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The paradox of America

A nation's contradictions are reflected in the life and ideals of Thomas Jefferson.

Of all the members of the founding generation, Thomas Jefferson remains the most inescapably contradictory. He espoused universal principles of equality and human dignity, yet he owned over a hundred slaves and even fathered children by one of them. He believed in concepts of limited government that were based on a strict interpretation of the Constitution, yet his greatest achievement as president, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, was in no way expressly authorized by the framers. He championed independence and self-sufficiency, yet he lived most of his life under crushing debts.

To write a biography of Jefferson is largely a task of grappling with these contradictions. Yet, as constitutional historian R.B. Bernstein sagely points out in "Thomas Jefferson," this lucidly written, highly accessible biography, Jefferson's contradictions are the contradictions of American history: "The clash between his professed ideals and his life's realities is as bitter as the clash it exemplifies, between the nation's creed - which he did so much to shape - and its history."

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Thus, Jefferson's soaring words in the Declaration of Independence ("All men are created equal") could be used by Martin Luther King Jr. to demand equality for African-Americans in the 1960s. But more than a century earlier, Jefferson's words and his example as a slaveholder had also been used to defend "the peculiar institution" of slavery. This elasticity makes him perennially relevant and famously enigmatic. Any biographer faces a daunting question: Behind the often- contrasting words and deeds, who was the real Thomas Jefferson?

He was first a Virginian, born in 1743. Through hard work, he made himself a brilliant lawyer, a leading member of the Enlightenment, and one of the greatest writers in American history. When opposition to King George III developed in the colonies in the 1760s and early '70s, Jefferson would use his pen to establish the intellectual tenets of the Revolution. In June of 1776, as a member of the Continental Congress, he was asked to draft the document that justified American independence.

Yet if the Revolution was a high point of his life, it was also the low point, Bernstein makes clear. In 1781, when he was governor of Virginia, Jefferson was chased out of Richmond by the British Army. The following year, his beloved wife Martha died from complications in childbirth.

Bernstein devotes two excellent chapters to Jefferson's tumultuous presidency. His tenure would see the doubling of the size of the new nation, brought about by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Equally important, Jefferson kept America out of the vicious war between Napoleonic France and Britain. His second term brought disappointments, however, especially when his own vice president, Aaron Burr, was put on trial for treason.

Jefferson retired to Monticello, where he lived the life of a philosopher and gentleman planter. He also worked tirelessly to found the University of Virginia. He died on the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Declaration of Independence.

What was Jefferson's greatest legacy? Bernstein sees it as the potential inherent in his ideals: "His words mean not only what he might have intended them to mean, but also what succeeding generations of Americans have read into them." Thus, our history can be seen as an ongoing process of bridging the gap between our realities and our Jeffersonian ideals. It was in that gap, in that land of contradictions, where Jefferson lived his own life. Bernstein has brought as much clarity to a famously elusive subject as anyone can, and he's done it all at concise, readable length.

Chuck Leddy regularly reviews history books for Publishers Weekly.


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