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Noble E. Cunningham, Jr. (1926–2007)

Forfatter af In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson

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Noble E. Cunningham, Jr. is Curator's Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

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The subtitle of this biography of Thomas Jefferson is "In Pursuit of Reason" and that theme is expanded upon in the quote by Jefferson with which Cunningham chose to head the text: It rests now with ourselves alone to enjoy in peace and concord the blessings of self-government, so long denied to mankind: to show by example the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs and that the will of the majority, the Natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of man. That quote captures how Jefferson saw the connections between his life, reason and politics. You can see it in his passion for education, architecture, books, in so many of the details of his life and expressed so eloquently in his speeches and writings. His intellect was so dazzling, his defense of liberty and democracy so inspiring--and then there's slavery.

It's said slavery is America's "original sin." Except there was nothing original about it. It was as old and wide-spread as mankind when America was young. So I do tend to make allowances for the times. But the picture Cunningham presents makes the question of slavery and Jefferson, if not exactly worse, well, then complicated, and very perplexing. As a young lawyer, Jefferson took on cases that challenged the ownership of slaves--for free. Early on he'd make arguments in such cases about the right of every human being to freedom as their birthright. He'd write a condemnation of slavery into the Declaration of Independence (cut by others) and wrote a provision--which didn't pass--into a draft of the Virginia constitution emancipating slaves. For the rest of his life he maintained the institution of slavery was evil and threatened the very republic he had helped create. Yet Flexner, in his biography of George Washington, compared Washington's treatment of his slaves to Jefferson--and the contrasts are telling. There was no rumor Washington ever sexually exploited his slaves, and he refused to sell them or even move them without their consent. He grew increasingly disturbed by slavery and towards the end of his life turned his beloved Mount Vernon upside down to prepare his slaves to be freed, and he did so in his will, providing pensions for those not able to work as well as providing for the education of those still children. You can't say any of that in defense of Jefferson according to Flexner. Cunningham does deny Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings was ever his mistress, saying that belongs "to fiction, not history." (The book was published in 1987, before the DNA tests in 1998 that substantiated the Jefferson/Hemings relationship). Cunningham also claimed Jefferson "never grew wealthy on slave labor" but admitted Jefferson sold slaves "to pay his creditors." He also admitted that Jefferson, unlike Washington, never intended to free his slaves. So in the end it's hard not to conclude that when it comes to slavery, Washington did better, while you can't deny that Jefferson knew better--that he did know owning human beings demeaned the owned and owner both. I don't think anything I read in this biography really resolves that conundrum.

The other issue the biographies of Washington and Adams I recently read brought to the fore was Jefferson's conduct as one of the founders of the first American political parties, the Democratic-Republicans, particularly in opposition to Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists. Flexner's account reflected well on neither Jefferson nor Hamilton. Ferling, in his biography of Adams, excoriates Hamilton and the Federalists, claiming they served to "enrich the few" and "foster corruption," that Hamilton had a "low, cunning dishonesty" and Washington was Hamilton's "puppet." I didn't expect Cunningham would take the Federalist side in this, and I think I can detect an understandable bias towards the subject of his biography, but to his credit he's much more fair than Ferling to both sides, presenting actions that do not reflect well on Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans, even if he doesn't address some of the worst things of which Flexner accuses Jefferson. And he makes it clear Washington was no puppet but tried hard to reconcile Jefferson and Hamilton, both members of his cabinet. And really, in the end I find it hard to be shocked or condemn Jefferson for *gasp* acting like a politician rather than an aloof philosopher-king.

Rather, in the end, despite his flaws, the biography leaves me with a great appreciation of all that Jefferson contributed to America. Flexner justifiably claimed for George Washington that he promulgated and preserved a republican form of government. Ferling highlighted the ways John Adams secured American independence, not just in breaking from Great Britain, but in avoiding domination by Britain or France. If Jefferson's contribution could be summed up in one word, it would be: democracy. Jefferson's legacy included fostering religious freedom, public education, widening of the political franchise and helping to create the American political party as a way to channel political conflict and the will of the people. This is a fairly short biography--only 349 pages. Given all Jefferson witnessed, participated in and accomplished in his long life, this can only give an outline of this complex man and his accomplishments, but there's certainly plenty I learned reading the book, and I certainly was never bored.
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LisaMaria_C | 2 andre anmeldelser | Sep 4, 2012 |
A fairly easy-to-read biography of Thomas Jefferson.
tloeffler | 2 andre anmeldelser | Jun 26, 2011 |
This book centers mainly on the Presidency of James Monroe rather than a complete biography. The early years are summarized to give the reader an understanding of his qualifications and where he was coming from.
From the information in the book it appears that James Monroe was probably the first president to realize that the good will of the people could keep him in office. During his administrations, he undertook several long trips to see how the nation and its people faired. The first trip was to what was then called the East - what we now call the north - New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. By making this his first priority in his travels he was able to consolidate his position by befriending the Federalists even though he was a southern Republican. His second trip was to the South and western reaches of the Ohio Valley.
Conditions were not financial good during the first administration due to recovery from the war. Congressman Richard Johnson of Kentucky is quoted "the times for money are alarming and frightful. I have never seen a time before but when I could raise $1000 with less difficulty than I can now raise $100" "It is impossible to describe to you the distress in this country on account of circulating medium. Loans cannot be obtained from banks or individuals - both are calling in their debts by wholesale, and nothing can be purchased on credit."
The National intelligencer published "our markets are deluged with merchandise from foreign nations, while thousands of our citizens, able and willing to work, and capable of furnishing similar articles, are unable to procure employment." (Does any of this sound familiar?)
Besides the domestic issues of the day, Monroe also had to keep a wary eye open at the revolutions that were in progress in the areas to the south of the USA. These were what led to the Monroe Doctrine. I don't feel that 1 chapter is sufficient to cover that, so I will be reading a book dedicated to this aspect of his presidency.
Overall, a good basic book for a President that I don't think received enough credit for what he had to handle.
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cyderry | Jun 22, 2009 |
If you don't have the time to read a hardcore biography of Thomas Jefferson, Cunningham's book is right up your alley. This is not to say that it is light or elementary, but the structure of the work will appeal to readers with constant interruptions and extended dry periods. While the overall arc of the biography is chronological, the chapters are arranged according to natural historical-temporal categories: his gubernatorial term, his stay in France, his 1st presidency, his retirement, etc. Each chapter then tends to focus on the quintessential aspect of that period: the Alien and Sedition act, the French Revolution, the founding of the University of Virginia. As mnemonics go, this book is written in an easily digestible and retentive form.

That being said, I was disappointed to find that the title "In Pursuit of Reason" had little to do with the content. As biographies go, Cunningham didn't spend much time delving into Jefferson's philosophical motivations or humanistic pursuits. I was expecting to learn more about the leisurely mind of Jefferson and less about his political mind. Oh course, this was a running theme of Jefferson's life: politics consumed him even when he tried to avoid it.
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johnxlibris | 2 andre anmeldelser | Dec 17, 2007 |


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