Review of “Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History” by Eric Foner

My idea of a perfect dinner party would be to have Eric Foner there. Just him alone would be fine. And I wouldn’t have to say a word, I would just ask him to talk. This book is the next-best thing; in fact, it’s better, because you don’t even have to cook! You can just open it and read his thoughts on a variety of important topics.

Eric Foner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and the leading historian of America’s Reconstruction Era. He is also intellectually dazzling, and both wise and endlessly interesting. I have read all his books, taken his courses online, and now am delighted to read this collection of essays by him that are reprinted from “The Nation” Magazine, and that were published from 1977 to 2017. Even though I was familiar with many of them, he is so excellent that one can just never read him too much or too often.

The book begins with an introduction by Randall Kennedy, the renowned Harvard intellectual, who summarizes much of Foner’s more salient insights on both the politics of history and the politics of race.

Foner reminds us that historical accounts and representations of the past, such as those curated in museums, stake a claim in a very contested terrain, because what we remember about our history helps form our ideas about who we are as a people. Furthermore, the selection of which documents, pictures, statues or other representations of our past are displayed and which are omitted are critically important to that process.

It is ironic that museums have been regarded as “neutral” or “value-free” reflections of cultural heritage, because in fact, they are anything but.

Objects and ideas are selected to sustain certain myths and ideologies, valorizing them over those that are ignored. They in turn generate a cultural consciousness: this is what we “remember” and this is what we take to be “historical truth.” The form and structures of these remembrances are simultaneously a deliberate designation of what we choose to forget.

As Foner avers, “[u]ltimately, public monuments are built by those with sufficient power to determine which parts of history are worth commemorating and what vision of history ought to be conveyed.”

Monument of Robert E. Lee

Foner rails against “the amnesia, evasions and misrepresentations” of popular history, particularly in the area of racial conflict. He notes that “[t]hroughout our history, contemporary political problems and commitments have shaped the questions Americans asked about their past and the answers they found.”

He looks not only at museums but also at the docudrama, observing astutely that “the fact that individual action is highlighted and collective action ignored is not simply a consequence of the small screen. Even more, one suspects, it reflects the persistent hold of that peculiarly American strand of individualism on the writers.”

Here he is making the point that a story of individual initiative is one of the ways in which a more threatening narrative of a social movement (especially one that is minority-led) is watered down to conform to the myth of the American Dream, in which any hard-working, courageous person has an equal chance to make a difference and/or to succeed in the American society and economy.

But, as he points out that the intellectual Eric Hobsbawm warned, “studies of the agency of ordinary people, so important in expanding the cast of historical characters, must be placed in the broader context of how social and political power is exercised.”

The fact that these stories rarely are put into a broader social and economic context offers a “meta” lesson about the political ends of carefully shaped narratives couched as “histories.” In addition to telling a story about a specific person, they subtly confer a certain authority or legitimacy upon what is actually a specific set of values, norms, and perspectives that in turn affects popular reactions to events.

In his essay reviewing the work of James W. Loewen (author of books such as “Lies My Teacher Told Me and “Teaching What Really Happened”) Foner singles out tours of historic plantations as a good example of selective memory. He argues that they “ignore or sugarcoat the lives of slaves. No whips, chains or other artifacts of discipline are on display, and presentations by guides focus on the furniture, gardens and architecture rather than the role of slave labor in creating the wealth they represent.” [We found this to be true on a recent tour of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon, where Washington’s slaves were described as Washington’s “servants.”]

Plantation tour showing a vision of a genteel past

Not only is slavery elided whenever possible, he charges, but also the slave trade, “a central element of the pre-Civil War Southern economy,” is generally omitted from public histories. And most germane to Foner’s primary field of study, “Reconstruction …is almost invisible in America’s public history.” To the extent it is covered, it is done so in a way that twists the truth. The history often told (“a time of rampant corruption presided over by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers and former slaves unprepared of the freedom that had been thrust upon them”) is an erroneous one that “helped to justify the subsequent policies of segregation and black disfranchisement in the South and the North’s prolonged indifference to white Southerner’s nullification of the federal Constitution.”

He holds that opponents of equality changed the narrative to one of a federal bureaucracy trampling on the rights of white citizens in favor of those who were lazy, incompetent, and bent on defiling white women. (Here Foner laments the irony of that canard, when so many slave women were sexually assaulted by their white masters. Nevertheless, in the South, as he charges, the accusation of rape of a white woman by a black man, rarely substantiated, was enough to motivate a lynching.)

What Foner wants readers to know is that whiteness has an economic value, and that value has underlaid much of the history of race in America, albeit in an unacknowledged way.

Similarly, he emphasizes, “American radicalism is generally excised from public history.” He cites historian Charles Beard, who taught that American history had been shaped by the struggle of competing economic groups. But you don’t read about that in most history books. He applauds Bernie Sanders for bringing back a recognition of the importance of economic structures for the exercise of power in politics, but regrets that Sanders draws upon the experience of European socialists more than that of homegrown American radicals.

Socialist Eugene V. Debs in 1912 – we “locked him up”

Other topics include social Darwinism (remarkably persistent, and especially popular now among the Alt-Right), affirmative action, the Electoral college, Lincoln and his personal growth on the issue of slavery, the uses of the memory of Lincoln, the 14th Amendment, a particularly astute analysis of Barack Obama and his presidency, and September 11 and the anti-Arab, “clash of civilizations” mentality that has gained so much popularity, and according to which western civilization is superior. (He reminds us: “The definition of ‘Western civilization’ is highly selective – it includes the Enlightenment but not the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but not the Salem witch trials.”)

He concludes: “History does inform the present, and it should. That’s what I mean by a useable past: a historical consciousness that can enable us to address the problems of society today in an intelligent manner.”

Evaluation: Anyone not already familiar with the breadth and depth of Foner’s ideas will get an excellent overview from this wonderful and all-too-brief collection of essays. They have been chosen well: even the older essays remain relevant and important in light of current events.

Rating: 5/5

Published by I.B. Tauris & Co., 2017

April 23, 1856 – Birthday of Granville T. Woods, “The Black Edison”

Granville T. Woods was an African American born in Columbus, Ohio on this date in 1856. The most prolific African-American inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he came up with numerous inventions including a steam-boiler furnace, telephone, telegraph system, electric railway and automatic air brake for railroad safety. If you thought that whites, and in particular Thomas Edison, would get the most credit for these ideas, you would be correct. Black inventors had little if any protection for their intellectual property at this time in history.


Woods only attended school until the age of ten. Thereafter, while working in a machine shop repairing railroad equipment and machinery, he became intrigued by the electricity that powered the machinery. He studied machine workers as they worked with equipment and paid other workers to sit down and explain electrical concepts to him. Eventually, he was able to afford formal engineering training.

Unfortunately, despite his high aptitude and valuable education and expertise, Woods was denied opportunities and promotions because of the color of his skin. Out of frustration and a desire to promote his abilities, Woods, along with his brother Lyates, formed the Woods Railway Telegraph Company in 1884.

The company manufactured and sold telephone, telegraph and electrical equipment. Inventions from the company include an improved steam boiler furnace and an improved telephone transmitter. In 1885, Woods patented a system combining the telephone and telegraph and thus allowing stations to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. The device was so successful that he later sold it to the American Bell Telephone Company. (As a black inventor, Woods had difficulty in marketing his inventions and had little choice but to sell them to white-owned corporations.)

In 1887, Woods developed a telegraph that allowed for messages to be sent from moving trains and railway stations. By enabling dispatchers to know the location of each train, it provided for greater safety and a decrease in railway accidents.


Granville Woods often had difficulties in enjoying his success as other inventors made claims to his devices. Thomas Edison made one of these claims, stating that he had first created a similar telegraph and that he was entitled to the patent for the device. Woods was twice successful in defending himself, proving that there were no other devices upon which he could have depended or relied upon to make his device.

Over the course of his lifetime Granville Woods would obtain more than 50 patents for inventions, including an automatic brake and an egg incubator and patents for improvements to other inventions such as safety circuits, telegraphs, telephones, and phonographs. When he died on January 30, 1910 in New York City he had become an admired and well-respected inventor. Nevertheless, he spent the last years of his life in virtual poverty as he battled in court for control of his inventions.

You can learn more about Woods in the book Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation by Rayvon Fouchi.


The author examines the life and work of three African Americans: Granville Woods (1856–1910), an independent inventor; Lewis Latimer (1848–1928), a corporate engineer with General Electric; and Shelby Davidson (1868–1930), who worked in the U.S. Treasury Department. Fouchi explains how each man used invention as a means to technical stature in a Jim Crow institutional setting. As Johns Hopkins University Press writes, “Fouchi provides a nuanced view of African American contributions to — and relationships with — technology during a period of rapid industrialization and mounting national attention to the inequities of a separate-but-equal social order.”

April 21, 1968 – British Politician Enoch Powell Delivers “Rivers of Blood” Speech Against Immigration

Enoch Powell was a Conservative right-winger in Great Britain who is most famous for attacking his government’s immigration policy at a meeting in Birmingham, in a speech now known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech.

Enoch Powell

In this speech Powell argued that “we must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents.” He added, “as I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ ”

He further estimated, playing to the fears of his audience, that by the year 2000 up to seven million people – or one in ten of the population – would be of immigrant descent.

The Times of London called it “an evil speech,” and the first direct appeal to “racial hatred” made by a senior British politician. Mr. Powell was summarily dismissed from his post by the Conservative party leader, Edward Heath.

Nevertheless, thousands of workers staged strikes and marches in support of his views and he was inundated with letters from well wishers. The Birmingham Mail reported that “A poll at the time suggested that 74 per cent of the UK population agreed with Powell’s opinions and his supporters claim that this large public following which Powell attracted helped the Conservatives to win the 1970 general election.”

As British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor wrote for the New York Times in December, 2016:

There are parallels between the way Mr. Powell gave voice to white working-class anxiety and Mr. Trump’s primary campaigning. And like Mr. Trump, Mr. Powell discovered a ready audience: A Gallup poll a few weeks later found that 74 percent of those surveyed agreed with what Mr. Powell had said. For immigrants like my father, who arrived in Britain from Pakistan in the early 1960s, it wasn’t Mr. Powell’s words that were frightening so much as that so many seemed to agree with them.”

Illustration of Trump and Powell from the New York Times

He continued:

Mr. Trump, like Mr. Powell before him, speaks for those convulsed by fear. In his 1968 speech, Mr. Powell quoted a constituent who dreaded a future when “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” That paranoia — an ugly delusion that inverts the actual history of slavery — was unfounded. Yet what is striking today is that though Mr. Powell was cast into the wilderness for his views, arguably his warning about the challenges to social cohesion from immigration was prescient.”

You can read the entire “Rivers of Blood” speech by Powell here.

April 19, 1984 – District Court Reverses Conviction of Korematsu

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear and prejudice towards the Japanese reached a fever pitch. These attitudes extended to both citizens and non-citizens of Japanese descent living in the United States.

At the time, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent lived on the West Coast, and about 70,000 of these were American citizens. There was never at that time, however, nor thereafter, any proven case of espionage or sabotage on the part of Japanese or Japanese-Americans in the United States.

Nonetheless, in February 1942, General John DeWitt, the commanding officer of the Western Defense Command, recommended that “Japanese and other subversive persons” be evacuated from the Pacific Coast. He claimed:

The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted. To conclude otherwise is to expect that children born of white parents on Japanese soil sever all racial affinity and become loyal Japanese subjects ready to fight and, if necessary, to die for Japan in a war against the nation of their parents.”

Children at the Weill public school in San Francisco pledge allegiance to the American flag in April 1942, prior to the internment of Japanese Americans.

Children at the Weill public school in San Francisco pledge allegiance to the American flag in April 1942, prior to the internment of Japanese Americans.

He also said that there was “no ground for assuming that any Japanese, barred from assimilation by convention as he is, though born and raised in the United States, will not turn against this nation when the final test of loyalty comes.”


President Franklin D. Roosevelt (known himself for not having enlightened attitudes about the Japanese) acted on this recommendation by signing Executive Order 9066. This authorized the Secretary of War or any designated commander, at their sole discretion, to limit and even prohibit some people from being in areas that were deemed critical to national defense and potentially vulnerable to espionage. The ensuing restrictions on people of Japanese origin included forced removal to assembly and relocation centers much farther inland. Ten relocation camps scattered across the West were built to accommodate the Japanese that included the group of 70,000 American citizens.

Map of forced internment camp locations — used for the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II.

Map of forced internment camp locations — used for the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II.

Soon after the order was enacted, Congress sanctioned the executive order by passing a law that imposed penalties for those who violated the restrictions pursuant to the order.

Fred Korematsu was an American-born citizen of Japanese descent who grew up in Oakland, California. When Japanese internment began in California, Korematsu evaded the order and moved to a nearby town so he could remain near his (non-Japanese) girlfriend. He was later arrested and convicted of violating Exclusion Order No. 34 issued by General DeWitt, which barred all persons of Japanese descent from the “military area” of San Leandro, California. There was no question at the time of conviction that Korematsu had been loyal to the United States and he was not a threat to the war effort.

Fred Korematsu

Fred Korematsu

Korematsu challenged his conviction but the federal appeals court ruled in favor of the United States, and Korematsu’s appeal brought the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States (323 U.S. 214, 1944).

On December 18, 1944 the Supreme Court decided the case, with a 6-3 majority on the Court upholding Korematsu’s conviction.

Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority, sided with the government and held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed Korematsu’s rights. He stated that “we cannot reject as unfounded the judgment of the military authorities.” Justice Black argued that compulsory exclusion, though constitutionally suspect, is justified during circumstances of “emergency and peril.”

Justice Hugo Black

Justice Hugo Black

Justice Robert Jackson dissented, expressing his view that the military ruling had no place in law under the Constitution. Korematsu’s only crime, he wrote, was “merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived.” Nevertheless, he opined that “The military reasonableness of these orders can only be determined by military superiors. I do not suggest that the courts should have attempted to interfere with the Army in carrying out its task.”

apanese-Americans in California being sent to internment camps in 1942.

Justice Owen Roberts disagreed, writing “I dissent, because I think the indisputable facts exhibit a clear violation of Constitutional rights.” He also objected that a relocation center “was a euphemism for prison,” and that the internment of the Japanese was based upon “the disinformation, half-truths and insinuations that for years have been directed against Japanese Americans by people with racial and economic prejudices.”


Justice Frank Murphy agreed with Roberts in his dissent, finding that “this exclusion of ‘all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien,’ from the Pacific Coast area on a plea of military necessity in the absence of martial law ought not to be approved. Such exclusion goes over ‘the very brink of constitutional power,’ and falls into the ugly abyss of racism.”

In 1984, Korematsu challenged the earlier decision through a writ of coram nobis in Korematsu v. United States, 584 F. Supp. 1406 (N.D. Cal. 1984). (A writ of coram nobis is the name of a legal order allowing a court to reopen and correct its judgment upon discovery of a substantial error not appearing in the records of the original judgement’s proceedings which, if known at the time of judgment, would have prevented the judgment from being pronounced.)

In this later case, Korematsu provided evidence establishing that the Justice Department had suppressed information from governmental sources that contradicted the Army’s assertion that the Japanese American community represented a national defense risk. The District Court granted his writ and overturned Korematsu’s original conviction. However, the District Court emphasized that in issuing this decision, it had the power to correct only errors of fact, not errors of law. The essential holding of the 1944 Korematsu decision — namely, that a race-based exclusion program founded on considerations of military judgment did not violate the Constitution — remained untouched.

The U.S. Government officially apologized for the internment in the 1980s and paid reparations totaling $1.2 billion, as well as an additional $400 million in benefits signed into law by George H. W. Bush in 1992. In January of 1998, President Bill Clinton named Fred Korematsu a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Korematsu has never been officially overturned, and as Dean M. Hashimoto in “The Legacy of Korematsu v. United States: A Dangerous Narrative Retold” notes: “Popular wisdom has it that Korematsu has silently passed away as legal precedent.” But in fact, as he points out, “The Korematsu case has been applied in a traditional manner under stare decisis, primarily from the 1940s through the 1960s, in cases involving postwar regulation, immigration law, and national security law.” From the 1980’s onward, however, as he shows, treatment of the case changed:

Justices assign negative persuasive weight to the result reached in Korematsu. This approach recognizes that Korematsu is now publicly perceived to have been decided incorrectly. By placing Korematsu in its historical context, the Court therefore is able to use it in a way substantially different from ordinary stare decisis.”

As he observes, “The Court’s reliance on evolving interpretive methodologies has mirrored changing public sentiments about the Japanese internment.”

Book Review of “Jacksonland” by Steve Inskeep

It is ironic that Andrew Jackson, a murderer, kidnapper, slave owner, slave trader, land speculator acting on inside information, and last but not least, the cruel architect of Indian genocide, should hold such a revered place in the pantheon of American presidents – so much so, that when the question arose of who’s image to replace on money, it was the image of Hamilton that garnered the most attention. [Ironic as well, since it was Jackson who was obsessively opposed to a federal bank, vetoing a bill to recharter the Bank of the United States, which led to an economic depression, and Hamilton, a fiscal genius, who championed the idea.] As much as Americans have been shocked or disappointed over the behavior of some of our recent presidents – at least until the 2016 election – their actions are minor peccadillos compared to the abhorrent and morally horrific activities of Andrew Jackson.


Steve Inskeep, a cohost of NPR’s Morning Edition, and someone who has received multiple awards for investigative journalism, tells Jackson’s story, juxtaposing it to the story of the leader of the Cherokee people, John Ross. It is not hard for Ross to come off looking better.

It was truly difficult to listen to all the outrages committed by Jackson, and against the Native American people, and yet it is essential to understand this part of American history.

Evaluation: If you only read one nonfiction book this year, I hope you will make it this one. It is critically important that Americans understand what kind of man Andrew Jackson really was, and what was done to the Native Americans who occupied the land he coveted. It is an outstanding book, and a pleasure to experience via audio.

Rating: 5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

It’s almost unfair to compare other narrators to the cohost of one of the most widely heard radio news programs in the United States. Inskeep knows how to “read for the ear” and his impassioned narration hits all the right notes.

Published unabridged on 10 CDs (12 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015

April 16, 1862 – D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act

On this day in history, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia. Passage of this law came eight and one-half months before President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.


Upon signing the bill, Lincoln issued the following statement:


The act entitled “an act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia,” has this day been approved and signed.

I have never doubted the constitutional authority of Congress to abolish slavery in this district, and I have ever desired to see the National Capital freed from the institution in some satisfactory way. Hence there has never been in my mind any question upon the subject except the one of expediency, arising in view of all the circumstances. If there be matters within and about this act which might have taken a course or shape more satisfactory to my judgments, I do not attempt to specify them. I am gratified that the two principles of compensation and colonization are both recognized and practically applied in the act.

In the matter of compensation, it is provided that claims may be presented within ninety days from the passage of the act, “but not thereafter”, and there is no savings for minors, femes covert, insane or absent persons, I presume this is an omission by mere oversight, and I recommend that it be supplied by an amendatory or supplemental act.”

Washington, April 16, 1862

The act provided for immediate emancipation, compensation to former owners who were loyal to the Union of up to $300 for each freed slave, voluntary colonization of former slaves to locations outside the United States, and payments of up to $100 for each person choosing emigration. To that end, the act set aside $1 million. Over the next 9 months, the Board of Commissioners appointed to administer the act approved 930 petitions, completely or in part, from former owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves.

In Washington, D.C., African Americans greeted emancipation with great jubilation. Until 1901, they celebrated Emancipation Day on April 16 with parades and festivals, when a lack of financial and organizational support forced the tradition to stop. It restarted in 2002.

In 2005, pursuant to D.C. Law 15-288, April 16th would become a recognized legal public holiday in D.C. and the DC Emancipation Day parade along Pennsylvania Avenue took place again after an absence of more than one hundred years.


You can find out more about current celebrations of D.C. Emancipation Day here.

April 13, 1743 – Birth of Thomas Jefferson & Review of “The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 at his family home in Shadwell in the Colony of Virginia, the third of ten children. Today he is considered to be an icon of individual liberty, democracy, and republicanism, hailed as the architect of the American Revolution.

But was Jefferson actually a great man or just one whose reputation was immeasurably enhanced by the need of Americans to turn their Founders into saints?


Little interests me more than the process of historiography – i.e., the study of historical writing, and the ways in which interpretations of the past change depending on the individual historian and interpretative needs of the present. Books about Jefferson provide a great opportunity to see historiography at work.

What historians choose to focus on regarding Jefferson has important implications for our national identity, making biographies of him all the more significant. The determination of what to include about “a Founder” and how to interpret it not only reflects upon the legitimacy of the American experiment, but also on the continuing social and political order, given our valorizing of “the intent of the Founding Fathers.”

So history is not just a chronicle; it has ideological contours. It not only helps shape what we believe about ourselves, but reveals what we want to believe, and what we want to forget.

For those who want their idealized perceptions of the Founding Fathers left intact, this book is the perfect anodyne to the recent spate of critical works about Jefferson.


Meacham takes great pains to present Jefferson as positively as possible, and in the event of overwhelming facts to the contrary, he has three different approaches to impose his view of Jefferson on the reader. When Meacham is recounting what amounts to dirty tricks, underhandedness, manipulation, and hypocrisy (most of which Jefferson put Madison and others up to doing rather than exposing his own role), Meacham either pleads the different standards of Jefferson’s times, or simply redefines what Jefferson did as “practical” or “adaptable” or “savvy” or even “wise” (a move that Yale History Professor Marci Shore has referred to in a different context as “the teleological deceptions of retrospect”). Most often, however, Meacham takes a third approach and simply omits less savory aspects of Jefferson’s behavior.

James Madison, always willing to do Jefferson's bidding

James Madison, always willing to do Jefferson’s bidding

Leaving out some events and selecting others creates a narrow shadowbox revealing only what the box’s creator wants you to see. No other voices challenge the dominant narrative. Whether consciously or not, the images of the particular history are filtered and focused to impose one version of the past over another.

Consider these facts:

In 1769 Jefferson paid for a very detailed ad in the Virginia Gazette for the capture and return of a runaway mulatto slave. The next year, as a young lawyer, Jefferson defended a mulatto slave who was suing for his freedom. Jefferson argued, “under the law of nature, we are all born free.” (At this time, he owned more than 20 slaves.)

Meanwhile, in 1776, while writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had 83 slaves. This was a low number for him: from 1774 to 1826, he had around 200 slaves at any one time, owning more than 600 people during his lifetime. Most famously, he used one of them as his concubine, starting up with the not-yet-16 year old Sally Hemings when he was 46. She was almost continuously pregnant when he was in town. When she first became pregnant, while acting as a chaperone for Jefferson’s daughter in France, and where she would have had the opportunity to stay there and be free, Jefferson “bribed” her to come back to Virginia (as his slave) by promising that their children could be set free from slavery at age 21. [Jefferson did keep his word to some extent, and set Sally’s children free in his will, although by then they were considerably older than age 21. Sally, by contrast, was not set free by the will. It is thought he gave verbal instructions to his family to that effect, but there is no proof. In the event, it was only eight years after Jefferson died, that his legitimate daughter Martha allowed Sally to leave.]

Meacham describes a number of times when the younger Jefferson indeed tried to get anti-slavery measures passed but could not. He avers that Jefferson came to believe abolition was politically lethal; he was not, therefore, willing to risk his popularity for what was “a lost cause”. Nevertheless, Jefferson not once made a move to free his own slaves, so how sincere was he really? John and Abigail Adams refused to have slaves; George Washington arranged to have his slaves freed after he and his wife died; and in 1796, one of Jefferson’s relatives, the statesman and eminent scholar George Tucker (who wrote a new edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries that was considered a valuable reference work for many American lawyers and law students in the early 19th century), wrote and published the pamphlet “A Dissertation on Slavery: With A Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It in the State of Virginia.” In short, it wasn’t as if no one else in Jefferson’s time opted for and acted upon a moral course of action.

George Tucker, 1752-1827

George Tucker, 1752-1827

It seems clear that Jefferson’s extravagant tastes and sense of entitlement prevented him from having such a large contingent of paid servants on the payroll. He had expensive taste in imported wines, foodstuffs, furniture, linens, silver, paintings, books, and entertainment. He did not care to live without these things, even if it meant that a large number of people had to live in slavery. Further, he was not above instructing his overseer to punish slaves who were not deemed to be adequately productive. The historian Henry Wiencek recounts a story (totally omitted by Meacham), describing how Monticello’s young black boys, “the small ones,” age 10, 11 or 12, were whipped to get them to work harder in Jefferson’s nail factory, the profits of which paid the mansion’s grocery bills. Some slaves, Jefferson wrote, “require a vigour of discipline to make them do reasonable work.”

Living the good life at Montecello - the Tea Room

Living the good life at Montecello – the Tea Room

Nor does Meacham spend time on Jefferson’s detailed calculations about how much money he could make from the “propagation” of black slaves (a 4 percent profit every year, he noted). He boasted of it to George Washington.

Last but not least, Jefferson wrote about blacks as being “racially inferior“ and “as incapable as children.” He thought that even if slaves were freed, they should all be deported (except, we presume, for Sally, who was, apparently, capable of at least one thing not commonly considered to be “childlike”.)

Meacham does, at the very end, give consideration to the contradiction of Jefferson’s beliefs about freedom for all of mankind and his continued investment in the institution of slavery, but doesn’t really resolve these contradictions, other to say that because Jefferson couldn’t push abolition through, “[h]e gave up.” Meacham did not convince me on that score, especially because when Jefferson wanted anything else done, he took every conceivable step, whether through pressure, mud-slinging, reputation-destroying, or deal-making, to achieve his aims.

Vegetable garden at Montecello - it took a village, or at least a very large contingent of slaves, to maintain

Vegetable garden at Montecello – it took a village, or at least a very large contingent of slaves, to maintain

Another big issue Meacham elides over is the hypocritical way in which Jefferson became apoplectic over what he considered the “monarchical” tendencies of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and other Federalists. Yet Jefferson’s presidency pushed the limits of a strong executive in ways never before done so, and in ways that Jefferson would have considered anathema if someone else had made those moves. The Louisiana purchase, for example, was clearly unconstitutional – even Jefferson admitted it (in secret). The embargo on sending goods to Great Britain was also a curtailment of liberty and an extension of the reach of the federal government that would have had Jefferson crying treason if his predecessors had engaged in these acts. Meacham concedes this, but contends that Jefferson’s usurpations of power showed how “brilliantly” he could remold his ideology when “the future of the country” was at stake.

And on and on….


Nevertheless, Jefferson endures, as Meacham avers. He holds that Jefferson passes the fundamental test of leadership:

Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and drams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the area of public life.”

I would agree that the idea of Jefferson, and more precisely, the ideals of Jefferson, endure, and have changed the nation for the better. As Meacham observes:

All the … Jeffersons – the emblematic ones, the metaphorical ones, the ones different generations and differing partisans interpret and invent, seeking inspiration from his example and sanction from his name – all these Jeffersons tell us more about ourselves than they do about the man himself.”

The ideals Jefferson inscribed into the Declaration of Independence gave us a bridge from what was (and is) to what we wanted (and still want) to be. Although “we the people” only referred to some of the people, the bridge was in place: now we could aspire to reach the other side.


And certainly his contributions to the cause of freedom from and of religion cannot be denied. (This was a cause surely as emotionally fraught as slavery, albeit without the same economic repercussions. Yet Jefferson worked tirelessly to ensure that America would be a country that was based on a separation of church and state.) As for the man himself, I wish we could acknowledge the great uses to which he has been put, without having to deify him in the process.

Evaluation: I listened to the audio version of this book. Edward Herrmann did a very good job at narrating, and the text (in spite of my complaints about its selectivity) never lost my interest. I would only caution that, as with any historical interpretation, it is advisable to read other accounts along with it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Random House Audio, unabridged on 15 compact discs, 2012.