Thomas Jefferson: A Life

Overview

Combining firsthand scholarship and material drawn from the Jefferson Papers, Willard Sterne Randall calls on his skills as an investigative journalist to challenge long-held assumptions about the reasoning, motives, and works of this sage, philosopher, politician, and romantic. Exploring both Jefferson’s interior and public struggles, Randall sheds important light on Jefferson’s thoughts on slavery and his relationship with the slave Sally Hemmings, as well as Revolutionary and...

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Overview

Combining firsthand scholarship and material drawn from the Jefferson Papers, Willard Sterne Randall calls on his skills as an investigative journalist to challenge long-held assumptions about the reasoning, motives, and works of this sage, philosopher, politician, and romantic. Exploring both Jefferson’s interior and public struggles, Randall sheds important light on Jefferson’s thoughts on slavery and his relationship with the slave Sally Hemmings, as well as Revolutionary and diplomatic intrigues.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Randall's masterful, gracefully written portrait brings us closer to Jefferson than any previous biography. The self-taught stoic who tried to make himself an embodiment of the Age of Reason was also, in Randall's view, a tortured romantic who kept a pledge to his dying wife not to remarry. Jefferson fell passionately in love with at least two married women, including British painter Maria Cosway with whom he gallivanted in Paris. As a statesman he could act illegally and ruthlessly if he perceived a serious threat to one of his causes, as in his drafting of secret orders that enabled George Rogers Clark to seize territory for Virginia under cover of the Revolution. Randall, biographer of Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin, finds that Jefferson as president was an ``ambivalent pragmatist'' who often set aside his principles to achieve his goals. Randall dismisses as ``preposterous'' biographer Fawn Brodie's theory that the slave Sally Hemings was Jefferson's concubine; Brodie, he charges, relied on mere gossip and highly suspect, uncorroborated memoirs by ex-slaves. (Aug.)
Booknews
A gracefully written, thoroughly researched biography that will alter some conventional views of Jefferson. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
In the 250th anniversary year of Jefferson's birth, Randall (History/Univ. of Vermont) offers a brilliant, magisterial, and gracefully narrated biography of the sage of Monticello—a worthy successor to the author's Benedict Arnold (1990) and A Little Revenge (1984). Randall argues that much Jeffersonian scholarship relies on misinterpretations of the Founding Father's writings, or even ignores the bulk of his voluminous papers. By drawing on this newly assembled (at Princeton University) trove, Randall makes significant reinterpretations of important, though often overlooked, periods in Jefferson's life. He contends that Jefferson's underexamined early years as a law student under legal scholar George Wythe and as a preeminent member of the colonial Virginia bar, together with his encyclopedic mastery of the works of the French philosophers, explain his emergence as the chief legal spokesman of the Thirteen Colonies. Jefferson became Virginia's leading expert on land law, largely as a result of his frequent legal challenges to titles of landed gentry, and, eventually, he fundamentally rewrote that law. His interest in land law led also to his becoming a strong proponent of westward expansion, both while ending the Revolution (the Paris peace treaty doubled American territory) and during his presidency, through the Louisiana Purchase. Randall also views Jefferson's years in Europe as significant preparation for his formulating foreign policy as President, and he argues convincingly that Jefferson's antislavery views were sincere (despite his status as a major Virginia slaveholder, he worked throughout his life to bring an end to slavery in Virginia, beginning with an emancipationmeasure—which was shouted down—that he'd helped introduce in 1769 in Virginia's colonial legislature). Throughout the text, Jefferson emerges as a person in whom Enlightenment rationalism battled with powerful passions, both in affairs of the heart and matters of state. A superlative contribution to Jeffersonian scholarship that rebuts some canards in recent literature (Fawn Brodie's sensational allegations about the President's personal life receive short shrift) while revealing the tensions latent in Jefferson's complex personality.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060976170
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/2014
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 736
  • Sales rank: 251,438
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Willard Sterne Randall is the prize-winning author of thirteen books, including Ethan Allen: His Life and Times; A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin at War with His Son; Thomas Jefferson: A Life; George Washington: A Life; and Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. A finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, he is a professor of history at Champlain College and lives in Burlington, Vermont.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2002

    A wonderful overview for your first book on Jefferson

    As an Australian in Washington for the first time, I bought this book after visiting the Jefferson monument and found it to be a wonderful read and an amazing introduction to a truly amazing man. I could not recommend this more highly.

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