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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Review: Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical's Struggle to Remake America

Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical's Struggle to Remake America Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical's Struggle to Remake America by Kevin R.C. Gutzman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best scholarly book I have read in a long, long time. I knew very little about Thomas Jefferson, and even less about his political beliefs, before reading this book. Mr. Gutzman addressed five areas that Mr. Jefferson focused on throughout his political career:

1) Federalism (decentralization of government, some would say "state's rights"),
2) Freedom of Conscience (more commonly referred to as "separation of church and state"),
3) Colonization (the gradual abolition of slavery in the U.S. by freeing slaves and sending them to a specially formed all-black colony, a.k.a. Liberia...),
4) Assimilation (the adaptation, or potential thereof, of Native Americans to colonial American culture), and
5) Mr. Jefferson's University (the University of Virginia).

I loved how incredibly thorough Mr. Gutzman was in his research for this book. The use of Jefferson's personal correspondence in addition to his public/published works gives the reader the feeling of having insider knowledge. I truly felt as though I finally had insight into some of the innermost thoughts and debates between the founding fathers! For instance, what was the original extent and intent for powers DELEGATED TO the federal government as laid out in the Constitution? Note that the wording of this question puts the States in the ultimate position of authority, not the federal government, which was what Thomas Jefferson proposed based on the Constitution as it was originally understood.

Here is one of my favorite quotes (from the first chapter, "Federalism"):

"Jefferson said 'that whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force.' So as far as he was concerned, a law like the federal Sedition Act could be treated - should be treated - as if it simply did not exist. Who would decide whether the federal government had abused its powers? Jefferson did not even pause. 'The government created by this compact,' he said, 'was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the power delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers.' So much for judicial supremacy, the twenty-first-century answer to this kind of question."

Wow. This is completely contrary to how the country is now run, almost without exception. Given the current political climate, I'd be fascinated to hear Jefferson's thoughts. I now find myself torn between him and Sir Winston Churchill as my guest of honor in the old "if you could have dinner with any historical figure, who would it be" scenario. But part of me thinks that Mr. Jefferson would be appalled at the state of the Union were he to see it today. This book was enlightening, challenging, and certainly revolutionary in its own way.

Highly recommend!

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