Customer Reviews: Thomas Jefferson: The Revolution of Ideas (Oxford Portraits)
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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.

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on November 16, 2005
As a part of my review I can't help but be amused at one who would claim this book "never should have been published" and "bad writing, I think, always reveals the shallowness of perception." Talk about the shallowness of perception... it sounds as though the reviewer is a frustrated and unpublished writer. To the point, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too is the value of this book to the reader. If you are a Jeffersonian scholar, well versed in his life and times, this book will have little to offer you. If, on the other hand, your knowledge of Thomas Jefferson stems from American History class and fanciful movies, then it has something to offer. I don't know the author, but I doubt that he intended it to be the definitive biography of Thomas Jefferson. Rather, it is a concise, well written and easily read synopsis of Jefferson's life and worth the time it takes to read it. For those who want more in depth analysis there are other excellent books to fill that need.
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on September 17, 2007
This is an extremely basic and simple 192 page summary of the life and accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson. In that context, it is perfectly acceptable. For the life of me, however, I don't see how this could be rated a five (or even four) star effort.

If you give this 5 stars, what do you give Truman, or John Adams or War and Peace? When you go to your average Holiday Inn, do you give it five stars? If so, what is a Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton? Do you award the gold medal to a diver who does a perfectly executed swan dive? Degree of difficulty must come into play.

Having said that, if you're looking for a beginner biography for your junior high student, this would be an excellent selection. If you're interested in the American Presidents series and want to skim the surface of many of our Presidents without going in depth on any of them, this would be the way to go. If you're looking for depth, analysis and context, however, I'd certainly look for more than a 192 page summation.

Why then did I purchase this work? I knew what it was when I bought it. I had just finished Ron Chernow's "Hamilton" and had previously read David McCollough's "John Adams". Both of these subjects were rivals and at times bitter enemies of Jefferson. Having been brought up to view Jefferson as a Founding Father of great intellect and importance, it was a little disconcerting to view him through the writing of McCollough and Chernow as a dishonest, venal, calculating opportunist. Chernow, especially, falls into hero worship mode when comparing and contrasting his subject, Hamilton, with Jefferson.

In buying this work, I was looking for a more balanced effort without having to invest the time in an 800 page biography which largely recounted the historical events already covered in previously read biographies on Washington, Adams and Hamilton. For that purpose, it was just what the doctor ordered. Unlike Chernow, Bernstein examines his subject warts and all. He acknowledges and doesn't downplay his weaknesses, while at the same time revealing his unquestionable brilliance in many areas.

I highly recommend "Hamilton" as an outstanding history lesson and biography of a little appreciated and sometimes disregarded founding father. However, this little tome is a good antidote for the character assassination sustained by Jefferson in the aforementioned work.
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on February 24, 2005
This is a great introduction to Thomas Jefferson. It's not possible to give a detailed description of the life and accomplishments of Jefferson in a mere 200 pages of text, but Bernstein has presented a fine basic summary of Jefferson' life. I don't necessarily agree with all of Bernstein's conclusions, and he seems to allow a bit of liberalism to skew his viewpoints, but nonetheless, there is a definite market for a book of this sort.

This is not an indepth, detailed analysis of Jefferson. For that, see such works as Dumas Malone's 6-volume set which took over 30 years to compose. What this book is, is a quick easy introduction and overview of Jefferson. If you are wanting to learn about Jefferson but not wanting to wade through 600 pages of Willard Sterne Randall's account, or even a the brief version by Joseph Ellis, which is just over 300 pages of text, then this is a perfect fit for you. At less than 200 pages, this is a quick, easy read.

I only have a couple of knocks on the book. For one, Bernstein seems genuinely disturbed that Jefferson did in fact own slaves and spends, I think, too much time debating the issue of Jefferson fathering the children of Sally Hemmings. Let us not forget that Jefferson was, in fact, a southern planter and owning slaves was accepted and commonplace. That is not an endorsement, but simply a statement of fact, and one that I believe Jefferson should not be condemned for considering the time in which he lived.

The other problem I have with this book occurs on pages 144 - 145. Here the author is addressing Jefferson's efforts to Christianize Native Americans. Bernstein states;

"Setting aside his commitment to strict separation of church and state, he sent Christian missionaries to establish schools in western territories to educate Native Americans - and convert them to Christianity."

Never does Bernstein ponder that perhaps Jefferson was not the "strict separationists" which revisionist historians have led us to believe. In fact, this statement stands as a testament that Jefferson's metaphor of a "wall of separation" has in fact, been greatly distorted. Sending missionaries to educate and convert Native Americans, was not, as the First Amendment forbids, "an establishment of religion", but does give weight to the argument that America was, in fact, founded as a "Christian" nation. It is difficult to accept this type of short-sightedness by the author, but then, we live in a society where this type of short-sightedness is commonplace.

The book skims through Jefferson's life from birth to death and beyond and includes 16 glossy pages of black and white plates, 30 pages of notes, a chronology and biographical essay. If you've read other books on Jefferson, you may be disappointed as this is, for the most part, a condensed version. However, if you know little of Jefferson and seek to learn, this is a great little book to start with.

Monty Rainey

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Out of fairness, I feel compelled to tell everyone this. As a history teacher and Jefferson reader, I immediately inhale each new book about Thomas Jefferson that comes out, and have just finished R.B. Bernstein's "Thomas Jefferson". Once again I come away thinking that this is another commendable book like the others. However, once again, I still come away thinking that the book by Norman Thomas Remick (West Point:..Thomas Jefferson), though not a full blown biography, is, because of just that, uniquely the only one that ever brought the mind and heart of Thomas Jefferson into clear focus to me. That's my honest opinion. But don't get me wrong. I fully enjoyed Mr. Bernstein's book and I do recommend it to you.
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on January 23, 2007
THOMAS JEFFERSON by R.B. Bernstein is a short biography (198 pages) of Thomas Jefferson that seems to accurately sketch our third president's life objectively, but it reads a little like a long encyclopedia article, without much verve or access to the emotional and personal presence of the man.

This characterization is not to fault Bernstein, who has done what he stated in his introduction was his aim. I found the book enjoyable and his objectivity refreshing in terms of both Jefferson's strengths (his ability to write and inspire) and his weaknesses (his behind-the-scenes manipulations that often ended up embarrassing him when his differing letters were compared by their recipients). I also found the epilogue ("Take care of me when dead..."), which delineates the various eras of Jefferson's reputation in America, very interesting.

Bernstein organizes the book's chapters chronologically by logical periods in the life of Jefferson, from his young adulthood in Virginia (1743-1774) through his time in Europe (1874-1789) to his presidential administrations (1801-1805 and 1805-1809) and his retirement (1809-1826). Bernstein quotes from Jefferson's writings and from peers who wrote about him, including an interesting physical description of him by Sen. Daniel Webster.

While this book does not present nearly so engaging and personal a portrait of a man as Ellis's book on Washington and McCullough's book on John Adams, it does continue the story of the beginnings of our nation from Jefferson's life and reinforces the point that these man, while very different from each other, were inextricably linked with intertwining lives and experiences. I learned a lot about the beginnings of the United States from this book, including some interesting explanations of the electoral college ("In 1787-1788, when the Constitution was adopted, most Americans expected most presidential elections to give no candidate a majority. The electoral college would thin the field, not decide the election. ... Thus, in 1800 they were alarmed by a deadlock that, in 1788, they would have expected as a normal result" p. 129) that illustrate how fluid and changing governance was even for those who began our systems and protocols. It is also a helpful volume in understanding Jefferson's religious life, his deistic beliefs and his adamant support of separation of church and state and the criticism he endured for this position.

If anything, this book has made me more curious about Jefferson, his legacy and his personal life, as it really does gloss Jefferson's marriage, the fact that only one of his children survived him and his relationship with Sally Hemmings and their children. I recommend this as a primer, but not for greater insight into the man.
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on September 11, 2003
Jefferson will forever be ensconced in the hallowed halls of American Mythic figures. Indeed his eloquence in expounding the rights of the common man in the close of the 18th century give him an immortality which few in world history will ever attain.
And yet, Jefferson has bedeviled his biographers. He almost seems to taunt at them from beyond the grave. He is a figure that echoes Hamlet's speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back to the recorders of his history, "You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. ... 'Sblood do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me."
In the face of this brilliant, enigmatic, contradictory figure Richard Berstein has taken the only legitimate interpretation of Jefferon possible. He reflects him in his own time. Pulling together a wealth of information from various sources Bernstein manages to create an image of the man himself, as judged by the values and ideas of his own time.
And this is where Jefferson's Brilliance and Human Frailty come to the fore. And it allows the audience to understand how Jefferson became revered in his own time and how this reverance could last to the present day.
Truly a first rate job, this is an excellent, balanced introduction to one of our greatest Founding Fathers.
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on November 14, 2008
I read this book after David McCullough's John Adams and Walter Isaacson's Ben Franklin, both of which were fairly lengthy and detailed, although very good and worth the time to read. However, I was ready for a shorter biography as I did not need all the background of the period. I tried to read Joseph Ellis' "American Sphinx" biography and found it way too analytical. It spent 10 pages discussing the influences on the Declaration. For me it is sufficient to know that the Declaration was not a wholly original piece of work without knowing all the details of Thomas Locke's writings. This book does a good job of telling the story of Jefferson. It seemed to provide a balanced view of the man. The great: his contribution of the Declaration and his achievements as President (Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark expedition), and founding of University of Virginia. The not so great: owner of slaves, not great tenure as governor of Virginia and personal finances. It discusses the Sally Hemings issue, but draws no conclusion. I found it very interesting that Jefferson held what I would could Libertarian ideals of limited government, but expanded government power in expanding the country through the Louisiana purchase and Lewis and Clark expedition. I would recommend this biography for anyone looking for a shorter biography of this important figure in American History.
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VINE VOICEon November 19, 2004
Jefferson is of course an icon of our founding. This book sketches his life from birth to death focusing on those aspects that pertain to establishing the nation's political identity. Also, despite its brevity, the ambiguities of Jefferson are not ignored. Jefferson was a slave-owning aristocrat, yet he championed liberty for all people, at least in theory. However, Jefferson could not bridge the racial divide and he was hardly an advocate of any significant democratization of social and political affairs. His relationship, or lack thereof, with Sally Hennings, a household slave of Jefferson's, is mentioned several times (too often actually) with no hard conclusions drawn. If a brief, yet somewhat comprehensive, biography of Jefferson was needed, this book is a fine contribution.

What is obvious is that Jefferson and others constructed a basic, raw framework for a nation and its government. But in Jefferson's lifetime alone, the operation and even the distribution of power within government was an evolving process. In addition, much to Jefferson's dismay, American life was beginning to change from being mostly an agrarian society of small producers. It would be interesting to see a Jeffersonian scholar speculate as to the possibility of Jefferson understanding and accepting the vast changes in American society over the last two hundred years. Would the vast private power of corporations in an industrial society be of concern? What would he prescribe to countervail that power? Would he have accepted gender and racial equality?

One has to wonder about the legitimacy of directly invoking Jefferson to support positions on either the right or the left in today's complex society. Jefferson, like anyone else, was a man of his times, constructing ideas and dealing with issues in that context. What is really interesting is that Jefferson strongly suggested that the Constitution be rewritten every nineteen years. He seems to have known what we do not: that documents written to govern the affairs of men are not so sacred as to be untouchable. It makes the strict constructionists of our era appear to be silly. In reading this book, it is obvious that this nation has benefited greatly from a group of very insightful men from the eighteenth century. One would hope that similar wisdom can find a voice in a world where ideas have to compete with sophisticated public relations and propaganda of many forms.
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on January 15, 2013
Like its title, this 200-page biography is simple and to-the-point. Unmarred by florid prose, dramatic metaphors, Freudian psychoanalysis, pure speculation, or a political agenda, it presents a thoroughly mainstream picture of one of America's most important and fascinating statesmen, with coverage of important contemporary events not directly involving Jefferson kept to a bare minimum.

Many Americans today idolise Jefferson, and unfortunately, this has produced a tendency to mould him into the idol we wish him to be, exemplified by a recent travesty of history devoted to denying Jefferson's well-documented views on race and religion. R. B. Bernstein, on the other hand, sticks closely to the facts throughout his book, generally refraining from praise or blame of his brilliant, but human subject--though he doesn't hesitate to report the reasons Jefferson's contemporaries found him such a polarising figure. Jefferson's clearly expressed racist views are covered frankly, but his efforts to rein in slavery (alas, all too feeble) are not ignored either.

But I don't mean to suggest that the book is preoccupied with controversies over race and religion; such things are given the space they deserve, but do not overshadow Jefferson's distinguished career in public service (which he was always trying to quit), his lifelong passion for learning and culture, or his work to spread the light of liberty and reason. Jefferson's whole career is covered with all its missteps, indiscretions, and conflicts between ideals and practice.

In a way, Bernstein's honesty makes the book only more flattering to Jefferson--he doesn't have to descend to hagiography to leave the reader with the impression that Jefferson's virtues well outweigh his faults. The book doesn't strive to offer a huge amount of detail or unique insight, so it likely won't add much if you've already read a thicker biography of Jefferson (such as Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation or In Pursuit of Reason), but a better introduction or refresher is hard to imagine.
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