"It is so unsatisfactory to read a noble passage and have no one you love at hand to share the happiness with you." ~Clara Clemens (daughter of Mark Twain)
I absolutely loved a lot of things about this book, and it makes dozens of points - some minor and some quite comprehensive - about our history and how our country works that I think are well-worth considering.
I think in the context of modern, global political developments it is worth highlighting just how long the American experiment took the founding fathers to create. These days we look at South Sudan's independence, Burma's transformation, or the Arab Spring and we hope for quick fixes. We want to use these dramatic events as a political win for one party or politician before the next election cycle, and we start to get nervous if four or six months have passed without demonstrable progress. Modern communication technology does allow us to do some things faster, discussions can be had face to face across huge distances instead of having to wait weeks for letters to go back and forth. But some ideas still take years to built, take root, and come to fruition. One thing I think this book does incredibly well is fold in the fact that July 4, 1776 was neither the beginning nor the end of the struggle to create a more free and equal society. I think it is fair to judge trajectories and debate what the American founding fathers did right (and wrong) to get us where we are today, and what they can teach leaders in other countries about the trajectory they need to set for their own countries, but I think we also need to set realistic expectations for just how long these kinds of developments can take.
In a lot of ways, I was surprised just how much of Jefferson's personal history is included in this book, since I had expected it to be much more about his use of political office to turn his philosophical views on human society into political reality. I'm glad that Meacham decided to spend so much time talking about Jefferson's character, however, since I think that really is at the heart of what I wanted to understand. I think it really drove home the point that he really, deeply believed in the values of freedom, liberty, and equality that he infused into his writings, and making them a political reality really was an experiment - and an experiment that for most of his life he genuinely feared might fail.
At the same time, I found the break between how he applied those ideals and how he spoke about them deeply appalling, and I was more upset the more I learned. Over the course of his life, he owned a total of roughly 600 slaves, and the only ones he freed upon his death were his children even though he would have been well within his rights to free every single one. He did not believe that people of different races could live peacefully together, and he was a strong proponent of moving Native Americans off their land even if it meant by force. He was master of his domain at Monticello and he had a fierce temper when anyone questioned him. He twice pursued married women, in one case even went to the woman's room late at night even after she refused him and had to chase him away. He espoused freedom and liberty, but based on the description of how he lived he seemed to be advocating for his liberty to live as he wished, not that everyone around him was equally free and independent.
Many people today defend Jefferson by arguing that we can't judge him today for having held slaves because the practice was so central to how society worked at the time, it took us as a country one hundred and fifty more years to give descendants of slaves equal rights under the law, and we still have trouble actually treating different races fairly and equally. I would agree that we can't judge Jefferson independently and it would not be fair to criticize him for holding slaves more than we do his contemporaries just because he was the stronger advocate of equality and therefore the bigger hypocrite. I would flip the question on its head. I would argue that Jefferson's life and philosophy would not have been possible without slaves, and so rather than trying to separate the man from the issue of slavery, I think we need to spend some time wrestling with how to separate the ideas from the reality of slavery. Jefferson advocated for personal as well as political independence, created Monticello to be a model of self-sufficiency, and based much of his political platform on the belief that government should be as hands-off as possible. His very model, however, contradicts that view because he was not in fact self-sufficient - he depended on several hundred people whom he owned to maintain his lifestyle of study and contemplation. The books gives an example of how he helped become "self-sufficient" by constructing a nail factory on the property to create his own building supplies and generate some revenue by selling the excess of the 10,000 nails per day it created. It fails to mention, however, that Jefferson never worked a day in that nail factory, and instead it was entirely staffed by slave boys, who began working there at the age of eight. Jefferson's own son - his eldest surviving son because Martha's sons all died, and who looked so much like Jefferson that visitors did a double take, and who lived out his adult years as a free white man because he was so light skinned no one guessed he'd been born a slave - had to work in that nail factory for probably over ten years before he was old enough to be free. That is Jefferson's model of self-sufficiency.
What the book helped me do, however, was come to terms with the fact that I do not have to like the man to like his ideals. These days we seem to have the idea that politicians have to be perfect people in order for their ideas or professional leadership to be respected. I think the careers of John Edwards, David Petraeus, and Bill Clinton (although he's made something of a recovery) demonstrate that Thomas Jefferson never would have survived our present political climate - and I do think our country would have suffered from having lost his philosophical input into our national psyche. People are flawed and full of contradictions, and I think we all lose when we aren't able to separate ideas from the people who generate them. That's not to say that anyone, least of all Jefferson, deserve a pass for bad behavior if they have good ideas. But I do think we need to be able to honestly discuss what is possible and what is ideal and be able to talk about realistic ways to marry the two. Jefferson may not have been a model of self-sufficiency in his life, but Thoreau was able to. So, how can we take what Jefferson said and what Thoreau did and come up with an understanding or a principle that would actually be widely applicable? I don't think our pursuit of liberty and an ideal society have to suffer just because Jefferson wasn't able to exemplify them. Jon Meacham was on Meet the Press this morning (replayed), and said one of the things this book should teach us is, "If they can do it, we can do it." I would dispute that, and argue this book teaches us we can do better.
I have recently completed Adams, Franklin & Washington's biographies as well. All were equally good, but in my opinion it is very important to read them all. The perspectives each author has of their own subject versus the others and how they all interrelate as advisaries and/or allies through the early years of our nation is important to garner. It paints the whole picture, instead of just one author's opinion. I plan on tackling Hamilton next. I find Edward Herrman's narration to be perfect; he is all over the History Channel so his voice is familiar and appropriate for a book of this type.
Married mother of three teenagers, back to work after 15 years at home - when I read a lot. Now I am the assistant to the Mayor of Omaha and work at least 60 hours a week, and on top of what I have to do at home - no more books. This lets me listen to the classics, the latest, whatever I want. I can learn or escape. I have always love audio books, but now I NEED them.
I love history, but have always been drawn to European history, and knew little of my own country's. Audible can take credit for helping me expand my knowledge by introducing me to a fun way to learn. I have been listening to presidential biographies now for several months, and this is one of the best. I knew little about this (or any) founding father, and as much as we hear these days about the original intent of these men, I wanted to know more. This was detailed enough to give me insight into the man while broad enough to give me a sense of his place in the bigger picture. It was funny how the presidency now seems such a small part of his life.
I didn't give it all the stars only because there were times that the detail got to be too much, and I actually realized I had wandered off. I always came back, and figured that I had the general idea of what the author was speaking about, so I didn't bother to rewind. Any history of a real person will have it's moments that lag, but don't let that deter you. Edward Herrmann was wonderful, and could read the phone book well, so he gets all his stars.
If you are afraid of non-fiction because you are afraid it will be boring, this might be a good one to try because he was NOT boring. He was funny, irreverant, and had a wonderful way of looking at the world. My new favorite quote is now one of his: "Religion requires careful thought, not reflexive acceptance. Fix reason firmly in her seat... Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." In his time, this was HUGE! He was considered by many of being an athiest.
I look forward to some history about other men of the time, like Madison, to see history of the same time from another person's perspective, while also seeing Jefferson from another perspective.
There's art and there's craft. Monet and macrame. This is more like macrame. I mean, this is the life of one of the greatest men who ever lived. The subject deserves a great telling. This wasn't it.
Start writing history.
I really liked all the in-depth, historical background information that isn't generally known (by me at least). Democracy and politics was just as ugly and messy then as it is today, but it works out as long as the citizens stay informed & engaged and vote.I also liked the narrator's voice and style. This is important to me as I won't listen very long if I dislike the narration. I've enjoyed other books narrated by Herrmann and that's one reason I chose this book.
The man, Jefferson is fascinating. His words, his thoughts, his life. All just amazing. The book is extremely well written, full of perfect quotes and snippets of the mans life.
The history. Our history, and the creation of this country. Rich with import and bearing on today's society.
Not sure... but Herrmann did a wonderful job. Great voice; perfect for this type of historical biography.
The same as the book title. Or Thomas Jefferson: Words of Freedom.
One of my favoirte audiobooks thus far. A perfect combination of great story and the perfect narrator.
It was very full of facts, some of which made the reading difficult.
It has made me want to learn more about the early history of the country.
Eclectic, Bright, politician
the story of his entire life.
very easy to listen to.
Meacham's work in this book is magnificent.
Halfway through and enjoying this book. It's amazing to learn so much about a guy -- that we learned so much about in school--- but really, we learned very little. Make any sense? Well, I've learned more about Jefferson and the revolution from this book then I remember l
"learning" in school. So, good read, time well spent. Readers and story get 2 thumbs up from me.
I work. I ski. I play. I write. I have a family. I garden. I coach. I volunteer. I sketch. I run. I read.
This book is well written and the narrator does a good job. I have listened to a biography of John Adams, which I also enjoyed. This work helps to describe the pace and volatility of the American Revolution. The accounts of his gardens, library, art collections, written word, sportsmanship, contradictions, humanity, slave holding, desires, leadership, etc, etc, etc, are more than I expected.