance man in many ways, which this book briefly explains, and ideologically believed in religious liberty. And he was a agrarian Southern planter.
If you want an excellent, concise book on Jefferson, buy this superb book.
On the back cover of this book are these rave reviews:
"Bernstein's Jefferson is a brilliant success. There's nothing like it in the literature." -Peter Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History, University of Virginia.
"R.B. Bernstein has produced a fascinating, extremely intelligent examination of the life of Thomas Jefferson. With a clear eye and deft historical touch, Bernstein reminds us why studying Jefferson and his world will always remain central to understanding the development of the American character." -Annette Gordon-Reed, author of "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy."
"It is difficult to be objective about Thomas Jefferson, but this book succeeds wonderfully. Neither attacking Jefferson for his sins nor lauding him for his accomplishments, `Thomas Jefferson' does equal justice to Jefferson's political, intellectual and personal life in a concise biography that can be enjoyed by all." -Joanne B. Freeman, Professor of History at Yale University.
Of the many books I have read on the presidents (I am reading through all the great presidents and founders), "Thomas Jefferson" stood out as especially well written. It carefully packed much information into a small amount of pages, touching on all aspects of Jefferson's life and creating a living portrait. It was a joy to read and I enthusiastically recommend it as an outstanding introduction to the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson.