The Real Thomas Jefferson: The True Story of America’s Philosopher of Freedom
Author: Andrew M. Allison, W. Cleon Skousen, M. Richard Maxfield
Release Date: June 1983
When I first started this book, I had a lot of good background information on Jefferson from the previous two books I had read in the genre (biographies of Washington and Adams), as he had served as a Vice President and Secretary of State for their subjects. This book was the highest rated biography on Goodreads about Jefferson, and also highly rated on Amazon. The book’s introduction also stressed how so many of the biographies about Jefferson have an agenda, and how the authors were attempting to write the definitive fair and accurate biography. Unfortunately, then the book began, and it was apparent that the authors all worshipped Jefferson, and were willing to either not mention any negative facts about Jefferson, relegate them to a foot note, or (in the case of the most infamous scandal), discredit it in a page based on such detailed analysis as “it was not in his character to do as he was accused.” All that being said, I base my usual presidential ratings off of the book anyways, because I finished it, and because I got a lot of the non-scandalous negative information from my prior biographies.
Born into – Jefferson inherited quite a bit of wealth, property and slaves, and married into even more. He also was healthy (which was not true for most of his family). However, many of Jefferson’s attributes were not necessarily helpful (as they were with Washington). This redhaired, soft spoken individual did not command one’s attention by presence alone, instead relying on his wit and eloquence as a speaker to do the job. 2.5 out of 5.
Pre-president – Much like Ben Franklin, Jefferson was a man of many interests and succeeded in most of all them. He combined the Washington/Adams careers of lawyer, surveyor, diplomat, farmer, and stateman, but added scientist, architect, inventor and musician. One area in particular that stood out was Jefferson’s writings. After reading Adams and Washington’s letters, one can’t help but be amazed at the difference in both style and form; it is small wonder that Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence as most all of his writings far surpassed those of the authors of this book in terms of clarity. This book glossed over Jefferson’s shady dealings with Madison against Washington/Hamilton, although Jefferson was still the best at filling his cabinet position of all those that followed. 4.5 out of 5.
Presidential career – This is where this book really skimped over Jefferson’s terms, spending about 50 pages over eight years. High points are certainly the Louisiana Purchase, and repealing the worst acts of the Adams administration; however Jefferson’s embargo acts and naval Barbary “war” were both black marks on his second term. Americans were happy however, as the string of republican presidents that followed indicates. 4 out of 5.
Vice President – It’s hard to imagine any Vice President that followed to be as bad as Aaron Burr, an individual charged with treason, that went on the lamb after killing Alexander Hamilton and had guises of seceding to start his own country. Made for an interesting read though. 0 out of 5.
First Lady – Poor Martha Jefferson died before Thomas took office, leaving him a widower. She seemed like a nice enough lady, and he never remarried. 1 out of 5.
Post presidency – Jefferson’s primary post presidency achievements were serving as the first president of a university and being the nation’s most prolific letter writer, which due to his copies of each letter has greatly aided historians. His architectural ideas also continued to contribute to modern design. 3.5 out of 5.
Book overall – What a letdown after the last two (particularly Zernow’s awesome Washington book). If you’re looking for a book that goes into detail like “then he was elected to the state house” with no explanation beyond that, or that only relays one story regarding Jefferson’s slaves (an account of when he returned after a long absence and was greeted by crying and cheers of joy for his return) but skips over his failures to actually do anything as politician or slave owner to aid in his anti-slavery sentiments, then this is the book for you. Also check the footnotes, and see how few scholarly texts are cited. I gave it a 2nd star because it includes Jefferson’s writings at the end, but this is not a great choice for fair analysis or in depth history of our third president.