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Thomas Jefferson: The American Presidents Series: The 3rd President, 1801-1809 Hardcover – February 1, 2003
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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 Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.
First, there was very little insight on his life prior to becoming president and did not examine the details of his presidency. She seems to want us to believe that everything that Jefferson done was to save the US from the "tyranny" of the Federalist Party. Everything that Washington and Adams did as president was to produce a monarchy and create an elitist class in America. In contrast, everything that Jefferson had done was to reverse the policies of these two "bad" presidents. As Appleby discussed the actions of Jefferson this pattern was followed, first she described how it was done before by his predecessors and how their actions was an attempt to create an elitist society, then what Jefferson did to reverse these trends and how it showed that he was more in touch with the common man, and then she would examine how members of the Federalist Party would balk at his actions. A typical example of this would be how he handled the president's annual address to congress (now known as the "State of the Union). Washington and Adams delivered this in person as the monarchs of Europe had done. When Jefferson became president he insisted on delivering the finished speech to congress which brought the ire or the Federalist Party. There is no mention that since Woodrow Wilson, besides a few exceptions, every president has delivered that State of the Union in person.
Secondly, the organization of the book seemed very haphazard.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Thomas Jefferson is one of my favorite historical figures. Ms. Appleby's portrayal is appropriately honoring. Read morePublished 12 months ago by Judith Feneley
All of the biographies in the "American Presidents" series are short (150 to 180 pages) so it is understandable that this book is not a complete representation of Thomas... Read morePublished 16 months ago by Dennis W Pinion
Disappointing book on Jefferson. The author kept pointing out Jefferson's deficiencies to the deterrent of any discussion on the his achievements. Read morePublished 19 months ago by M. Belcher
love the american president series books and will order more in the future it was also received in a timely fashionPublished on July 30, 2014 by randy scheuermann
Excellent information. Good insights into political challenges faced by Jefferson at a crucial time in our history. Relevant to current.Published on February 19, 2014 by Ken Bruner
I read all the Biographies of the Presidents by way of the Presidential series. If you are going to do it, read John Hancock first because he was the first Continental Congress... Read morePublished on January 31, 2014 by Frank Anderson