I just finished reading Thomas Jefferson by R.B. Bernstein. As you may remember I also recently read His Excellency – George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis and John Adams by David McCullough. Jefferson was American president number three, Adams was number two and of course Washington was number one. The Jefferson book was considerably shorter and also much more of an overview than the other two books. I found it engaging and interesting although I missed a lot of the in depth stories and quotations that the longer books included.
I have started a project to read at least one book about each of our presidents. When I was looking at reviews to help me decide which Jefferson book to read there were a lot of comments about what a complex person Jefferson was. Before reading this book I really knew very little other than the basics about Jefferson. Bernstein’s book gave me a very balanced non judgmental perspective. I like it that in the epilogue Bernstein discusses the different historical stages that Jefferson’s reputation has gone through. Apparently over the years historians have had problems with how Jefferson’s actions often differed from his words and how he often said different things to different people about an issue. Examples of this include the fact that Jefferson hated slavery but owned slaves, Jefferson believed that the federal government only had the powers explicitly granted in the constitution but yet he purchased the Louisiana purchase, and he believed strongly in equality but yet was strongly against women in government. Jefferson was a consummate politician in the best sense of the word. I have always liked people who are able to see two sides of an issue and who are able to work with a diverse group of people. It seems to me that this is what makes Jefferson very likable to me.
I am finding that reading biographies is a great way to learn about history. Instead of reading about events I am reading about people’s reactions to the events and in fact am often reading more than one perspective. In essence it allows me to triangulate history.
Now I am on to President number four, Madison. If you have any suggestions for future books I should read let me know.