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Thomas Jefferson

3.98  ·  Rating Details ·  3,672 Ratings  ·  132 Reviews
Thomas Jefferson designed his own tombstone, describing himself simply as "Author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia." It is in this simple epitaph that R.B. Bernstein finds the key to this enigmatic Founder--not as a great political figure, but as leader of "a revolution of ideas t ...more
Paperback, 253 pages
Published September 15th 2005 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 2003)
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After reading 1776, George Washington and John Adams, I was ready to expound upon my knowledge of our third President and writer of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson is an immortal hero for Americans, and often that status comes with a lofty purity that is difficult to actually live up to. In R. B. Bernstein’s abbreviated biography, I felt I got to know the real person that Jefferson was, rather than the icon.

Jefferson was clearly a passionate man. He had a love for learning and
Christopher Litsinger
Writer of the Declaration of Independence, notably two-faced, father of illegitimate children with his slave (the half-sister of his wife), Defender of States rights, A man who deplored the idea of overstepping constitutional authority, and yet did so many times during his presidency. There's a lot of interesting things to be said about Thomas Jefferson.
After reading John Adams, which paints a very negative picture of Jefferson, I was curious to read this.
This book sets out to tell the story of
Jul 25, 2013 Lauren rated it really liked it
I thoroughly enjoyed this biography of Thomas Jefferson. I have to admit that I was drawn to it initially because it was on the shorter side and the last presidential biography I read took me ages to get through, but once I started reading I found this book to be very well written with a lot of great information. This biography had a balance of personal and professional information on Jefferson and the pacing made it a relatively quick read.

I found it very interesting to see some of Thomas Jeff
Aug 02, 2012 Susanclouse rated it really liked it
I must say I knew very little about Thomas Jefferson. I am also surprised and a little dismayed when our heroes don't think, act, respond to their world in the way we as Americans would or should respond. Being the perfect humans we all are. But that's just the point. Thomas Jefferson was very human and flawed. Yet he had a brilliance and a passion that has endured over 200 years though sometimes minimally.

I could never figure out why we in 2012 look back to 1776 and wonder why our founding fa
Jan 01, 2014 Kristen rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014-reads
This was a well-written, concise biography. I really enjoyed it. Bernstein neither apologizes for nor ignores Jefferson's shortcomings. He presents a very well-balanced view of the man and doesn’t get caught up in superfluous details.

I found this biography to be really accessible and I enjoyed the balance Bernstein was able to strike between Jefferson’s personal and professional lives. He did a great job of identifying the major events in Jefferson’s life without going overboard with details.

Aug 10, 2012 Benjamin rated it it was ok
Shelves: biographies
Bernstein's book is disappointingly sparse, and focuses primarily on Jefferson's many personal contradictions and foibles. While these are worth knowing about, focusing on them with near exclusivity doesn't give us a complete picture of Jefferson. For a better understanding of Jefferson, read David McCullough's John Adams. Presenting Jefferson in contrast to his friend-then-enemy-then-friend Adams will give us a much clearer and more intriguing picture of Jefferson. Bernstein's effort seems shal ...more
Apr 04, 2008 Pamilia rated it really liked it
This is a concise (198 pgs) biography of the contradictory life of Thomas Jefferson. I found it interesting to read what he considered his greatest accomplishment--The University of Virginia. He was instrumental in all aspects of the school, and when his secular University opened its doors, "it was one of the happiest and proudest days of his life." Hence, the inscription on his tombstone--Here was buried the Author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Fre ...more
Courtney Umlauf
This was a good introductory biography of Jefferson. Well written and easy to follow, and more importantly, Bernstein took a more balanced approach to the controversies surrounding the third president. So far what I've read about Jefferson in other presidential biographies has given me a very bad impression of him. This book didn't completely change that opinion, but it did give me a more well rounded view.
Jeremy Perron
Jan 23, 2012 Jeremy Perron rated it really liked it
R.B. Bernstein's biography on Thomas Jefferson packs a great deal of information into a very little space. Inside this a fewer than two-hundred-and-fifty-page work, is the life of the third president of the United States. Yet, the work has very ease flowing narrative that makes it enjoyable to read.

Thomas Jefferson's entire life is put into to nicely fit little chapters. The Revolution starts right at the second chapter, which makes sense considering Jefferson was only thirty. The second chapte
Oct 24, 2013 Bertport rated it liked it
How refreshing to hold a 200 page biography, in a time when it seems every interesting nonfiction book goes more than twice that! Bernstein gives enough context that the book is almost a history of the era. Another Goodreads review complained of middle-school level explanations, but I don't find it to be so tediously full of stuff I already know. It suits me fine.

Coming to this book after Roger Kennedy's Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson, I find that Bernstein soft pedals Jefferson's darker side. B
Jul 05, 2012 Paul rated it liked it
It’s amazing how much Bernstein is able to cover in his little book. He outlines Jefferson’s political and personal career, his ideologies, his successes, and his failures. His footnotes and bibliography are a great starting point for further research. There really aren’t any wasted words here, and it’s a testament to Bernstein’s skills that he’s able to stay focused and lively from start to finish.

Bernstein argues that Jefferson’s lasting legacy, for all his importance as a political figure, is
Patrick S.
Feb 07, 2016 Patrick S. rated it it was amazing
Shelves: e-books, audible
This is probably one of the best biographies I've read on a Founding Father. This came with a recommendation from Tom Wood's forum ( as being a good book on Jefferson.

Bernstein presents probably the fairest assessment of a person from the time period as I've seen. He doesn't ascribe deity or hero worship or perfection to the man. He also doesn't disparage Jefferson for being a product of his time and class and society. Bernstein presents Jefferson as a flawed individual who is n
Sep 23, 2008 Jeremy rated it really liked it
The very thing that made this book so good, also left me wanting more. It is written as a concise, non-opinionated biography of Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States. Thus, often throughout the book things would be stated about Jefferson's actions or opinions, and I was left wanting more detail. Of course, had the detail been provided, the book would ultimately have had to span several volumes, rather than its modest 200 pages. And to be sure, the book is well resear ...more
Feb 10, 2010 Zachariah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I probably liked it more like a 3.5. But quality wise it might deserve at 4 or so. I'm no expert in biographies and have only read a few, and not many recently.

This biography is accessible and doesn't say in one place or get bogged down in details or what some may see as trivialities--for better or worse. The composition wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. Again I'm not sure about the standard procedure is for bios, but there are a lot of years/dates that are referenced in the bio and at times I fo
May 20, 2009 Justin rated it liked it
It's a relief to have such a succinct but quality book in the world of academic history and biography. Too often professors write only for other professors and lose some of us non-professors in extraneous, inane, scholarly details, often right around page 200 or so. Luckily, that's about where this book leaves off. Now I'm not saying I'm just lazy (I may well be, but that's not what I'm trying to say). I'm saying this book serves its purpose. It presents the major exploits and issues of Jefferso ...more
Eric Paulsen
Jul 12, 2012 Eric Paulsen rated it liked it
It has been quite a while since I have written! My recalcitrant reading attitude has been reflected on this very empty blog. :) Even so, thank you for your dedication to my entries. I just finished a biography on our third President, Thomas Jefferson.

Honestly, I chose this book because it is short. After extensive biographies on Washington and Adams, I needed a quick read. Incidentally, as Thomas Jefferson is my favorite president, I have read much material on him before, and this condensed vers
Bekah Porter-Sandy
Apr 08, 2012 Bekah Porter-Sandy rated it really liked it
The thing I loved about this book: It allowed me to absorb vast amounts of information in only a couple hundred pages. The thing I wished were different about this book: I wish it were longer than a couple hundred pages.
Such was the conundrum I faced with Bernstein's wonderfully composed biography. He presented the much-approached topic with grace and style, and his summations on the various aspects of Jefferson's character and life were just brilliant. But I kept wanting more --- more descripti
Oct 29, 2015 Jennifer rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Rating this book was tough for me. I'm not sure if my rating is coming from the book itself or the fact that the book changed my opinion on Jefferson's character. I hadn't given an awful lot of thought to Jefferson; I know the basics, but not the in-depth perspective. Thomas Jefferson is a complete hypocrite. Although he claimed to be a Republican with a belief in strong state government and weak Federal government, he stretched the powers granted by the Constitution to the limits. Examples incl ...more
Leah (packfan20)
President number three!

3.5 stars

What I learned about Thomas Jefferson:
- He had red hair. :0
- He was involved with the Louisiana Purchase and Louis and Clark’s expedition
- He had very conflicting ideas on many things – religion, slavery, etc.
- He was the founder of the University of Virginia (and has students as rebellious as some today!!!)
- Monticello was mostly a disaster for Jefferson’s entire life because he kept reconstructing it.

What I wish I learned:
- More about the conflict between him an
Jan 14, 2010 Kalen rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2010-reads
I've been wanting to read a bio of Jefferson for ages, but always forget about it when I'm in a bookstore. This one was a short, approachable introduction (or re-introduction if you earned your political science degree 20 years ago....) Berstein's approach is even-handed, neither apologizing for or ignoring Jefferson's shortcomings or being overly-critical. He places Jefferson in the context of his time and adds modern-day context at the end.

Jefferson was a man riddled with contradictions, whic
Jun 27, 2013 Suzan rated it really liked it
It must have been taught to me at a very young age, but I have always believed that Thomas Jefferson was a very great man. He was president, after all. A founding father, a diplomat, an inventor, philosopher and a gentleman farmer. But I've never really understood beyond a very superficial awareness - why we all think he is the demigod of American history.
I still think he was an incredible man and we were lucky to have him around when it came time to put together a new nation. Talk about being
Aug 07, 2012 John rated it did not like it
It's rare that I would give a book (and especially a biography on Jefferson) such a low review. I was looking forward to reading this one since I will soon be visiting Monticello, however I was somewhat disappointed.

Several times throughout this book I was startled at the low-level definitions that were provided by the Author. I understand that it's important for the Author to be sure the reader knows some of the terms that are being used but by the way in which Bernstein presented his informati
May 08, 2012 Sandy rated it it was amazing
This is a brilliant, masterful examination of the character, history and impact of Thomas Jefferson. Bernstein has captured all of the contrast and anomalies of our 3rd President. The author tracks Jefferson’s intellectual development and documents his incredibly diverse set of intellectual pursuits. That portrait is incredibly attractive, but Bernstein does a careful and accurate portrayal of his foibles—his judgment that the negro race is inherently inferior, his espousal of human freedoms and ...more
Regina Lindsey
The New York Times Book Review call this "The best short biography of Jefferson ever written." I feel there is a lot of truth in that statement. The brevity of the book could be deceiving. While certainly not a comprehensive study of Jefferson's life, I felt like Bernstein aptly identified the major events related to Jefferson and provided great context and explanation of those issues as a whole. It is probably the most balanced account of the issues surrounding the formation of the country, pro ...more
Apr 14, 2011 Diana rated it liked it
This was an informative, interesting read. I didn't love the writing, but the content was good. It was on the short side-- only 198 pages of actual biography, but with Jefferson the options seemed either very long or very short. Maybe someday I'll brave one of the long ones. In this biography I especially liked that Bernstein took the time to explain certain pieces of 'common knowledge' like the Alien and Sedition Acts, for example. In the Adams biography (and in history class, of course) I'd he ...more
Oct 11, 2011 Linda rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: every American
Recommended to Linda by: no one
Thomas Jefferson sweated blood for our country. We think of the Bill of Rights, The
Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, but his passion for freedom started in The House of Burgesses(sp) and later the Continental Congress. His research and writings for colony of Virginia were predicates for the DOI, USC & BOR. (If I am not mistaken, he may have been in France with his daughter and Benjamin Franklin at a pivotal point concerning the Constitution.)
He loved his wife. It was said th
Nov 03, 2010 TrueEd added it
Shelves: mike, reviewed
R. B. Bernstein's concise biography of Jefferson is an excellent introduction to Jefferson. As others have said, it's very balanced. Bernstein sticks with the facts--he doesn't deify nor destroy Jefferson. He gives an honest picture of a great man, understood in the context of time period in which he lived.

The writing is never dry or dull. It's very engaging, usually hard to put down. There were parts of the book where I felt like it could have given a little more insight into what was happenin
Scott Cox
Jan 17, 2016 Scott Cox rated it it was amazing
I think that R.B. Bernstein's biography is one the best presidential biographies I have read thus far. This is because Bernstein seems to give more balanced background information on the issues that involved both Jefferson and the emergent United States. For example, Bernstein provides the reader with much-needed background to seminal issues confronting the revolutionary colonies with regards to the Stamp Act and the ensuing Tea Party (3-fold British reasoning - - p.20f), Parliament representati ...more
Shellys♥ Journal
This was a quick hit kind of bio of Thomas Jefferson. And honestly, I have learned more on him from reading books that were about other Revolutionary figures. Although it did fill in a few gaps during his presidency. It's more of an overview - hitting on many of the well know stories of Jefferson, talking some about his rivalry with Hamilton, his correspondences with Adams and the various stages of his life.

It's a good book to start with - since really no comprehensive bio exists outside of mult
Garrett Burnett
Dec 28, 2009 Garrett Burnett rated it liked it
Shelves: presidents
When Dumas Malone wrote Jefferson's biography, it took him six volumes at about 500 pages a pop. Bernstein does it in a single volume with a mere 200 pages. Clearly, some detail is missing, but for what it is, Thomas Jefferson gives a lot of bang. Bernstein outlined the work using the three accomplishments Jefferson requested to have listed as his epitaph: author of the Declaration of Independence, author of a statute of religious rights, and father of the University of Virginia.

Bernstein highli
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sonny 1 4 Oct 17, 2013 03:56PM  
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“As the nation divided into Federalists and Republicans, each group called the other the worst name possible: "party". Most Americans feared the idea of party; believing that a society should unite to achieve the public good, they denounced parties as groups of ambitious men selfishly competing for power. Worse, parties were danger signals for a republic; if parties dominated a republic's politics, its days were numbered.” 7 likes
“Jefferson feared that Hamilton had plans radically at odds with the Constitution. As he saw it, Hamilton wanted to warp the federal government out of constitutional shape, converting it into a copy of the British government, built on debt, corruption, and influence. Hamilton's goal, Jefferson charged, was to ally the rich and well born with the government at the people's expense, creating a corrupt aristocracy leagued with the government against the people and destroying the virtue that was the basis of republican government. Only a republic could preserve liberty, Jefferson insisted, and only virtue among the people could preserve a republic.” 6 likes
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