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thomas jefferson: a life by willard sterne randall

April 15, 2008

instead of the usual, “i just finished” line that i start my reviews with, i must first confess that i finished this book a couple of weeks ago, but my busyness (or is that word just a lame excuse for laziness? you be the judge) has kept me from writing my review until now.

with that said, i finished thomas jefferson: a life by willard sterne randall.
i have many good things to say about this book. i am in the middle of a revolution and early american formation kick. anything covering this time period is something that i want to read. hopefully this doesn’t surprise you, but this book fits the bill. i thoroughly enjoyed this book, i recommend it, and at some point i will probably read it again.

randall writes in a style is very matter-of-fact. it is much more “old school history” in the sense that he obviously didn’t write it as if trying to write a story so enthralling that anyone would read and enjoy it. it’s written almost more in a text book style than a book targeted to mass audiences. in my opinion, too many authors write their historical accounts of times, people, and/or events in a style that they use to try to “transcend” genres so that readers who hate history because it is dry, boring, and nothing but dates and facts will want to read it. “readable” history is the trend right now (see mccullough, winik, brokaw, etc). that’s not a slam against those authors, that’s just their style. it’s also a style that has a broader appeal to readers, therefore selling more and increasing the royalties for the author and the sales for the publisher. the point i’m trying to make is that he seems to say “screw the masses. this book is for those who want to read history because it is facinating, not for those who want to read an interesting story only to find out it’s true.” anyways…

jefferson lived quite a life and randall gets it all in there. jefferson is such a fascinating character to me. he was so incredibly bright and talented. sorry that’s a bit of an understatement, he was absolutely brilliant. his mind moved faster and in more places that i can ever hope to steer mine. he was accomplished on so many levels, it astounds me. by the time he was my age, he had graduated with honors from william and mary, passed the bar exam, and had developed a large and wealthy client list, was considered a peer by lawyers who were twice his age and were well established within the legal community and within the virginia gentry. at the same time his flaws were almost as pronounced. the fact that he regularly denounced slavery, but never freed his own slaves (and would have been completely broke without them). one other thing i noticed is that he was so smart and so intelligent that whenever someone disagreed with him, he would get so frustrated. it would blow his mind that people could be so ignorant. he didn’t’ always stop to see where the other person was coming from and what shaped their opinions. of course, this isn’t a fault that is uniquely his. i find that the smarter we are as humans, the more upset we get when others disagree with us.

one thing i didn’t like about randall’s biography of jefferson is that reading through the pages, i got the feeling that he was a bit of a jefferson apologist. when randall approached difficult subjects with jefferson (slavery, sally hemmings) he seemed to almost discount them. when dealing with the slavery issue he tread very lightly and was very apologetic of jefferson’s behaviors and (sometimes) double standards. in terms of sally hemmings, he completely denounced the affair as impossible and totally unrealistic. while no one knows for sure if they did have an affair, no one knows for sure that they didn’t.

again, i enjoyed this book immensely and absolutely recommend it. for those who don’t know much about thomas jefferson, you have to read at least on biography about him. his life, his skills, his contradictions are so impressive and interesting that you will learn something new about him and about yourself. it’s definitely worth the time investment.

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