An illuminating analysis of the man whose name is synonymous with American democracy
Few presidents have embodied the American spirit as fully as Thomas Jefferson. He was the originator of so many of the founding principles of American democracy. Politically, he shuffled off the centralized authority of the Federalists, working toward a more diffuse and minimalist leadership. He introduced the bills separating church and state and mandating free public education. He departed from the strict etiquette of his European counterparts, appearing at state dinners in casual attire and dispensing with hierarchical seating arrangements. Jefferson initiated the Lewis and Clark expedition and seized on the crucial moment when Napoleon decided to sell the Louisiana Territory, thus extending the national development. In this compelling examination, distinguished historian Joyce Appleby captures all of the richness of Jefferson's character and accomplishments.
Thomas Jefferson, so multifaceted and long-lived, tries the skills of most who venture to write his biography, especially a short one like this. But UCLA historian Appleby (Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans) has succeeded in writing as good a brief study of this complex man as is imaginable. Another in a series on the American chief executives edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., her elegant book is a liberal's take on the complex, sphinxlike founder of American liberalism. Appleby convincingly argues that the third president's greatest legacies were limited government (breached, however, by the opportunism that characterized his own presidency) and the great expansion of democracy. If some of her criticisms of Jefferson seem more perfunctory than heartfelt, she fully explains the man's sorry record and tortured views on slavery and race. Providing along the way a short, up-to-date history of the early 19th-century nation, she also concisely surveys the day's great issues voting, democracy, political parties, commerce, westering and religion. Yet such a balanced picture of Jefferson remains somehow unsatisfactory, no doubt because a man of so many contradictions slips away from every biographer, the tensions in the man mirroring those of his times. Appleby tries to toss a bouquet to the man who vanquished the Federalist Party and purchased the Louisiana Territory. She wants to convince us that Jefferson was "one of history's most intuitive politicians," but even in Appleby's capable hands, Jefferson remains the most unfathomable political figure in our history.