Friday, May 23, 2008

Book Review: "Thomas Jefferson" by Joyce Appleby

This book is yet another in the American Presidents Series which I have read in the past few years. On the whole, the series is great. But this book will not go down as one of my favorites.

As with other books in the series, this one does a good job of looking at the significant moments in the man's life and presidency. Where it goes a tad overboard is the disproportionate share of the book which discusses the moral conundrum of the man: One of the foremost promoters of freedom and democracy for white men, who held slaves and had (at best) a politically incorrect view of women.

This is a legitimate topic, of course. Thomas Jefferson's contributions to our nation are obvious and of great merit. He also had his shortcomings, in politics (a thorn in the side of both Washington and Adams at times), morality (fathering children by one of his slave girls), and personal judgment (racked up substantial debt in his adult life). He certainly owned slaves and made it clear that he thought both slaves and Indians were incapable of matching white men's accomplishments within the foreseeable future.

Of more interest (to me, at least) is Jefferson's views on the Constitution, politics, and the role of democracy in our country. Perhaps the single most interesting thing in the book was a comparison of John Adams, the Federalist, and Thomas Jefferson, the democrat. As described by Appleby, Adams belonged to the school of thought that discouraged all those "common men" from voting—or at least believed that they should defer to their "betters." Jefferson, in contrast, believed in the right, and in the encouragement of that right, of all [white] men to vote.

Today we experience Jefferson's vision...and look who our political leaders are! Maybe Adams was on to something....

No comments: