Saturday, June 26, 2010


A Review of R.B. Bernstein’s Thomas Jefferson (2003)

(Rating 4 of 5)

R.B. Bernstein’s biography on Thomas Jefferson packs a great deal of information into a very little space. Inside this a fewer than two-hundred-and-fifty-page work, is the life of the third president of the United States. Yet, the work has very ease flowing narrative that makes it enjoyable to read.

Thomas Jefferson’s entire life is put into to nicely fit little chapters. The Revolution starts right at the second chapter, which makes sense considering Jefferson was only thirty. The second chapter covers Jefferson’s glory years in the Continental Congress fighting for independence and authoring the Declaration. While the third and fourth chapters focus on some of Jefferson’s less than great moments, such as his disastrous governorship of Virginia to his time as U.S. Minister to France, where he to in love with the French Revolution.

The fifth chapter focuses Jefferson coming home to be the nation’s Secretary of State, under President George Washington, that he finds very frustrating and leaves after a single term. The next chapter goes into his brief exile from politics where he plots the campaign of 1796. Through a fluke in the Constitution, in 1796, he is elected his opponent's, John Adams, vice president, and in 1800 is stuck in House of Representatives battling a tie with his own running mate. These elections and his vice presidency are all in chapter seven.

Chapter eight covers his glorious first term as president. From his brilliant inaugural address to his brilliant, although accidental, purchase of the Louisiana territory. Other then the Declaration of Independence, I feel that Jefferson’s first term as President is his great accomplishment.

The next chapter covers his not-so-great-second term as President. Although he does abolish U.S. participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, his 1808 trade embargo caused a huge economic downturn for the nation. Unpopular though the embargo was, Jefferson’s chosen successor, James Madison, is elected to replace him. The final chapter is Jefferson in retirement, his thoughts, fears and founding of the University of Virginia.

“Unfortunately, the students showed little inclination to behave like the serious scholars whom Jefferson had hoped to welcome. Instead, they carried on in ways resembling Jefferson’s idle, boisterous classmates at William and Mary. Their favorite activities were drinking, gambling, and riots, all of which Jefferson denounced as ‘vicious irregularities.’ In particular, the students’ nighttime raids up and down the Lawn, known as ‘calathumps,’ alarmed and outraged him. Those who took part in calathumps wore masks to avoid being recognized and punished as they shouted and yelled, fired guns into the air and whirled noisemakers, broke windows, and otherwise made a ruckus.” p.176

This book is a good one-stop little biography of the nation’s third president. The book covers all that was stated in this small review and much more, it has some surprising depth for such a small book. It is a good starting point for someone who knows nothing about Thomas Jefferson.

{Video from the already classic HBO John Adams series is Jefferson being at his most silly fortunately for him James Madison would be at his side during his presidency to talk good sense to him.}

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