3 - Thomas Jefferson

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3 - Thomas Jefferson

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Editado: Jun 14, 2012, 3:23pm

American Sphinx
Little Taiko
dr neutron
Jefferson's War
Undaunted Courage
Adams vs. Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson:genius of liberty
A magnificent catastrophe : the tumultuous election of 1800
Jefferson's Vendetta
Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, an overview by R.B. Bernstein
Adams vs Jefferson: The Tumultous Election of 1800
Dinner at Mr. Jefferson's by Charles A. Cerami
Jefferson's Great Gamble by Charles A. Cerami
The Hemingses of Monticello
Thomas Jefferson by Joyce Appleby
Jefferson and Monticello
Thomas Jefferson: A Life
Thomas Jefferson by John T. Morse
In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson by Noble Cunningham

1800 Election Jefferson (73 electoral votes) vs. Burr (73) Adams (65)
1804 Election Jefferson (162 electoral votes) vs. Pickney (14)

Jefferson was the first President to shake hands instead of bow to people.
Thomas Jefferson was the first President to have a grandchild born in the White House.
Jefferson was one of two Presidents who signed the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson City, Missouri is named after Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson's library of approximately 6,000 books became the basis of the Library of Congress. His books were purchased from him for $23,950.
Jefferson was the first president to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C.
Jefferson wrote his own epitaph without mentioning that he served as president of the United States.
Thomas Jefferson was once given a 1,235 pound hunk of cheese, giving us the term "the big cheese."
Jefferson played the violin.
He suggested the decimal system of money we use.
He wrote over 20,000 letters in his lifetime.
Jefferson founded, designed and built the University of Virginia.
He took a cold foot bath every morning for 60 yers.
Jefferson owned 200 slaves.

Ene 5, 2009, 9:15pm

I read American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis a couple of years ago and found it to be quite good. It was interesting to see his side of the story after having read the John Adams bio. How he balanced his actions versus his ideas is interesting and shows how complicated this founding father was.

Ene 30, 2009, 2:00pm

As with my other selections, I'll be upfront that these are not cradle to grave biographies.

However, I found Adams vs. Jefferson to be interesting, though covering much of the same territory as in John Adams, but with greater (obviously) detail on this episode.

Jefferson's War was perhaps more tangential to Jefferson himself, though a fascinating coverage of the Barbary war and the heoism of William Eaton and Stephen Decatur Jr. As an aside, The Pirate Coast was a really great swashbuckling tail of William Eaton, its the real life stuff of Lawrence of Arabia.. but less to do with Jefferson.

Undaunted Courage has a section detailing Jefferson's relationship with Merriwether Lewis (or was it Clark?) as they were neighbors, so to speak. It goes into why Jefferson wanted the Louisiana Purchase explored and why he chose Lewis.

Feb 4, 2009, 2:37pm

When I originally decided which book to read about Thomas Jefferson, I looked and chose A magnificent catastrophe : the tumultuous election of 1800 which was to relate the first truly contended election. However, this book didn't give me enough information about Jefferson so I moved onto Thomas Jefferson:genius of liberty and while it gave a great deal of information related to his writings, I was still not happy with the other areas of his life and I need more, so Again I moved on.
I completed American Sphinx:The Character of Thomas Jefferson. I found out much concerning the character of this man and some of the info I wanted for his lifetime, but still have a few questions during his presidency. I will read one more book Jefferson's Vendetta which revolves around the time of his presidency. Then I am moving on.

When I started, I was a little confused as to how I felt about our third president. I really didn't think that knew that much about him other than his authorship(?) of the Declaration of Independence. As I progressed through Washington and Adams, I became more confused so I really wanted to understand this man more. Now that I have read these books, and seen his interactions with Washington and Adams as well as James Madison, I really can't say that I admire the man. I feel he was self-centered and proud, even though he tried to make people think otherwise. He was very insistent about the laws that were needed for the new nation, but then made it seem that such laws did not pertain to him. Whatever was good for Jefferson should basically be given to TJ without question. It does not surprise me that he did not want to share any credit of the Declaration of Independence or any other efforts that were done with others. He also was very haughty as far as I could tell, making others to do any dirty work and making certain that his name was not related in any way.
Isn't it ironic that Thomas Jefferson died approximately $100,000 in debt and that John Adams, dying the same day, had an estate valued at $100,000.

Too bad that Jefferson couldn't see some of Adams' greatness and emulate him in some areas.

Feb 4, 2009, 11:25pm

Thanks, Cheli. I like how you've gone back and indicated which books have been read for this president and who read them.

When I think of Adams and Jefferson (and I haven't read any books about either of them lately), I am always struck by how they both died on the exact same day, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence--July 4, 1826.

When Adams died, weren't his last words something like "Jefferson lives" but actually, he was wrong about that?

Editado: Feb 5, 2009, 10:21am

Yes, Linda,
Adams said "Jefferson still survives." but actually TJ had died several hours earlier. ETA typo

Editado: Feb 20, 2009, 11:34pm

Jefferson's Vendetta: The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary by Joseph Wheelan

This book reviews Thomas Jefferson’s political actions from Governor of Virginia through his presidency. It amazed me all the actions that he took based on his political opinions.

Jefferson, in 1778 while governor, issued a Bill of Attainder for a Tory, Josiah Phillips, which basically said that Phillips was guilty of treason and condemned without a trial.

John Adams appointed "midnight" judges before he left office and since Jefferson didn't agree with their political leanings, he set out to eliminate them.
During the 1800 election, Jefferson cozied up to Burr to get the electoral votes from the state of NY however, when the election ended in a tie between Jefferson and Burr, Jefferson turned his back on Burr and made a deal with the Federalists (a deal that Burr had turned down). Jefferson then leaked out that the deal was made by Burr, but the Federalists involved gave depositions to the contrary but the information wasn't made public until after Jefferson's death.

Aaron Burr was by no means an angel, as evidence was discovered in the late part of the 19th century which showed that he conspired with General Wilkerson to incite war with Spain and take over Mexico and Spanish territories. The hostility between Jefferson and Burr reached a level where neither could turn back.
Those were supposedly in league with Burr were imprisoned without trials. Before he was shipped off to Baltimore where he was immediately released, a lawyer was also imprisoned who tried to help them.

Aaron Burr was brought before a Grand Jury in Virginia for possible indictment of charges of treason. TJ believed that he was trying to overthrow the government by attacking the Spanish holdings in the Americas and to take over the Mexican and southwestern territories. TJ and his cronies had informed General Wilkerson in New Orleans that Burr had a force of thousands when in fact, those that were to assist him in the "colonization" effort he was proposing, were more like 200.

During his "trial" efforts were made to subpoena President Jefferson because he refused to provide the defense with copies of certain documents.
Jefferson again showed his two faces when he replied to the subpoena invoking what is now called Executive privilege stating that "To comply with such calls would leave the nation without an Executive branch, whose agency, nevertheless, is understood to be so constantly necessary, that it is the sole branch which the constitution requires to be always in function." This statement completely ignores Jefferson’s own leanings that a weak central government was all that was needed.

Chief Justice John Marshall was to preside over the trial as he had the Grand jury. He had instructed the grand jury that treason had occurred "if a body of men be actually assembled for the purpose of effecting by force, all those who perform any part, however minute or however remote from the scene of the action, are to be considered as traitors."

Throughout the "trial" Jefferson's men tried to prove that there had been an overt act of treason on Burr's part. But the forthcoming indictments were made on information of a meeting of men when Burr wasn't even present.

Marshall was concerned that his instructions in a previous treason trial were not correct so for Burr's trial he wrote a decision on acceptable evidence for treason that was 44 pages.

Burr was found not guilty. However, Jefferson sought to have him tried in a different jurisdiction so great was his rage at the acquittal. TJ decided that the fault lay with Marshall and resolved that an amendment was needed to the Constitution so that judges could be removed for misconduct.

The Federalist Virginia Gazette wrote “History will hardly furnish an example of such oppressive tyranny as has been practiced under the administration of Mr. Jefferson.”

This is the last book that I am going to read about Thomas Jefferson.
I firmly believe that this man does not deserve the respect that he has been given over the years. Yes, he was a very talented diplomat. Yes, he was a patriot. Yes, he was a gifted writer. Despite these special attributes, he is not a man that I can admire or respect because of the actions that he took to place himself and his beliefs before all others.

Mar 18, 2009, 9:20am

Just finished American Sphinx last night - gave it a pretty good review. I thought Ellis' choice of vignettes with lots of analysis of Jefferson's thinking nicely complemented McCullough's John Adams biography, which covers the same time period in a more traditional biography format.

Editado: Abr 5, 2009, 1:06am

Now that I'm about to start McCullough's John Adams and then probably one of the books about the election of 1,800, I think I need to start choosing my Thomas Jefferson books.

American Sphinx is a definite, I think.

I am also thinking about The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, which is by Kevin J. Hayes. This book focuses on his thinking, writing, and reading.

I would love to read Dumas Malone's 6-volume set on Jefferson but I don't think I have the time for that now. Barring that, maybe a good overview, such as Richard B. Bernstein's Thomas Jefferson which seems a bit more in-depth than the American Presidents series book by Joyce Oldham Appleby.

Abr 5, 2009, 12:59am

While looking at Amazon for Jefferson books, I came upon an interesting fact.

In the description to Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, mention was made of the fact that a young Edgar Allan Poe attended Jefferson's funeral. I did not know this.

Editado: Abr 23, 2009, 11:06am

In hindsight presidential correspondence isn't a biography, so I'm moving this over to the non-biography thread.

Abr 23, 2009, 1:04pm

cyderry, thanks for the detailed summary of Jefferson's Vendetta it sounds very interesting, and I enjoy Joseph Wheelan's writing - very fast paced and invigorating. Incidentally, his daughter works with my wife, which is how I came by my signed copy of Mr. Adams' Last Crusade.

I think I'm going to go for Vendetta and American Sphinx.. but not sure when yet.. several others already currently on my shelf.

May 18, 2009, 1:59pm

Thomas Jefferson
by R.B. Bernstein

I read Bernstein's overview-type biography of our third president and, for what it is, it's not too bad. Bernstein does a decent job of relating information about Jefferson.

Unfortunately, for me, I read David McCullough's masterpiece, John Adams, a few weeks ago and this book pales in comparison to that one.

I've got quite a few books ahead, including one on a dinner Jefferson hosted for Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

May 18, 2009, 6:03pm

I keep wishing that McCullough would write a book on Jefferson, though I got the distinct impression after reading John Adams that he didn't care for Jefferson, so I doubt he'd write one on him. Still, I'm sure it would be great, if he did.

May 19, 2009, 12:15am

while I haven't verified by looking at every thread, it appears that so far as a group our reading on TJ is the most diverse, while that of John Adams is the least (everyone having read McCullough's opus).

I wonder if that is because while TJ is generally one of the prominent founding fathers, he is still somewhat controversial, contradictory, and enigmatic, and there are lots of aspects/viewpoints for popular historians to discuss while perhaps only recently john adams has emerged from the shadows in the popular mind/literature (thanks in large part to mccullough). perhaps in the future, there will be more popular accounts of adams that either focus more narrowly or take a different perspective.

just some rambling, late-night musings

Editado: May 19, 2009, 11:52am

It could be due to the fact that Jefferson is more controversial, enigmatic etc as you say. It could also be due to the fact that there probably isn't one leading, comprehensive biography of TJ out there.

I think the Dumas Malone 6-volume bio was widely accepted as the standard but it's out of print now and, well, it's 6 volumes.

I just started one of the election of 1800 books by John Ferling called Adams vs. Jefferson. I am also planning for American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis (which does seem to be one of our more popular Jefferson books.

Others I plan to read include one on Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase. This is Charles A. Cerami's book, Jefferson's Great Gamble. Also plan on Garry Wills short one on his founding of the University of Virginia, Mr. Jefferson's University.

The one I'm planning to read about the Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton dinner is also by Cerami and it's called Dinner at Mr. Jefferson's: Three Men, Five Great Wines, and the Evening that Changed America.

Possibly also The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson by Kevin J. Hayes, though this'd make seven books on Jefferson for me.

May 19, 2009, 6:20pm

My main issue with the Jefferson books was that they appeared to be contradictory - so some showed him in a great light in one aspect but not another and another book was vice versa. I really felt that I needed the 4 books that I read to make a fair evaluation so that I could rate him with the other presidents. IMHO, he may have had great ideas but failed in the execution. I also felt that he was very selfish and egotistical.

Editado: May 19, 2009, 6:28pm

Cheli, I'm finding that I gloss over the redundant parts more quickly than I usually would.

People, even now, seem to have stronger views on Jefferson than on, say, Adams. Bernstein talked about 4 or 5 eras and how they viewed Jefferson.

There are certain aspects of TJ's life that were praiseworthy--writing the Declaration of Independence and the founding the University of Virginia, just to name a few. But a lot of things were not to be admired.

I certainly agree with you, Cheli, about the selfish and egotistical part. In the McCullough book, it seemed like Adams was always off working hard on something while Jefferson "stayed home."

One thing I like about the Ferling book on the election of 1800, so far, is that it tries to chronicle events in both Adams and Jefferson's life occurring at the same time.

May 26, 2009, 2:05pm

Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800
by John Ferling

I really wanted to like Ferling's book on the election of 1800. Recently, I've finished David McCullough's book on John Adams and also read an overview bio of Thomas Jefferson. I've got a whole bunch of Jefferson books on the horizon and I thought this is one of the more interesting portions of his life.

At times, Ferling's book is interesting but, overall, I'd say that there was a lot of overlap with what I'd read in these other two books. Not much that was new to me.

I was also really put off by Ferling's flowery writing style. In most cases, the style does not matter either way to me but this is one instance where the writing style was atrocious, as far as I'm concerned. I don't care for authors who use a 4 or 5 syllable word when a 2 syllable word will do. All I can say is that I was glad I read this on my Kindle so it was easy to look up all the archaic words Ferling uses.

It was odd because that flowery style was present only in some of the chapters. Maybe these weren't edited as closely as the others?

There's another book out there about the election of 1800 (Larson's A Magnificent Catastrophe) and I'm thinking that I chose the wrong one.

Jun 10, 2009, 12:09am

Dinner at Mr. Jefferson's by Charles A. Cerami

This was my third (out of seven) planned Thomas Jefferson reads. Of the three books I've read so far on Jefferson, this is probably my favorite.

Dinner at Mr. Jefferson's is an entertaining look at the little-known "dinner table compromise" of 1790 in which Jefferson invited James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to dinner on June 20, 1790, in the interests of resolving two critical national disputes: the assumption of state debts incurred during the Revolutionary War and the placement of the new nation's capital. What those three men resolved that night may have saved the country from being split into two (or three) separate countries.

Though Cerami spends only about 10-12 pages on the actual dinner, much of the rest of the book either leads up to the dinner or follows up on what was settled, as well as the career paths of the three dinner participants.

Included in the book are a number of Jeffersonian recipes, though not necessarily those served at the dinner. Although Jefferson didn't introduce ice cream to the U.S., as some have claimed, Cerami says that Jefferson was one of ice cream's greatest early promoters and often served it in a warm pastry. Jefferson is also said to have been extremely knowledgable about wine and also French cuisine.

I also learned a bit about Henry Knox, the bookseller turned Revolutionary War hero. I want to read a bio about Knox, who later played a role in the founding of West Point.

All in all, this was an interesting look at a narrow part of Jefferson's life. Cerami has also written a book about Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, which I hope to read soon.

Jun 12, 2009, 5:11pm

For people reading multiple books on Jefferson, I would strongly recommend The Hemingses of Monticello. I will admit the author's writing is pretty technical and redundant at points, but overall she does a great job of really evoking the atmosphere of Monticello and Paris. After I finished reading, I wanted to stay in Jefferson's world for a little longer, which led me to American Sphinx, then John Adams, then His Excellency, and then to this reading group :)

I think the reason the book gets some bad reviews is people are looking for salacious details on the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, and when they don't get it, they are disappointed, but if you go in realizing the book is really a pretty scholarly work about an American family living in slavery, it is a great read. (It also just won the Pulitzer for history, very well-deserved IMO.)

Also, the thing about this challenge is we will be reading a lot of books about white men written by white men, and that is why I especially appreciated the Hemingses book, with this different perspective from an African-American woman. I especially liked how she challenged other historians like Ellis and Malone and how they just automatically took Jefferson's white family's version of events and discounted the black family's version until the DNA results came out. In the revised version of American Sphinx, Ellis kind of glosses over his mistake instead of really reflecting on what had led him to inaccurately conclude Jefferson and Hemingses had never had a relationship. It makes you think about the other prejudices these historians have and how that influences how they retell American history. JMO.

Jun 12, 2009, 7:48pm

#20....I thought i had posted about Montpelier, Henry Knox's house, a couple days ago, but the post didn't take, and I just realized I posted on the wrong thread..

This gorgeous mansion, along with great historical programs and museum is only 2 miles from chez moi. If you're in the area, give a holler. I have visited several times, and find it quite interesting--particularly its round room. They often host Revolutionary War re-enactments. Let me know if you're coming this way!

Jun 12, 2009, 9:40pm

Miss T--Isnt Montpelier the home of James Monroe?

Jun 12, 2009, 10:06pm

Yes c-man, you win the gold star, Montpelier is the name of Monroe's house, but Henry was so fond of Monroe, that he decided to engage in a little "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!"

Jun 13, 2009, 10:39am

Thanks so much for that tidbit I had not heard before. That is what is so nice about these discussion groups. Thanks Tutu

Jun 13, 2009, 7:20pm

Hate to deflate your bubbles, but Montpelier was the home of James Madison and Oak Hill was the home of James Monroe. I confirmed this on the National Historical Register.

Jun 13, 2009, 11:10pm

well...it's still the house of Henry Knox....but thanks for the correction.

Jun 14, 2009, 10:23am

I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Jun 30, 2009, 3:48pm

I think I am closing the book on Jefferson. I've read four books on Jefferson:

--Thomas Jefferson, an overview by R.B. Bernstein
--Adams vs Jefferson: The Tumultous Election of 1800
--Dinner at Mr. Jefferson's by Charles A. Cerami
--Jefferson's Great Gamble by Charles A. Cerami

Jefferson's Great Gamble was a good book to finish with since he talks not only about Jefferson but also about the roles Madison and Monroe played in the Louisiana Purchase. He also touches on Andrew Jackson's role in defending New Orleans.

Time to move on to Madison, I think.

Editado: Jul 1, 2009, 10:04am

I've finished Thomas Jefferson by Joyce Appleby. (http://www.librarything.com/work/book/47020014)

Very thin book. Quick read. Gave an idea of the time and Presidency, but just an idea. I learned more about Jefferson and his time as President in the Alexander Hamilton book, though.

I'd only recommend it if you want a quick review of the US History through the Presidents. I do not know how far the series has gotten so far. Assuming that they could have at least 42 of the books out (looking at tags, they have 27 out, with George H.W. Bush being the most recent release (in terms of when in office)), with 43rd being written, that would be about 42 books in 42 days (they can probably be read in a day).

I would not otherwise recommend the book.

I read it at the same time I've been hearing a Polk book on audio. That Polk book is quite interesting. It is also about 400 pages longer than the Jefferson book. Very shortly that Polk thread will finally have a read book in it.

Jul 2, 2009, 8:24am

Thomas Jefferson's cipher is finally cracked according to the WSJ. I thought this might be of some interest to this crowd. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124648494429082661.html

Jul 3, 2009, 8:00am

nice reporting timing for the 4th.

Editado: Jul 30, 2009, 2:13pm

I think I an calling Jefferson complete. For a little different take on the man, I re-read Jefferson and Monticello. I originally read this book 5 or 6 years ago before a visit to the famous Monticello. I enjoyed the mix of biograghy and architecture. Then I read Appleby's Thomas Jefferson: The 3rd President and as others have said it is thin, physically and literally. It just covers his years as president. I finished up with The Hemingses of Monticello. I did not care for this one too much. It was very, very, very redundant. The book is thin on fact and thick on supposition.

Ago 7, 2009, 3:31pm

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis - finished 8/7/2009

Ago 12, 2009, 8:04pm

I've read a number of books on Jefferson or that feature Jefferson as a major character over the years. The best in my view was American Sphinx because it truly captures the complexity and contradictions of this brilliant man who seemed to possess the uncanny ability to hold two competing views in his head at the same time without being troubled by that kind of dissonance. A perfect example of this is Jefferson's insistence that slavery was a great evil while owning, selling and punishing slaves for trying to escape; using slaves as concubines and fathering children with them, children he cast no special favors upon; and -- actually in almost the same breath -- offering justifications for the "peculiar institution" and its spread to the territories. I've long had a love/hate historical relationship with Jefferson for this somewhat maddening behavior. It often seems that he was a man playing chess with himself, which is why we look to him centuries later and see a figure that each ideological segment can claim for his own. Who doesn’t quote Jefferson to bolster his/her political position at one time or another?

And yet . .. and yet: Jefferson was brilliant, was amazing, was essential to America. There would be no United States as we know it without Jefferson. President Kennedy once hosted a gathering of Nobel Prize winners at the White House, and he said, "this is probably the greatest collection of talent and human knowledge ever assembled in this place, except for when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." There are aspects of Kennedy that evoke Jefferson, because Kennedy too lived his life in often contradictory compartments that were apparently not contradictions to Kennedy.

Other great books that feature Jefferson are America Afire: Jefferson, Adams and the Revolutionary Election of 1800 by Bernard Weisberger – the absolute best book on this pivotal election out there IMHO – and Ellis’s outstanding Founding Brothers.

There are those who dismiss Jefferson for his weaknesses without appreciating his strengths. I would say to them: put your brain back in and read a little more. Jefferson was a great man, even if he was not a great President. Incidentally, his Presidency was the part of his long and distinguished career he wished not to be remembered for and he omitted it entirely in the epitaph for himself that he authored.

Ago 30, 2009, 12:26am

I own and have read two books about the third president: Thomas Jefferson. A Life by Willard Sterne Randall and Thomas Jefferson by Hendrik Willem Van Loon. The Randall book was given to me for my birthday by my Santa Rosa, California family and the Van Loon I searched long and hard for because it is a Van Loon and I'd been collecting him for many years.
The Randall volume is a lot of book but Jefferson is, arguably, a lot of subject. If you read this book, you will get a complete, matter-of-fact impression of the complex man.
Van Loon's book, however is of comparatively few, well-chosen words and some 30 inimitable drawings. It will give you a much more emotional appreciation of who Van Loon thinks Jefferson was: a surveyor, an architect, a builder, a farmer, a thinker and a wordsmith.
I think Jefferson was all that and more, but the attribute I like most was his ability with the English language, an ability he used to craft some wonderfully specific documents and letters.

Sep 4, 2009, 4:34pm

I didn't know Van Loon wrote a book about Jefferson. I have Van Loon's Lives: Being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages, from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as dinner guests in a bygone year, (yes, that's one long subtitle) which strikes me as satire (and I'm not sure if it is classified as fiction or NF). One of the vignettes concerns Jefferson, though. I haven't read it, but may have to look for that one particular chapter.

I also recently read a book review of Jefferson's Women by Jon Kukla as reviewed by Stacy Schiff for the NY TImes. Some of you might enjoy (or not) Schiff's review:


So much has been written about Jefferson, I've had a hard time deciding what books I want to read about his life. I have read Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers and enjoyed it greatly. The last part of the book about the debate (in the form of letters written to one another over the years) between Jefferson and Adams was my favorite part of that book. How poignant that they should both die on July 4th within hours of one another.

Sep 4, 2009, 5:40pm

the coincidence of their death on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration is no less than remarkable! There is a book of just the Adams-Jefferson correspondance that I may read one day. If you are looking for a Jefferson book, I would urge you to read American Sphinx. You've already read Ellis so you know you won't be disappointed

Sep 9, 2009, 7:58pm

I'm only 1/3 of the way through American Sphinx, but I have to sound off (I don't know anyone else who gives a hoot about any of the Presidents except the recent ones, so you all are it for my sounding board).

"Sphinx" and "enigmatic": Bull! It's pretty clear he was just a self-centered creature who refused to live in the world he preached and wouldn't have known reality if he stepped in it. A selfish, hypocritical, self-indulgent ass. About the only good thing I can see about him is that he could write. Thank goodness he wanted to write about nice idealistic stuff instead of things he actually practiced, which, let's face it, is the best indication of what he really believed.

Am I stating it clearly enough how much I detest him, and it's only 1789 in the story line?

OK, now I'll go watch Obama talk about health care and try to forget about JT for a while....

Editado: Sep 9, 2009, 11:23pm

Marge, I felt the same way. He may have been a brilliant man but he was a jerk! (IMHO)

Sep 10, 2009, 9:01am

Marge, Cheli, I opened up my computer and, as usual lately, I flipped on to the USP challenge pages and I found these two wonderfully subjective and emotional statements.
Good on ya, mates. You made my morning.
If we readers don't get emotional about our books and what they contain, we might as well be back in a good old history class with an untrained teacher (there were lots of them available as I was growing up), and we should immediately sell or donate our libraries and take up curling, hurling, horseshoe tossing, competitive crochet, golf cart polo, field croquet, cat walking or solo ocean sailing.
None of which, in my unhumble opinion, can compete with a book about anything: a wonderful contrivance for transporting one to places impossible to get to in a solo ocean racing boat.
Thanks again.
Wait till you get to Zachary Taylor!

Sep 10, 2009, 9:07am

Oh, by the way, to #37 above: I hope you do dip into Van Loon's "Lives". It's the book that started me on collecting him and, were I you use your rating system, I would put it at "5 star". I gave it 5 on mine which can be defined as "Bloody Marvellous!"

Sep 10, 2009, 11:19am

>40 cyderry:
Yes, I think "jerk" sums it up nicely....

>41 gmillar:
although I do like to watch curling, if ever they'd show much of it. Still, not as wonderful as a book, ever! And I do know there are going to be quite a few of these guys I'm going to be yelling "jerk" at - I just thought I'd get through the Founding Fathers without feeling this awful about one of them. The slavery thing in particular seems completely inexcusable from someone who could wax so eloquently about freedom. I keep hoping Ellis will give SOME explanation, as he at least tried with Washington. It appears that Jefferson simply had no conscience at all.

Editado: Sep 10, 2009, 2:23pm

I read American Sphinx because I wasn't sure how a felt about TJ after reading about the 1800 election and his writings. If you think he came off badly in this book, Jefferson's Vendetta really shows him in a bad light. I'm not trying to say that the man was a worthless human being, but IMHO, he was only wrapped up in what was good for him and didn't care one iota for the good of everyone else, completely the opposite of Adams. That's why I didn't think that he was a particularly good President, the man definitely was not. I did not take the slavery issue into consideration, because many of the first patriots were slaveholders and treatment of their "property" was considerably different. I didn't feel that had much to do with their preisdency or public life, though it did effect their outlooks. I just think that he was wishy-washy - for example,
1. in the Declaration he wants slaves to be free but never frees his slaves because he couldn't manage to survive without them.
2. Didn't believe in the federal government, per se, and National bank in particular, was against national debt but spent $15 million for Louisiana Territory.
3. Financially irresponsible, always in debt, but kept buying and buying.

If they could have just keep him at a writing desk he might have been passable but as a plantation owner and politician, IMHHO, he sucked.

Sep 10, 2009, 4:17pm

One thing I hope to take away from my reading about the presidents is whether they go up or down in my estimation after I read more about them.

My estimation of Washington and Madison is about what it was before I read so much about them.

My estimation of Adams is up quite a bit.

My estimation of Jefferson has declined, substantially.

Sep 10, 2009, 6:41pm

I completely disagree with the profoundly negative assessment of Jefferson.

He remains, in my estimation, a great man, warts and all -- with the acknowledgement that there are many warts! Jefferson was a highly complex and brilliant man who managed to contain multiple overlapping and often contradictory points of view within his intellect. He lived his life in compartments (as Jack Kennedy was later said to do) and he managed to live fully within each of these compartments without upsetting the balance of the others. There are things about Jefferson's character that are maddening, yet he remains one of our most essential Founders.

It should be noted that with the possible exception of Franklin (and Adams would take strong exception to my characterization!) all of the Founders were deeply flawed yet remarkable individuals. It was the sum of their parts that was responsible for the birth of the Republic in all of its glory.

Jefferson too was indispensable to the mix.

That his ideals were beyond his reach to emulate is not grounds in itself to condemn him. Jefferson -- like Madison & Washington & virtually every member of the southern aristocracy -- owned slaves. Jefferson is to be commended for being the very rare voice of his generation to condemn this abomination even if he lacked the ability to personally eschew it. That is not to excuse him, but rather to explain him, of course.

Sep 10, 2009, 10:02pm

you are right, our nation never would have come into existence if Jefferson had not been part of the mix and yes, all of the founding fathers were flawed.

However, I felt that, so far, the other founding fathers did not allow their flaws to be upfront and take prescedence over the good of the nation.

Yes, Jefferson was a brilliant man, an extraordinary writer, a genius
and, I personally, in my evaluation of Jefferson took that into consideration. I did not taken into consideration his position as slaveholder because, yes, other founding fathers were also slaveholders. I believe, IMO, that he put his own personal needs, requirements, desires, in first place rather than the good of everyone in this new nation. That is why I, personally, have little respect or admiration for the man. His writings, his ideas - I can admire and respect, just not the man.

Sep 11, 2009, 6:41am

The more I read about the Founding Fathers and the early presidents, the more I realize what a squabbling, fractious bunch they were. It's amazing we got anything done and managed to become a nation.

Sep 11, 2009, 9:19am

>48 ludmillalotaria:
Exactly how I'm feeling. It makes me more hopeful about the mess between the political factions we have today.

Sep 11, 2009, 9:20am

I will step in and defend Jefferson as well. The first book I read about his presidency was The Hemingses of Monticello, about his relationship with Sally Hemings, so I started off with a negative impression as well. He seemed very selfish and self-absorbed.

But when you look at what he accomplished, it is pretty amazing. I think it took reading Adams vs. Jefferson for me to really understand what Jefferson accomplished. Although that book wasn't that great, there is an interesting and compelling statement about Jefferson that I think sums it up:

“More than any other single public figure, Jefferson deserved credit for the social and political reforms that had been achieved by 1826. In the Declaration of Independence he had outlined a vision of an attainable new world that was free of privilege and tyranny. Thereafter, he proposed liberating changes in education, religion, land ownership, and the treatment of criminals. He was among the first to divine the reactionary threat posed by the extreme conservatives in the early days of the new Republic, and he was the first major official to take steps to organize an opposition to the peril. While today his resistance to the economic changes that have shaped our world may seem archaic, he may have been the first to grasp the menace to republican governance that was posed by great wealth. . . . Far more so than subsequent generations, the great majority of those who were alive in 1826 recognized Jefferson’s achievements in breaking many of the fetters that had existed before 1776” (p. 211).

Whatever his personal shortcomings are, his writings in the Declaration of Independence not only inspired our country, but the entire world. Washington and Adams were great men and had great personal characteristics, and they worked to defeat tyranny, but not privilege. Adams in particular didn't have the vision of Jefferson. Adams was on the side of the elite few, and Jefferson on the side of the many -- and Jefferson's victory was really important in making our country more democratic. Now, the two party system is a given, but back then it was revolutionary and it established in our country that dissenting voices could be heard. I think we are fortunate not only that Jefferson created an opposing party, but that his party was the one that swept the elections in 1800. And you also have to give him some credit for the successors he mentored who became presidents after him. JMO.

Sep 11, 2009, 10:02am

>48 ludmillalotaria:, 49.
It sure seems that way doesn't it. From my reading, I have developed an opinion that most of the problems we ,in history's hindsight, attribute to the Presidents, were caused, perpetuated, inflated and side-tracked by petulant legislators in either or both houses. I'm thinking of such issues as abolition, secession, nullification, Missouri compromise, reconstruction, Teapot Dome and universal health care.
All of this goes to make for a real interesting place to live and provides a certain safety within its borders; which goes to the point Krenzel16 makes about the two party system.
Oh, it makes for great reading too.
The body politic is a strange animal. Where two of them congregate for discussion, there will be three opinions.
Evolution or a god's plan I wonder.
As to today's issues, either something will get done or it won't and history will attribute the result to the president.

Sep 12, 2009, 11:06am

History tends to look at the big picture, at what was accomplished. The squabbles and problems seem to get overlooked.

I'm reading Plain Honest Men which is about the making of the Constitution. They did a great thing but reading about the details is interesting. I'm not too far into it and Madison arrives promptly and is disappointed that everyone else seems to be late arriving. At the time, the details mattered but we don't worry as much about how they got it done but rather, that they did.

The presidents often seem to be above the legislative fray. Reading these books and learning the details and seeing how sometimes they were not above pettiness makes for interesting reading. They can be great leaders without being perfect men. They may have done great things but not always and we learn that they're human, just like the rest of us. Jefferson is a perfect case in point.

Sep 22, 2009, 6:26pm

Finished American Sphinx. What a great book!

It's not a biography and largely skips several periods in his adult life (such as his second presidential term), which was a bit disconcerting for someone with little knowledge of his life. But enough is included to give the reader the necessary background to follow the discussion at the center of the book: that is, what made Jefferson tick, and how did he juggle the many, many contradictions between his publicly stated philosophy and the actions he took in his personal life? The answer appears to be a real psychological disconnect. Ellis concludes that Jefferson was not mentally ill, but having known at least one person with a similar personality very well in my life, I'd have to say it was at least an unchangeable personality disorder: the ability to think, with integrity, that your philosophy and life decisions reflect each other, when to observers they clearly don't. As proved to be the case with Jefferson, this includes an inability to entertain evidence about those contradictions and make adjustments to be more consistent.

The Epilogue is one of the best summations I've ever read. Especially helpful is Ellis' summation of the various changes to the American landscape which in effect killed off many of the underpinnings to Jefferson's legacy:
1 - the Civil War, ending not only "slavery but the political primacy of the South and the doctrine that the states were sovereign agents in the federal compact."
2 - the end of the Frontier and the urbanization of the population between 1890-1920.
3 - the New Deal, providing a more centralized government, now required to regulate the "inequities of the marketplace and discipline the boisterous energies of an industrial economy". In effect, the "death knell for Jefferson's idea of a minimalist government."
4 - the Cold War (requiring maintenance of a massive military) and civil rights legislation repudiating the "racial and gender differences that Jefferson regarded as rooted in fixed principles of nature."
5 - changes in the scientific understanding of the natural world (Freud, Darwin, Einstein).

As much as I dislike the way of politics, which seems to have been as vicious and corrupt then as it is now, we've ended up with a political balance which has worked for us in the (very) long haul. It's an interesting problem to wonder how this country would have fared if Jefferson had not been president and been able to force his anti-Federalist views on the government just as the country was finding itself.

Sep 22, 2009, 7:04pm

I wonder if America would have become the world power that it did - without the centralized government, and its ability to assume the national debt, the power/economics/interconnectedness of industrialization, and the military might, would the USofA surmounted the challenges it faced?

Sep 22, 2009, 7:05pm

great summary - you said it so much better than I did.

Sep 22, 2009, 7:08pm

American Sphinx was outstanding Marge. I think what people often overlook is that those who are brilliant -- Jefferson, Lincoln, Einstein, perhaps JFK -- can think on a multiplicity of levels that can be contradictory to each other. Is this mental illness. For David Foster Wallace it certainly was, and if those men lived in 2009 perhaps it would be defined as that. But in their respective times their brilliant contradictory compartments illumined not just them but the world around them, as well.

Sep 22, 2009, 7:44pm

>55 cyderry:

>56 Garp83:
Garp, I'll tell you when I get that far :)

Sep 23, 2009, 9:23am

I really like reading books that make some attempt to tackle the thought processes that drove these men. I haven't read Ellis' book yet, but it's in the TBR. I'm still inclined toward thinking too much gets made of Jefferson's contradictory behavior. Jefferson was an enlightened figure for his time, but he was also a flawed human being who lived according to the dictates of the society of his time. I know very few people who can behave according to their ideals; it becomes more challenging and often gets scrutinized far out of scale when you are a public figure like Jefferson. I don't want to excuse his behavior as simply a product of his time, but I'm still convinced that he was a product of his time in regard to his personal life, and I think we tend to analyze him with too many modern values in mind. I also agree with Garp about the way some thinkers are able to compartmentalize their thoughts and actions that may seem irreconcilable to us (J. Robert Oppenheimer is another example). I have much reading to do before I can come to any conclusive decision about it, though.

Another book I just thought of that has some interesting info on Jefferson's scientific interests is Andro Linklater's Measuring America (don't be put off by the cheesy subtitle). It goes into some detail on Jefferson's attempts (and failure) to bring the measurement system the French were developing to the States and how property lines and our sense of property rights developed during that time. It's not about Jefferson per se, but there's some good information in it about his role in that particular facet of our history.

Editado: Oct 5, 2009, 12:10pm

Some of you know I try to keep up with the list of dead writers over in the Written in Stone group. I thought I would mention the passing of Jefferson scholar Merrill D. Peterson. He took over the seat of another noted scholar of old Jeff, Dumas Malone at UVA back in the 60s. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/02/books/02peterson.html?_r=1&ref=obituaries
Edited for spelling. Red touchstones, so no link, but here's one of his books, Adams and Jefferson: A Revolutionary Dialogue.

Dic 4, 2009, 5:55pm

Pretty amazing but a graduate student has uncovered a letter from Thomas Jefferson, tucked away in a stack of boxes at the University of Delaware. How exciting for her!!

It was in reply to a letter someone had sent him, talking about the death of their mutual friend, John Dickinson.


Jul 7, 2010, 2:52pm

Today I finished

Thomas Jefferson by John T. Morse

Bill Masom

Jul 21, 2010, 10:29am

Cheli and Marge, I agree with you on Jefferson. He may be by far the most overrated person in American history. There's a good argument that he plagiarized the famous parts of the Declaration of Independence from George Mason. There's also the fact that Adams delegated the writing of it to TJ because since we were already at war with Britain, no one thought it was that important. He was not a good executive either in Virginia or as President. The Louisiana Purchase fell into his lap, and the Embargo Acts were a complete and total disaster. That doesn't even bring up the Hemings affair, and his back stabbing of his "friend" Adams.

The Joyce Appleby book in the American Presidents series is worshipful garbage, my least favorite presidential biography. It ignores the warts, or tries to explain them away. American Sphinx is an excellent read.

If you want to read a true "warts and all" look at Jefferson's Presidency, check out The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson by Forrest McDonald. There are parts of it that are absolutely withering, and he talks about Jefferson basically abdicating the Presidency to his cabinet in the last few months of his term due to depression stemming from how poorly things were going with the British.

Editado: Jul 21, 2010, 10:47am

The most over-rated person in American history is Ronald Reagan. Jefferson was not a great president and he had many flaws but he was a great American in that without him the republic that was constructed would have never come to be. It is that element that is most amazing -- without Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton & probably Franklin (the sum of the parts) it might have all been a historical footnote of failure.

PS I have to agree that American Sphinx is outstanding, as are many Ellis books, including Founding Brothers which is a must-read for anyone interested in the characters I refer to above.

Jul 21, 2010, 10:50am

Founding Brothers is a great read with an interesting layout.

Jul 22, 2010, 8:29pm

You could probably include Gouverneur Morris in that group too.
I agree with Garp that Mr. Reagan has a lot more to answer for than current "wisdom" seems to ask.

Ago 16, 2010, 12:53pm

I finished Bernstein's Thomas Jefferson over the weekend. I thought it was good, but could have been more detailed. As has already been said, I've been spoiled by McCullough's John Adams!

Ago 27, 2010, 12:54pm

I just finished American Sphinx and I must say that I was disappointed by the work. The organization of the book, which was intended, was disjunctive and never allowed me to truly grasp Jefferson as a changing, flowing, evolving character, but rather served to provide snapshots of who he was at different points in his life without the supporting evidence as to why the changes occured between these points. Like in His Excellency: George Washington, I felt Ellis proceeded to tell you who the figure was, rather than let the figure speak for himself, many times saying what Jefferson thought was different than what he wrote which was different than what he practiced which was different than what his friends/confidants thought/wrote/practiced, etc. on the down the line. I must be spoiled by McCullough in that I felt I got a picture of John Adams from John Adams with David McCullough being my tour guide. In this work you get a stylized portrait of Jefferson through the eyes and vision of Ellis, which may or may not be different from who Jefferson actually was, depending upon your interpretation of Jefferson.

I believe that last sentence truly grasps it. Unlike most other Founding Fathers, Jefferson has different interpretations still to this day which allows for competing images and stylized notions of who he was and who we want him to be. I believe Ellis is a great writer but he just may not be the type of biographer I want to read.

Ago 28, 2010, 11:25am

WOW -- I could not disagree with you more about the Ellis book. I think it captures the subject better than anyone could possibly hope to attain. Jefferson was a complex, brilliant, paradoxical man who was a mass of contradictions. To me, American Sphinx delivers an outstanding portrait of all of that and more. I love McCullough, but to be fair neither Adams nor Washington nor any of the other Founders (except perhaps Aaron Burr, whom I don't really consider a Founder, per se) were nearly as complex and contradictory in life as Thomas Jefferson was.

Ago 28, 2010, 2:50pm

Thomas Jefferson: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall

Okay, I'm starting to get bored with the Revolutionary War. I don't have much of an interest in obtaining this book, as I did with the Washington and Adams biography. But this is a great read and offers a slightly different perspective on that era in history. Thomas Jefferson: A Life gives a perspective from a statewide level, namely the state of Virginia, where Jefferson served as governor during the war. But the era which looms much larger in this book is Jefferson's stint as ambassador to France from 1784 to 1789. Reading about his life there was an eye opener as I tend to look at American history from a 20th Century perspective. My mind sees Jefferson as one of the founding fathers of a great nation, serving in a foreign country. To his contemporaries, he was merely a learned politician from a mediocre confederation of backward states. A hick abroad, if you will. It was also interesting to read of his political struggles. Today, a vast majority of Americans probably think well of the man. (His picture is on the nickel, after all.) Back in his day, he had as many opponents as Bush or Obama ever did. Anyway, if you want a peek into the thought that went into the creation of the United States, you should definitely check it out.

Ago 28, 2010, 3:36pm

Garp -

I don't disagree with your assessment of Jefferson at all. To me, it's the complexity of Jefferson that still makes him an interesting figure today. The fact that FDR had the Jefferson monument built in 1935 because he felt the Democrats needed a monument (he believed the Republicans had the Lincoln Memorial) despite the fact that I believe Jefferson never would have supported the enlargement of government FDR spearheaded truly lends to the continuing complexity of the man.

I just wasn't a fan of how Ellis presented the information. I finished His Excellency in a matter of days but it took me nearly two weeks to finish American Sphinx, and not because I am more interested in Washington than Jefferson. It is most definitely the other way around.

Ago 29, 2010, 5:44pm

Yeah I get you, Josh. And see I found His Excellency my least favorite Ellis book. So go figure. And yes FDR (and later Kennedy) celebrated Jefferson as a Democrat, but in fact I'm nearl;y certain he would have made as bad of a President in the 1930's as he did in the early 19th century. (Jefferson recognized his failure as a President, and he did not celebrate his years in office at all.) FDR certainly saved America; I'm not sure Jefferson would have had the foresight to do the same.

Sep 7, 2010, 9:57pm

Just finished reading Measuring America. Interesting to find out that if Thomas Jefferson had had his way, we would have gone metric a couple centuries ago - even before the French. Equally interesting, as you fly across the United States and look out over the vast checkerboard of one-mile square sections, you are looking back at history and the amazing mind of Mr.Jefferson.

Sep 8, 2010, 12:40am

That's cool.
Another book to get for my collection.
Thanks, Dusty.

Ene 26, 2011, 11:47pm

Hello all, late to the party, but anyway, I finished R. B. Bernstein's Thomas Jefferson this week. And, like a few others here, I had previously read McCullogh's John Adams so this was a very light in comparison.

Still, I got quite a bit out of it. Once I decided to start reading the biographies in order (well, duh, what a concept!), I have definitely been getting more out of this challenge. Especially the contradications! For example, Bernstein desribed Franklin as urbane and Adams as 'prickly and suspicious' - quite a contrast from McCullogh's work.

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, and I remember reading 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.

I liked how Linda in >45 lindapanzo: evaluated how her estimation of the presidents went up or down after reading more about them.

I will admit that I am really pretty ignorant of the real details of many of our presidents, so reading these bios is opening my eyes big time.

My opinion of Washington has gone down, of Adams up quite a bit, and down a little on Jefferson.

I'm looking forward to more enlightenment...!

Ene 29, 2011, 1:07pm

@ LisaMorr

RE: Alexander Hamilton

Try finding Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. I liken it to McCullogh's Adams. Good read about this facinating man.

Bill Masom

Ene 29, 2011, 1:11pm

Thanks Bill; I'll put it on the list!

Ene 29, 2011, 6:59pm

The Chernow is the essential bio, I guess, but I've been reading it for 6 months and can't get through it. It's huge and the narrative is simply not compelling IMHO

Ene 30, 2011, 8:45am

Good to know Garp; I may save that for a time when I'm feeling bit more ambitious and seek out something else for now; I'm about to start Ketcham's bio of Madison, and based on some info from this group, it looks like I will be plenty challenged to get through that one.

Ene 30, 2011, 9:42pm

Lisa, I have been toying with reading the Ketchum book. Let me know how you make out

Ene 31, 2011, 2:14am

Will do! I didn't have the heart to stuff it in my bag on this business trip (instead I brought Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and a couple other 'slim' books), but will start later this week...

Ene 31, 2011, 9:54pm

I am over half way done with John Adams by David McCullough and love it! My husband bought me the dvd's of the John Adams movie and I am in the middle of watching it. So far I think it is great! I just wish our kids was exposed to this in school. Kids today really need to know what the people before them went through for us to have what we do - I am not that old either:) I do have a 10 yr old and a 16 yr old and as a family we have been watching this movie.

Regardless of your opinion on George W. Bush, I just finished his book Decision Points and what I found interesting is through out the book he list books he read about previous Presidents and Leaders to see how they had made decisions and what the outcome was. He lists quite a few interesting books throughout.

Feb 1, 2011, 1:48pm

I just don't believe he really read any of those books he cites.

Editado: Mar 1, 2011, 2:24pm

Here's the story about the recent discovery of part of Old Tom's library in a University collection. Most of these books apparently come from the last 10 years of his life. He seemed to have a common bibliophile problem. Give your books away so you can collect more books. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/books/23jefferson.html?ref=books Going off to see if this has been discussed in the I See Dead People's Books group.

Mar 1, 2011, 7:17pm

Very cool story!

Editado: Mar 14, 2011, 11:19pm

Message 82: Garp83;

Sorry, but I think you may have a somewhat biased opinion of various presidents. I thought we were susposed to read about the presidents to learn about them and discuss their terms in office. I hope we aren't getting too political...... I like to read about the various presidents for enlightenment.......

I have the Dumas volumes on TJ... have got to get started reading them........ it may take me quite awhile to finish. I like reading some of the older histories/biographies of our presidents.

Also, anything by McCullough is great ( Adams, etc. ). I hope to acquire the Truman biography from my local used bookstore.

Mar 15, 2011, 7:51am

Jane, you are right. Technically, I broke the rules with my comments. But if George W. Bush is brought up, it also brings up a bile in my throat that defies ordinary suppression. I could no more discuss him dispassionately than I could Stalin.

On another note, if you are looking for Truman I think the McCullough book is the best one out there. I also own the Malone books on Jefferson but I doubt I will ever read them. I'm currently reading the Merrill Peterson bio of Jefferson (slowly ...) but my favorite book on him is the Ellis American Sphynx which is outstanding.

Mar 15, 2011, 5:54pm

Garp, sorry you feel sooo bad about any of our presidents. I think it is a very hard and difficult job and requires a very special person to occupy the office. I think our voting population doesn't use rational thinking when they make their choice for president. I believe it was TJ that said for a democracy to work we need to have an educated population. Sometimes, I wonder......... If, I'm wrong feel free to comment.

As for the books, I still hope I can read the Dumas collection...... No matter what the modern historians say about TJ, I continue to believe he was a very important founding father and we were lucky to have him; along with Washington and Adams.

Mar 15, 2011, 6:58pm

Jefferson was brilliant and I admire him despite -- perhaps because of -- his flaws.

As to your quote: "I think it is a very hard and difficult job and requires a very special person to occupy the office. I think our voting population doesn't use rational thinking when they make their choice for president. I believe it was TJ that said for a democracy to work we need to have an educated population" -- . . . under the circumstances, I refuse to take the bait and reply, especially because I don't want to get in trouble on this thread. Suffice to say that it is perfectly rational to judge a POTUS based upon his time in office, the age he lived in, and how he dealt with crises. Historians consistently rate Lincoln, Washington and FDR as top three and there are good reasons for that. They also consistently rate Buchanan as last --also with good reason. GWB shows up as a bottom-feeder, as well, and with good reason, and I don't believe (although the right would take issue) that politics has anything to do with it. And I will leave it at that.

TJ was a terrible POTUS with some significant exceptions, as was John Adams and James Madison -- though there is much to admire about all three in contributions made when not POTUS --of the Founders, only Washington not only lived up to but exceeded expectations as Chief Executive. Like those three Presidents, most POTUS's were complicated individuals who can be cited for contributions as well as deep flaws -- such as Jackson, Truman, Carter & Reagan, for vastly different reasons. It's tougher with giants like Wilson & LBJ and Nixon who at root were very bad men who made some positive contributions despite the terrible damage they wrought. It's easier with people like Teddy Roosevelt & JFK, who despite some flaws were on the right track -- and with Taft & Harding & Coolidge & Hoover & Ford who were simply very bad Presidents.

It is the job of historians to study each POTUS and to rate his performance, without regard to sympathy or passion.

May 9, 2011, 3:32pm

I have read American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis and while not sufficient as even a one volume biography ,which the author never claims it to be, is an excellent portrait of the evolution of his thinking and the inner workings of his mind(which is intricate to say the least).

This book is worthy of praise for its notes alone which are an excellent tool for selection of future reading. He mentions many works which will illuminate certain aspects of Jefferson for which clarification may be desirable with fair warning of bias.

While at first Dumas Malone’s 6 volume biography of Jefferson seemed unnecessary the reading of American Sphinx shattered all hopes of understanding Jefferson and his accomplishments with even significantly more text than that.

I will continue on with Malone’s Jefferson and His Times with the preceding knowledge that it is the standard yet reverential biography. I however remain certain that the conundrum that is Jefferson will be forever un-decipherable regardless of the bulk of scholarship or correspondence at my fingertips.

May 9, 2011, 6:08pm

I own the Malone multivolume opus but decided to skip reading it. Reverential is indeed a good way to characterize Malone from what I can gather and that is not what I am looking for in any bio, altho it may be worth picking up for excerpts. Like Lincoln, Jefferson is a tough subject to capture, and Jefferson is of course a far more contradictory character than Lincoln, as Ellis' delightful character study underscores.

May 9, 2011, 7:18pm

Is it so reverential as to skew how the events are recounted or is it told as is with Malone acting as defense attorney for Jefferson during his more controversial dealings? This is the vital difference; full blown reverence is unwelcome if it is causing a tilt of truth to achieve less precarious positions for Jefferson. However if the events are told the way they happened with Malone trying to vindicate Jefferson after the fact I can merely ignore or view this with proper scrutiny. It seems this is the only multi volume biography I can find that is all encompassing of his life so if anyone has another that is from a neutral standpoint their suggestion would be welcome.

May 10, 2011, 9:22am

Ford, I can't speak to it with a level of confidence suitable to your query. I guess we should each explore it further

Jun 26, 2011, 1:03pm

I just finished In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson by Noble Cunningham. Although not up to McCullough's Adams bio, it was still interesting and fairly easy to read. It gave me just the right amount of information without having to slog through thousands of pages. I'd recommend it.

Jun 27, 2011, 2:21am

I thing Undaunted Courage is a fascinating book about one of Jeffersons largest Presidential transactions, the Louisiana Purchase. It does a study on the relationship between Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis. Founding Brothers does metnion and discuss the dinner that Jefferson gave for Hamilton and Madison.

Editado: Sep 6, 2012, 8:27pm

Just finished President #11 with Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham for LTER. While not a detailed book of his presidency, it was an interesting look of his governing style. It seemed to emphasize that his political philosophy did not always match how he governed while President.

Oct 25, 2012, 5:34pm

And now for something completely different. I follow the Library of Congress' Twitter account and they just tweeted their 2012 Thomas Jefferson Xmas ornament with his "I cannot live without books" quote. I may have to get this one. http://www.loc.gov/shop/index.php?action=cCatalog.showItem&cid=22&iid=46...

FYI I've no financial interest in the LoC, other than being quite fond of them.

Ene 6, 2013, 7:13pm

I've also read Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham.

There have been many comments already. I really wish I could just teach a year's class on the Presidents. Our students today are not exposed to this history of the Presidency, they could learn so much from looking at the progression of the presidency in this country.

Ene 8, 2013, 8:05am

Couldn't agree more. However, on New Year's Day I spent a most enjoyable couple of hours on this subject with a young man who was working out which university he really wanted to attend and why. Guess what? He had been home schooled! Says a lot, I think, but I sure do agree that the subject should be approached in the general school curriculum and we should make that curriculum part of our infrastructure giving it satisfactory funding. What "being an American" means has changed so much - and not, in my opinion, for the better.

Ene 8, 2013, 6:10pm

I agree. I was looking at Minnesota's SOL's for history, and It is sad how much is ignored now. The presidents is just one topic that is not given the proper amount of time for focusing on it.

Abr 21, 2013, 12:30pm

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by John Meacham, is the latest book I have read about Jefferson and the early Republic. Taking even a slightly opposing view when critiquing a work of historical scholarship can be kind of intimidating when the back flap boasts glowing reviews from the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Walter Isaacson, Stacy Schiff and Michael Beschloss, but while I found it a very well-written and often insightful biography, I would hardly place it on the superlative shelf that others assign it.
In his notes at the conclusion of the book, Meacham reveals that he does not believe it possible to write a comprehensive, single-volume book about Jefferson and his era, and in this he may be right. Instead, Meacham, a highly acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning historian, decides to focus on how Jefferson wields power, usually quite successfully, throughout his career, from delegate to the Continental Congress and author of the Declaration of Independence, as Virginia Governor, as Ambassador to France, as member of the first Washington Administration, as founder of the first real political party, as Vice President while leading the opposition, as President of the United States, and later as (to borrow from a book title from his most eminent biographer, Dumas Malone) “the Sage of Monticello,” who manages in “retirement” among other accomplishments to found a great university. What a life! And except for his stint as governor and perhaps his second term as president, much of what he achieves on the public stage is astonishing in its scope and in its lasting echo to our own day. On the private side, there is the grief-stricken Jefferson who loses his wife and barely recovers from that loss, and sees all but one of his children from that marriage go to the grave prematurely while he endures to very old age. There is also the side story of his relationship with Sally Hemings and the family he makes with her. Jefferson is portrayed as a master of political power; we see a man who can be conniving and less than loyal in order to achieve his aims. And Jefferson, as Meacham emphasizes, usually gets what he wants.
Yet, in the end, Meacham acts mostly as an apologist for Jefferson, even when others have underscored the errors of his public life and the shortcomings of his private one. It is clear that Meacham likes his so subject so much that he can do almost no wrong. Even in areas where he calls Jefferson to task for holding the children of Sally Hemings as slaves, for example, or with regard to his whole position on the peculiar institution that he more than once abhors as a great evil in rhetoric yet upholds via policy and ideology. He makes excuses for Jefferson as Revolutionary War governor who fled from British troops, and as second-term President who in his stubbornness to not set the nascent United States on the same side as Britain against the global threat of Napoleon, nearly bankrupted the country with his ineffectual embargo born out of a policy of impossible neutrality. It is not that a biographer cannot take these positions in favor of his subject, but when the favor is too consistent, the credibility of the biography is threatened in my opinion.
To his credit, the book has a strong scholarly foundation. There are over 150 pages of end-notes, so it is clear that Meacham did his homework. The book is also generously populated with quotations from Jefferson and his peers. Too generously in my view. These days, grad students are routinely admonished for an excessive use of direct quotes and a failure to paraphrase and put a paragraph into their own words. (Perhaps the late emphasis on plagiarism has worked against this in academic writing, but I cannot see how paraphrasing primary sources could represent such a threat.) Meacham is obviously of another mind. The problem I have with this is that too many quotations, especially long ones, routinely break the flow of the writing. I also find many of the ones on these pages superfluous. Is a paragraph-long direct quote from an English traveler describing Jefferson’s conversation skills (p.228) requisite? Or several lines from a granddaughter (p.451) detailing how he doted upon them?
I should also add that this is hardly a book for someone not already quite familiar with the life of Jefferson, the cast of characters he walked among or the events of his time. The text assumes the reader knows these well, so I would not recommend this to someone unfamiliar in this regard. As I have read deeply previously in these arenas, I do not judge this a fault, but I merely point it out to those who might pick this as their first biography of Jefferson.
I have to admit a personal sometimes-grudging admiration for Jefferson, warts and all. And there are plenty of warts. He was right about lots of things, especially religious freedom and the essential ideals of the republic, but he was also dead wrong about a weak central government acting upon the engine of the power of states’ rights – which he was the first to abandon as POTUS even as he loudly clung to the ideology of the notion that it is garbed in. And he perhaps failed most manifestly in upholding the institution of slavery that he also once loudly clamored against. I have read a lot about Jefferson, and my favorite read remains American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis, which demonstrates quite convincingly in my view that Jefferson was capable of daily maintaining two competing ideologies in his head simultaneously, while ever employing the one that was most effectual in the dynamics of real world situations. If you are a student of Jefferson, by all means reads the Meacham book; you won’t be sorry. But perhaps you will also need to read the Ellis book to explain why he was so successful with his “art of power.”

Editado: Sep 12, 2013, 8:11pm

I'm at a lecture listening to Jon Meacham talk about Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.

Ene 11, 2014, 10:30am

I finished In Pursuit of Reason by Noble E. Cunningham. I liked it, but I did have some critical comments as well. A full review can be found here.

Editado: Abr 1, 2017, 10:29pm

I read Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson, a 10 page article written by Henry Wiencek for The Smithsonian Magazine (Oct. 2012), Jefferson’s Inaugural Address of 1801, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Thomas Jefferson on Politics, The Personal Papers (University of Virginia) and Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to William Short” (Jan 3, 1793), Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress, Series 1, Reel 17

Since I teach briefly about Jefferson when I teach about the Declaration of Independence, I wanted to find out some other new, interesting material. I think I was most interested by the article in the Smithsonian, that tells the story of Jefferson either changing his mind or being beat down by popular culture in the time period between when he wrote the Declaration and the time he died. He was fiery in the Declaration about the notion of “all men created equal.” Jefferson denounced the slave trade as an “execrable commerce ...this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” As historian John Chester Miller put it, “The inclusion of Jefferson’s strictures on slavery and the slave trade would have committed the United States to the abolition of slavery.”(Wiencek, Smithsonian). This language was stricken from the Declaration as 6 southern States, including Georgia and South Carolina refused to accept the wording. Following this though, Jefferson seems to have been silent about slavery. When Washington died he freed his slaves. Jefferson only freed 1 slave, but failed to free his wife or 7 children. What made Jefferson change? Or, did he just get carried away by his own fiery writing?

Dic 20, 2017, 1:09am

Most Blessed of the Patriarchs is an interesting read. Gordon-Reed and Onuf make a valiant attempt to get inside his head and trace how he thought without imposing their own judgments on the end results of his thinking.

Jefferson is certainly the most interesting historical figure for me. His flaws were many, like the rest of us. But, consider how often today, we complain about the lack of creativity in our leaders, their inability to evolve in their beliefs, their unwillingness to go beyond what they think "The People" already want.

I would also argue that among the Founders, Jefferson's legacy extends further and deeper than the others into the world outside of the USA.

Abr 13, 2019, 12:16am

I alos read the At of Power