Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Thomas Jefferson – R.B. Bernstein

What follows is a rough draft of a critical review written for my history seminar.thomas-jefferson-richard-b-bernstein-paperback-cover-art


Thomas Jefferson has been, and remains to this day, one of the most enigmatic figures in American history. A slew of biographers have tackled the tale of his life, attempting to tell the story of the man whose vision, perhaps more than anyone else, served to shape the United States of America. In his work, aptly titled Thomas Jefferson, R.B. Bernstein takes up the title of Jefferson biographer and attempts to do just that. His efforts have produced a short, concise, work encompassing much of the important moments of Jefferson’s political career.

Bernstein was a practicing attorney who turned historian in 1983, his focus is constitutional and law history. Bernstein is a prolific author, and along with this book has written several others on the founding of the United States and the drafting of the Constitution, including: Amending America, Are We to Be a Nation, and The Founding Fathers Reconsidered. Published in 2003 the timing and the tone of Thomas Jefferson fit well into post-9/11 America. In the prologue Bernstein relates the era of the American Revolution to that of America after September 11th. At first the comparison is off-putting, and reads like another cheap invocation of the tragedy. However, as the reader continues deeper into the book he realizes the connection Bernstein was trying to make and why it works.

Thomas Jefferson is a short book. In a field of study that has been typified by massive multivolume biographies it is a breath of fresh air to see a concise biography of one of America’s most enigmatic public servants. To achieve brevity Bernstein took a different tack with his book. It reads less like a biography and more like a primer in early American politics from the point of view of Jefferson. Chapter two specifically lacks much detail on the happenings of Jefferson’s life and instead focuses on pre-revolutionary war politics. Jefferson is invoked on occasion, but no more than he would be in the course of a normal investigation on the subject. The brief nature of Thomas Jefferson belies what the book has to say. Bernstein conveys a powerful message using sparse details of Jefferson’s life. The reader walks away from the book feeling fulfilled, and if nothing else understands how much the American scholarly society does not understand the man who was Thomas Jefferson.

While it is apparent that Bernstein was attempting to write a non-biased biography of Thomas Jefferson, a few key themes became clear in the book. Bernstein may have been leery of using the term hypocrite, but that is how Jefferson is portrayed in the work. Bernstein spends a lot of time bemoaning Jefferson’s seemingly split personality, his tendency to say multiple things on the same topic, to express a love for liberty, yet own slaves, or to preach the narrowness off the Constitution while grasping powers not granted in it. The picture painted of Jefferson in the book is not a flattering one. Bernstein speaks of him as a man of high minded ideals, yet in action he is a typical politician. Bernstein is not an apologist, he never seeks to explain Jefferson’s motives for his actions, only to relay and attempt to understand them. In the prologue Bernstein mentions the enigma that modern scholarship has made out of Thomas Jefferson. He attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding the man by confronting Jefferson’s duality head on and laying it bare for the reader to understand. In this Bernstein succeeds in portraying Jefferson not as a mystery man, but a man consumed by opposing ideas. If, as according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”[1] Thomas Jefferson, according to Bernstein’s portrayal, would own the finest intellect in American history.

Thomas Jefferson was a timely work. As in the American Revolution, post-9/11 America was briefly united against a common enemy, but as the dust cleared the great dichotomy of thought reappeared and the gap separating left from right spread even wider and deeper. Bernstein’s biography served to remind the reader that American politics has always been highly polarized, and ideas, whichever side they may be on are not the end all and be all of governance. Bernstein held up Thomas Jefferson as an ideal American, one of the greatest of our founding fathers, who also suffered many personal demons; like the country he helped to birth. Jefferson was a single man consumed by conflicting ideas, as the USA is a single country so divided. Bernstein’s portrait of the duality of Thomas Jefferson serves as a wakeup call to the reader. Arguably the greatest single supporter of American liberty and government himself struggled to reconcile the same ideas Americans squabble over today, and if the Union preserved then, so it shall preserve in the face of our current obstacles.

Thomas Jefferson was a well written, timely, and concise book. It managed to relate a large volume of information to the reader in an easily readable way. The narrative never bogged down in technical details, and rarely dragged or relayed information that the reader feels is not necessary. Due to its brevity the book leaves out many details of Jefferson’s life that may have been interesting to include, especially that of his childhood and his role as a father and husband. It is however understandable that the main focus of the book is on American politics as seen through the eyes of the third President of the United States, and in this Thomas Jefferson succeeds very well as a primer and a starting point for the study of both American History and the life of Thomas Jefferson.

[1] Esquire Magazine (March 1936)


R. B. said...

I'm the author, and I am deeply grateful for your kind words about my book.

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