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Thomas Jefferson (2003)

von R. B. Bernstein

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384852,203 (3.78)28
Thomas Jefferson designed his own tombstone, describing himself simply as "Author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia." It is in this simple epitaph that R.B. Bernstein finds the key to this enigmaticFounder--not as a great political figure, but as leader of "a revolution of ideas that would make the world over again."In Thomas Jefferson, Bernstein offers the definitive short biography of this revered American--the first concise life in six decades. Bernstein deftly synthesizes the massive scholarship on his subject into a swift, insightful, evenhanded account. Here are all of Jefferson's triumphs,contradictions, and failings, from his luxurious (and debt-burdened) life as a Virginia gentleman to his passionate belief in democracy, from his tortured defense of slavery to his relationship with Sally Hemings. Jefferson was indeed multifaceted--an architect, inventor, writer, diplomat,propagandist, planter, party leader--and Bernstein explores all these roles even as he illuminates Jefferson's central place in the American enlightenment, that "revolution of ideas" that did so much to create the nation we know today. Together with the less well-remembered points in Jefferson'sthinking--the nature of the Union, his vision of who was entitled to citizenship, his dread of debt (both personal and national)--they form the heart of this lively biography.In this marvel of compression and comprehension, we see Jefferson more clearly than in the massive studies of earlier generations. More important, we see, in Jefferson's visionary ideas, the birth of the nation's grand sense of purpose.… (mehr)
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Although there are many Thomas Jefferson biographies, this one in particular is concise, accurate, and well written. I appreciate the short (sub 200 page) length of this biography that captures many of the interesting facets of TJ's life. It doesn't go into great detail about anything in particular, so this biography really serves as a starting point that could lead the reader into more advanced work that goes into greater depth. ( )
  ShawnStipic | Jul 25, 2018 |
A fast primer on a complex man who was utterly frustrating in his paradoxes. Perhaps a bit too much life to cram into 200 pages, but a good place to start. ( )
  kalinichta | Jun 30, 2017 |
I did find myself between interested and impatient when reading this biography.

I am not a really a big reader of non fiction and I was doing this for a challenge in one of my groups. I found the author did quite well in his research about Jefferson, I learned many things about our third president that I didn't know before.

Like that even though he was the writer of the constitution, he hated public speaking, which I can understand quite well. This is a well written book, and if you are interested in Jefferson I would recommend it to you.

Now for the rating, it is basically because I liked it, I didn't really like it or think it was amazing, I may have even added a half a star if it was allowed. It didn't hold my interest at times and I switched reading to something else which is why it took me so long. ( )
  avidreaderlisa | Jun 1, 2013 |
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

-from: The (US) Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson, and adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776


"I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people."

-from: Notes on the State of Virginia, penned by Thomas Jefferson, and first published in 1787

As these two quotations make plain, Thomas Jefferson – an aristocratic Virginia planter and an ardent republican populist, a believer in universal freedom and an entrenched slaveholder who considered people of African descent (and women) inherently inferior – was a man of contradictions. The attempts, over the years, to reconcile those contradictions, and to come to terms with the meaning of Jefferson’s life and work, and the legacy it has left us, here in America, and around the world, has produced an incredibly prolific body of work, with volume upon volume dedicated to analysis of his actions, his philosophy, and his character. In our own times, Jefferson’s role as a slaveholder, and the ethics of his relationship with his slave, Sally Hemmings, seems to have become a particular focus. Given that this is so, it can sometimes feel rather daunting, to the more casual reader (ie: the reader not intending to pursue graduate studies in history), to attempt to find a balanced presentation of his story. Certainly, when we went looking for a good work on Jefferson, to use as the third title in our newly formed 'Presidential Book Club' - a group set up to correct deficiencies in member's knowledge of American history, by reading, chronologically, a biography for each of the presidents - we struggled to find one that was suitable. There is no equivalent volume, in Jeffersonian studies, it would appear, to Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life, or David McCullough's John Adams.

This brief introduction to Jefferson, with 198 pages of actual text, was the title we eventually settled upon, having read that it served as a good introductory work on this important man, providing all the basic facts of his story, with the minimum of polemical asides. That has proved to be the case, so I suppose I must account myself satisfied with the results. Bernstein succeeds, I think, in his object (given in his introduction) of presenting Jefferson in the context of his time and place, and steering a course between those who would "praise Jefferson for his aspirations," and those who would "damn him for his failures." Setting out the broad strokes of his subject's life, he adheres to his central thesis: that Jefferson was (and wished to be seen as) a man of ideas, and it is in that arena that we must focus our attention. The result is a narrative that gives a good outline-view of Jefferson's life, and devotes as much time to his public persona and writings - notably, the US Declaration of Independence, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom - as to his personal affairs.

Despite being convinced that Bernstein's Thomas Jefferson succeeds at what it sets out to do - indeed, what we were looking for as readers, in the first place - I can't say that I found it outstanding, especially when compared to our forgoing tiles (Washington: A Life, John Adams). In many ways, I felt that I was reading the same material over again, given the extensive treatment of Jefferson that is offered in the McCullough book, and came away wondering whether a more polemical work - something like American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson - might not have been more informative. Still, hindsight is 20/20, and I can't really fault the book for not being something it never claimed to be. If nothing else, I came away from it with a clearer view of its subjects simultaneously glorious and shameful legacy. As Bernstein puts it: "The clash between his professed ideals and life's realities is as bitter as the clash that it exemplifies, between the nation's creed - which he did so much to shape - and its history." ( )
  AbigailAdams26 | Apr 1, 2013 |
It's been described as the best short biography of Jefferson ever written - I definitely don't have the information to be able to asses that, but I did enjoy this book.

This is part of my US Presidents Challenge, and while at first I was just picking presidents at random to read, I decided to start reading the biographies in order, and I have been getting a lot more out it that way. Even from the contradictions!

For example, in McCullogh's John Adams, Benjamin Franklin is not described very positively. In this book, Bernstein describes Franklin as urbane and Adams as prickly and suspicious.

Alexander Hamilton is a character I'll have to read more about - I was amazed by a description of a dinner hosted by Jefferson for Adams and Hamilton; Adams insisted that the British constitution, purged of its corruption, would be the most perfect form of government. Another Federalist like Adams, Hamilton replied that its corruption is what made it work. No wonder Jefferson was so afraid of Hamilton's plans for the country!

Another interesting point in the book (although it's prefaced, 'Legend had it') is that upon welcoming visitors to Monticello, Jefferson would point to the two opposing busts of Hamilton and himself in his foyer and state, "Opposed in death as in life."

Finally, I read this in Adams' bio too, but it still amazes me that Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. ( )
  LisaMorr | Feb 7, 2011 |
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Fred Bernstein
May 3, 1922 - November 3, 2001
His memory always will be a blessing to all who knew him.
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As you stand before the family cemetery at Monticello, separated from the tree-shaded graveyard by a plain iron fence, the central tombstone draws your gaze. (Introduction)
According to family tradition, Thomas Jefferson's earliest memory was of a trusted slave carrythin him, at the age of two, on a pillow when his family moved from his birthplace, the Shadwell plantation, to the Tuckahoe plantation, along the James River above Richmond.
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Thomas Jefferson designed his own tombstone, describing himself simply as "Author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia." It is in this simple epitaph that R.B. Bernstein finds the key to this enigmaticFounder--not as a great political figure, but as leader of "a revolution of ideas that would make the world over again."In Thomas Jefferson, Bernstein offers the definitive short biography of this revered American--the first concise life in six decades. Bernstein deftly synthesizes the massive scholarship on his subject into a swift, insightful, evenhanded account. Here are all of Jefferson's triumphs,contradictions, and failings, from his luxurious (and debt-burdened) life as a Virginia gentleman to his passionate belief in democracy, from his tortured defense of slavery to his relationship with Sally Hemings. Jefferson was indeed multifaceted--an architect, inventor, writer, diplomat,propagandist, planter, party leader--and Bernstein explores all these roles even as he illuminates Jefferson's central place in the American enlightenment, that "revolution of ideas" that did so much to create the nation we know today. Together with the less well-remembered points in Jefferson'sthinking--the nature of the Union, his vision of who was entitled to citizenship, his dread of debt (both personal and national)--they form the heart of this lively biography.In this marvel of compression and comprehension, we see Jefferson more clearly than in the massive studies of earlier generations. More important, we see, in Jefferson's visionary ideas, the birth of the nation's grand sense of purpose.

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