More than any other member of the brilliant generation leading their country through the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson defined the ideals guiding the new nation’s future. This excellent, concise biography sketches his life and examines ambiguities and contradictions between Jefferson’s ideas and his actions.
An eighteenth century aristocratic Virginia plantation owner, Jefferson became the leading American theorist of liberty, democracy, and the rights of man. A slave owner, who condemned slavery as harmful to both whites and blacks, he held racist views of black inferiority and could not envision ex-slaves as citizens of a republic. Jefferson, a champion of states rights, who believed in limiting the size and power of the federal government, as president doubled the size of the nation through the Louisiana Purchase. He also used his presidential powers to wage war against the North African Barbary states, thus protecting American ships and seamen from seizure and enslavement.
R. B. Bernstein effectively sketches the historical and personal context surrounding Jefferson’s life. He describes the crushing burden of debt that worried Jefferson throughout his career, exacerbated during his retirement by a constant stream of visitors who expected to be welcomed, fed, and sometimes housed at Jefferson’s expense. The debts, against which his land and slaves were pledged, frustrated any ideas Jefferson might have of following Washington’s example of freeing his slaves; it also prevented him from leaving Monticello to his family. Bernstein evenhandedly depicts Jefferson’s opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s nationalizing program during the 1790’s, and his struggles with the Hamiltonian financial system as president. In a brief discussion of the controversy over Jefferson’s sexual relations with his slave Sally Hemings, Bernstein carefully assesses the evidence indicating that Jefferson probably fathered her children.
Bernstein’s extensive endnotes provide a useful bibliography of works dealing with the American Revolution and Early Republic.