Dr. James H. Billington and the Library of Congress published Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty, and in it, these two book creators provided a good view of the man and the things that drove him. The book relies significantly on a host of documents, all of which can be found in the Library of Congress’s famed collection. In the work, Jefferson’s own words are the guiding force, as they direct the reader through a maze that includes Jefferson’s personal life as well as his professional life. This book presents a remarkably honest picture of Jefferson as a man, and its primary strength comes from its willingness to not simply gloss over those aspects of Jefferson’s character that were not exactly pretty.
When one picks up a book published by the Library of Congress about one of America’s famed leaders, one might expected to take in a white-washed version of history. After all, it seems like the Library of Congress might have an interest in protecting the dignity and the legacy of one of the country’s most venerable founders. This book, however, does not white-wash history. It provides a clear picture of the walking contradiction that was Jefferson’s life. Thomas Jefferson was a man who wrote significantly about freedom and ideas like equality. At home, though, he was a man who owned slaves and often did not treat those slaves very well. He took liberties with his female slaves, too, and this book does not spare too many details in discussing the former president’s exploits in this regard. It is a book that’s strength comes from its willingness to tell things like they were, allowing Jefferson’s own words to actually direct the conversation.
While many people are well aware of the things that Jefferson wrote in guide the country, including the parts of the Constitution that he was responsible for and the famous words of the Declaration of Independence that bear his influence, few people are aware of the fact that Jefferson wrote privately about a range of issues. This book provides a look into the life of Jefferson with his so-called “Monticello Commentaries.” The book reveals the primary conflict that drove at the heart of this man, and it reveals him as being far more complex than one might have originally suspected. The easy, default position when looking at a man like Jefferson would be to think of him as a typical hypocrite of his day, failing to practice what he preached in a few important ways. The truth, however, was that Jefferson was a man whose inner conflicts helped to produce his inspired writing. These conflicts also made him a much less happy man than any person might suspect given his prominent role in history.
One of the problems with this book, if one wants to take issue with a certain aspect, is that it often gets too mired in the details of Jefferson’s personal life, distracting from what seems to be the more important aspects of the book, including Jefferson’s role in shaping the course of the nation’s intellectual development. It is certainly true that Jefferson’s story is interesting from a human interest standpoint. After all, he was a man who wrote eloquently and honestly about his moral failings, often noting his own inability to formulate ideas. This is an extraordinary piece of honesty that is revealed in the work by Jefferson himself, providing the reader with a picture of a man with considerable talent, but without the confidence to truly tap into that talent.
This insistence on focusing on Jefferson the man can take away from the more important point, which is that Jefferson’s ideas were so fundamentally important to the foundation of the nation. He was one of the first to recognize that freedom and equality were ideas that had to be pursued together; without equality of an economic sense, a man could truly never exercise the freedoms that Jefferson and his ilk were trying to provide. This book often deviates from this point, losing focus on the role of Jefferson in shaping the nation in its near-constant efforts to provide a clearer picture of Jefferson the man. In that sense, it is a book that did not quite know what its goal was. This could be expected, of course, because the book is really just a well-organized collection of thoughts and documents from a man whose mind shifted in some erratic fashion, but this detracts from the value of the work to some extent.
Ultimately, Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty might read as a smearing of Jefferson’s character as some. To be sure, the book is quite honest about his exploits, especially focusing on the many ways that the man’s ideals and his actions did not match up. The book makes very clear that Jefferson often did not take the principles of freedom and equality home with him to Monticello, where he was known for treating an entire class of human beings as something less than human. Still, this book has value because it provides some color for understanding the mind of Jefferson, and it provides some context for the things that Jefferson wrote. A book that is often unsure of its own purpose, it is one that can be very helpful for any person looking to grasp the American ideal a little bit tighter or any person looking to leave with a robust understanding of Jefferson the man.