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Books We're Reading: Thomas Jefferson



Thomas Jefferson by R. B. Bernstein, Oxford University Press, 2003, 288 pages.


Thomas Jefferson

Brief Description

In Thomas Jefferson, Bernstein offers the definitive short biography of this revered American--the first concise life in six decades. Bernstein deftly synthesizes the massive scholarship on his subject into a swift, insightful, evenhanded account.

About the Author

R. B. Bernstein is Adjunct Professor of Law at the New York Law School and director of online operations at Heights Books, Inc. The author or editor of eighteen books on American constitutional history, including Are We to Be a Nation? and Amending America (both nominees for the Pulitzer, Bancroft, and Parkman Prizes), he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Author Web site:


"The best short biography of Jefferson ever written...highly recommended for those who want a brief and historically reliable account of this incredibly complicated character.... Authoritative, judicious, clearly written and remarkably complete."--Gordon S. Wood, The New York Times Book Review

" his marvelous little book gives us an objective account of what made President Jefferson the looming figure he is and why he occupies a central place in our history. Mr. Bernstein's work is so complete, yet concise, that I'm tempted to call it 'the pocket Jefferson.' But that would not do. The notion of Mr. Jefferson--or of Mr. Bernstein's research--being pocket-sized is misleading. The book may be trim enough to fit inside a very large pocket, but it will fill your heart and mind."--Hon. Albert Rosenblatt, New York Court of Appeals, New York Law Journal

"Bernstein's Jefferson is a brilliant success. There is nothing like it in the literature."--Peter Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History, University of Virginia

"Veteran historian Bernstein pulls off a remarkable feat: he writes of Jefferson and his 'ambiguous legacies' with utter serenity, detachment and balance. He takes no sides and offers no particular arguments about the man. Instead, in prose of the utmost directness and clarity, Bernstein simply lays out the great founder's life in all its complexities, achievements and, at the end, ruin.... Anyone wanting to brush up on Jefferson's life or gain exposure to the latest findings about it will find this book of huge value. It will be most valuable to those seeking an introduction to Jefferson's life and achievements. There's little doubt that the book will become the standard brief one-volume biography of someone who was 'the leading spokesman for the revolution of ideas that changed...the face of America and the world.'"--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Bernstein proposes that his narrative is balanced among the clashing opinions of professional historians; we in the grandstands, however, can cheer Bernstein's offering as a capable, interpretive survey of Jefferson's long and verbose life.... The author strongly emphasizes Jefferson's democratic ideals and his practical enactment of them in his political career. However crowded the TJ shelf, libraries should allow room for Bernstein's compact, competent contribution."-- Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"Here, in just 200 pages of text, is an eminently readable, insightful and fair account of the life and times of the third president of the United States.... Bernstein's book [is] lucid, fascinating."--Roanoke Times

"R. B. Bernstein has produced a fascinating, extremely intelligent examination of the life of Thomas Jefferson. With a clear eye and deft historical touch, Bernstein reminds us why studying Jefferson and his world will always remain central to understanding the development of the American character."--Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello and Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

"Bernstein has brought as much clarity to a famously elusive subject as anyone can, and he's done it all at concise, readable length."--Christian Science Monitor

"It is difficult to be objective about Thomas Jefferson, but this book succeeds wonderfully. Neither attacking Jefferson for his sins nor lauding him for his accomplishments, Thomas Jefferson does equal justice to Jefferson's political, intellectual, and personal life in a concise biography that can be enjoyed by all. Bernstein has given us an admirably balanced life in context."--Joanne B. Freeman, Professor of History, Yale University

"R.B. Bernstein's Thomas Jefferson may be the best short biography of the founder ever written. One could spend whole books trying to explain the body of Jefferson's thought; indeed many scholars have. Wisely, Bernstein has chosen to show us ideas in action. Sometimes less is more, and in this very fine biography, R.B. Bernstein has succeeded in showing Jefferson's greatness and complexity and the tumultuousness of the times."--Political Science Quarterly, Jan Ellen Lewis, Department of History, Rutgers University, Newark

"Two-time Pulitzer prize nominee Bernstein has produced a readable biography of a leading figure of the young American nation. He effectively weaves together information on Jefferson's planter background, emergence as a leading thinker of the Independence era, ongoing struggle to balance his personal life with public responsibility as his nation emerged, and eventual service as the third President. The author is especially adept at placing Jefferson's accomplishments in context without oversimplifying them, which in a book only about 250 pages long and aimed primarily at general readers is an impressive feat.... This work is recommended particularly for public libraries and other general collections."--Library Journal

"Written with uncommon grace and ease, Bernstein's book is admirably balanced... Bernstein is to be congratulated warmly on the objectivity and gracious tone he manages throughout. His is a Jefferson whose faults and fineness come through in smooth and sometimes captivating language."--Journal of American History

"[An] excellent concise biography of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson has always aroused strong emotions, yet Bernstein manages to note his deficiencies, personal and political, as well as to acknowledge his accomplishments, intellectual and political, in fewer than two hundred pages of text. Given the length of Jefferson's life, his voluminous writings, and the importance of the events he participated in, summarizing his life in such a short compass is a major feat. Bernstein's book is judicious, well-balanced, and comprehensive; respectful without being adulatory; and conscious of the immediate context within which Jefferson operated and the long-term significance of what he did."--William & Mary Quarterly

Source: Oxford University Press

Table of Contents


1. A Young Gentleman of Virginia (1743-1774)
2. "We hold these truths . . ." (1763-1776)
3. The Hard Work of Revolution (1776-1784)
4. "Behold me at length on the vaunted scene of Europe!" (1784-1789)
5. "The parties styled republican and federal" (1789-1793)
6. Touching Earth (1794-1797)
7. "The reign of witches" (1797-1801)
8. "We are all republicans, we are all federalists" (1801-1805)
9. "A splendid misery" (1805-1809)
10. Enthusiasm and Anguish (1809-1826)

Epilogue: "Take care of me when dead . . ."

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Professor Bernstein is a member of the Advisory Board of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.

Google Books Link

Thomas Jefferson, by R. B. Bernstein

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