This is a great introduction to Thomas Jefferson. It’s not possible to give a detailed description of the life and accomplishments of Jefferson in a mere 200 pages of text, but Bernstein has presented a fine basic summary of Jefferson’ life. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Bernstein’s conclusions, and he seems to allow a bit of liberalism to skew his viewpoints, but nonetheless, there is a definite market for a book of this sort.
This is not an in-depth, detailed analysis of Jefferson. For that, see such works as Dumas Malone’s 6-volume set which took over 30 years to compose. What this book is, is a quick easy introduction and overview of Jefferson. If you are wanting to learn about Jefferson but not wanting to wade through 600 pages of Willard Sterne Randall’s account, or even a the brief version by Joseph Ellis, which is just over 300 pages of text, then this is a perfect fit for you. At less than 200 pages, this is a quick, easy read.
I only have a couple of knocks on the book. For one, Bernstein seems genuinely disturbed that Jefferson did in fact own slaves and spends, I think, too much time debating the issue of Jefferson fathering the children of Sally Hemmings. Let us not forget that Jefferson was, in fact, a southern planter and owning slaves was accepted and commonplace. That is not an endorsement, but simply a statement of fact, and one that I believe Jefferson should not be condemned for considering the time in which he lived.
The other problem I have with this book occurs on pages 144 – 145. Here the author is addressing Jefferson’s efforts to Christianize Native Americans. Bernstein states;
“Setting aside his commitment to strict separation of church and state, he sent Christian missionaries to establish schools in western territories to educate Native Americans – and convert them to Christianity.”
Never does Bernstein ponder that perhaps Jefferson was not the “strict separationists” which revisionist historians have led us to believe. In fact, this statement stands as a testament that Jefferson’s metaphor of a “wall of separation” has in fact, been greatly distorted. Sending missionaries to educate and convert Native Americans, was not, as the First Amendment forbids, “an establishment of religion”, but does give weight to the argument that America was, in fact, founded as a “Christian” nation. It is difficult to accept this type of short-sightedness by the author, but then, we live in a society where this type of short-sightedness is commonplace.
The book skims through Jefferson’s life from birth to death and beyond and includes 16 glossy pages of black and white plates, 30 pages of notes, a chronology and biographical essay. If you’ve read other books on Jefferson, you may be disappointed as this is, for the most part, a condensed version. However, if you know little of Jefferson and seek to learn, this is a great little book to start with.