Book Reviews -- Thomas Jefferson by Norman K. Risjord

Article excerpt

Thomas Jefferson. By NORMAN K. RISJORD. American Profiles. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1994. xiii, 210 pp. $27.95 cloth; $11.95 paper.

THE title of this brief volume might mislead readers into believing that it is primarily a biography of the third president, the Virginian who became for many mid-twentieth-century Americans the embodiment of American revolutionary statesmanship and republican virtue. The author's purpose in this, the first of a series of studies of which he is also the general editor, is to use the story of an individual to enlighten the general reader about and to catch the interest of students in the complex concepts and events of the past. The "life and times" approach, he believes, is a "pedagogical device" that can "sugarcoat the pill" for those who dislike histories that are too often filled with "obscure names, arcane dates, and big words that...end in 'ism'" (p. vii). The result is a history in which vignettes of Thomas Jefferson's life and thought--snapshot descriptions of where he lodged in Philadelphia, Richmond, and New York; succinct sketches of family members, friends, political allies, and opponents; brief accounts of important personal events or experiences; deft summaries of his major political, scientific, or philosophical writings--alternate with or provide the introduction to lengthier treatises on the economic forces and the political and diplomatic events that shaped American history between 1743 and 1826.

Trained at the College of William and Mary, Norman K. Risjord has been a lifelong scholar of Jefferson's administrative career and of the economic and political events of the early republic. He divides this account of these events, viewed through the lens of Jefferson' s life cycle, into eight brief chapters. The first focuses on Jefferson's childhood, education, and legal career; the last on the years of his retirement. The remainder are divided into eight-year or four-year political epochs that trace the events and issues of the American Revolution, of Jefferson's diplomatic career in France, and of the presidencies of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. Throughout Risjord is careful to explain clearly and concisely to the uninitiated key intellectual, economic, and political concepts important to an understanding of the narrative: the ideas of John Locke and the Baron Charles-Louis de Montesquieu; the influence of Sir Edward Coke on English and American law; the difference between the English and Scottish Enlightenments; the adoption by Jefferson and others of belief in a laissez-faire political economy; the philosophical position of "true Whigs" and of "old Republicans. …