Thomas Jefferson, I am perplexed by you. And vaguely vexed, too.

Thomas Jefferson by R. B. Bernstein
Here’s the thing: Jefferson is complicated.
And I think that’s behind the reason this book has been described as the best short biography of Jefferson. This book is remarkable in its balanced view of the man.
It just places the information there for the reader to evaluate. I appreciate an author who respects his readers enough to do that.
So, this here reader decided to get all snarky about old T. J. It really isn’t very responsible of me.
Because here’s the other thing: I’d be happy if I could really like Thomas Jefferson. But I just can’t do it.
Here’s how I try to convince myself. I say: He was bookish! Developed a cataloging system and sold his books to the Library of Congress, for Pete’s sake! I say: He loved learning and was brilliant! Was instrumental in the founding of the University of Virginia. Was a supporter of public higher education. Invented stuff and designed a beautiful home! I say: He was all about the separation of church and state! I say: I sort of get a kick out of the fact that he kept pulling a “You cannot have the Mango” act and then kept returning to seek political office anyway. I say: How about that Louisiana Purchase? I say: He wrote the Declaration of Independence!
Isn’t that enough?
But then I think these thoughts: Slavery. Hypocrisy. Sally Hemings and the children he fathered with her. Sexism. Debt (he had to sell his books for the money).
And that’s when I start to get all snarly and ornery.
This is one complex situation, and that’s all there is to it.
So here’s the thing: I know Jefferson was hugely important to our nation’s history. I honor and respect his contributions.
But I still don’t exactly like him.*
But I did like this book!
In addition to its fine-tuned sense of balance, the other outstanding feature of this book is that the author provides just enough background information (without ever seeming condescending) to provide context to a reader who is not well-versed in the early 19th century. (That would be me.)
Wonderful biography. I’m really glad I selected this biography of Jefferson, because I feel like it was truly an even-handed treatment. Anything different would have felt like it either glorified him or focused too much on his flaws.
So — any negative tone you’re picking up here is just me being irritable because there’s so much about Jefferson to admire, yet not.
* It makes completely no sense, particularly since JFK was a philanderer, but I still am fascinated by—and, yes, I admire—him. Why’s he get a free pass, while poor Jefferson gets put in the penalty box? Besides the ugly slavery stuff, I think it might be a personality thing. I really don’t know. I’m an odd one; there’s no way around it. Also, there’s this thing going around now with people angry at Jefferson because apparently he wasn’t religious enough for their tastes. That’s not why I’m ornery about him, though. There are just too many reasons to have mixed feelings about this dude. Again, I’ll say: Complicated!

2 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson, I am perplexed by you. And vaguely vexed, too.

  1. I'm the author, and I'm gratified by your kind words about my book. I think that one reason why Jefferson gets taken down at least a peg is that he wrote the words that defined the standards that we hold him to — and he just can't measure up to those standards.

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