Friday, August 28, 2009

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson
by R. B. Bernstein

After reading the hefty tomes of a biography on the first two presidents, I decided to scale back on the third. The biography that I reviewed on Adams necessarily covered much of Jefferson's life so I was mostly interested in a book that filled in some of the blanks in the pre and post-presidential years and this book did that nicely. Yet this book also laid out the political years of his career in a well thought out and unbiased way that I am sure was hard to do giving the hypocritical nature of Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson has always been a complex person to learn about. Here is the man who penned the line, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…" and yet by today's standards he was racist believing white people were better than black people. He was even hypocritical in this belief because despite these differences, he fathered several children with one of his slaves. He fought hard to obtain our independence from England yet he kept slaves, never even freeing them upon his death as so many statesmen of his time did. He was vehemently opposed to Britain’s use of military force to enforce laws and yet in his presidency he used military force to enforce an embargo with Europe. Jefferson was adamant about following a strict interpretation of the constitution and yet he more than doubled the size of our nation with the Louisiana Purchase fully realizing that he had no constitutional power to do so and going so far as to draft an amendment to give him the power though never submitting it before congress. He lived his life as a gentleman planter and yet died so deeply in debt, that even his cherished home Monticello had to be sold off to pay it off. Yet here is a man who ended up with his own coin, national monument and even his likeness carved into a mountain.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Jefferson was his reputation after his death. Definitely while he was living he was a controversial figure and that didn't change much for the next 50 or so years after his death. Things started to swing towards the more favorable image we have of him during the First World War and even during the New Deal administration but it has mostly been the last sixty years when he gained the almost mythical status that he now has.

Bernstein did a great job summarizing Jefferson and having read the biography on Adams, I was not disappointed when he skimmed over some of the background of Jefferson's political motives, which I had already covered in depth. In fact, there wasn't one point during reading this book that I felt that too little information was given. Its brief 198 pages definitely hit the marks that I wanted to cover and kept it very interesting. Perhaps someday when I have met my goal of reading a biography on each of the presidents, I will come back and read one of the many larger tomes on Jefferson but until then, I am satisfied.

Next up is James Madison, which I know almost nothing other than his wife's name was Dolly and she supposedly saved Washington's full-length painting from being torched by the British during the war of 1812.


R. Sherman said...

I really appreciate these reviews. I need to sit down and read presidential biographies in historically chronological order.

(Madison was a much better republican theoretician than President. But his wife baked a mean Zinger.)


sage said...

Good review, Ed... You're goal to read about the presidents is a noble one and Jefferson is an interesting fellow.

Vince said...

Biogs should be served as one would serve Whiskey, never more than three fingers. While the Autobiography may be forgive for using equine measurements. The professional hand cannot be forgiven the bad manners. I hold if more than three, then it is either bad editing or two volumes of work masquerading as one

Beau said...

Nice review- I need to read this one too (and visit Monticello). I've planted some small heirloom apple trees from the stock on his original orchards. He was quite the horticulturist for the time.

geri said...

Very interesting. Hopefully someday I will be able to take this journey too.

Ed Abbey said...

R. Sherman - I already have Madison's biography waiting on my shelf. However, I may sneak another book or two in first before reading it. I don't want to get burnt out too soon.

Sage - I've learned a lot and have changed some of my opinions already. I should have done this a long time ago if only to shorten my list be two or three presidents. :)

Vince - I'm sure Sage would agree with me that all books are better with whiskey... and a nice fire.

Beau - He was ever tinkering with things from seeds to architecture. So far, it seems as if most of our founding fathers were, probably by necessity, with perhaps the exception of Adams. I think he probably would have been too had he not spent so much of his life in the service of our country, more so than either Jefferson or Washington.

Geri - One of the subjects on my wish list is a good history book of the Philippines.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Ah, I love how you pen Jefferson as a basic slime ball (in an unbiased way of course!) Just pulling your leg. I'll carry no water for the guy mostly because of the way he underhandedly undermined his "friend" George Washington, especially during Washington's second 4 years as prez and even afterwards. And besides, anyone as fond of the French as Jefferson was deserves to be suspect.

Ed said...

Phil - My views of Washington and Jefferson both went down a notch after reading their biographies and Adams went up several notches. Kind of interesting how that correlates to faces on mountains or monuments in DC.

Lezlie said...

Great review! Thank you for linking it the the U.S. Presidents Reading Project!