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Author Topic: Looking for book recommendations - Thomas Jefferson bio, for starters
sndrake
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As I think I've noted before, I go through periods of kind of obsessive reading on topics - good thing in my work.

Diane and I watched the HBO series "John Adams" (which I now know has some interesting inaccuracies in it), and realized just how much I didn't know about the people and the times formed the United States.

So, I decided to start reading. I didn't start with Adams, but with Ben Franklin, since a brief read on wikipedia made it clear I really didn't have much of an idea of his impact on our history and our culture. (I bought "Ben Franklin - an American life" by Walter Isaacson and recommend it to anyone interested in Franklin.)

I followed up with "John Adams" by David McCullough - and I'm almost finished with that. (I also have Tocqueville's volumes sitting around waiting to be read as well, but am putting them off until I've finished with - at least - reading on founding fathers.)

I think I want to read about Jefferson next, but would like a biography that does the kind of job that the Franklin and Adams books did. Something that deals with the very real flaws and paradoxes in Jefferson's character, without negating the impact he had. From Amazon descriptions, I'm leaning toward "American Sphinx - the character of Thomas Jefferson" but I thought I'd ask if there is anyone here who could offer some input.

Seemed like a good place to ask. [Smile]

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Elizabeth
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I will await the answers you get!
I watched the Ken Burns Jefferson series on PBS.
I think they are all time travelers.

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plaid
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Another Founding Fathers bio I liked = HIs Excellency George Washington by Jospeh Ellis. Good, here-were-his-strengths, here-were-his-flaws account.

I'd love to hear an account of Jefferson. My current impression of him, from the Adams bio and Washington bio, is that he was a jerk. It'd be interesting to hear if he had any personally redeeming qualities.

(And reading Founding Father bios is fascinating for me, realizing just how much some of them thought badly of each other, or just simply HATED one another.)

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pooka
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If you want a bio that depicts him as a dude who liked to get wide on the gonja weed with his brown eyed girl, there's the Fawn Brodie biography.
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zgator
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I really enjoyed American Sphinx by Ellis. Like plaid said about His Excellency (also by Ellis), it presented his strengths and weaknesses and didn't seem to biased. I walked away with a more sympathetic view of Jefferson and his quirks than I had previously. My Dad was a history teacher and had a negative view of Jefferson (I think the word he uses is "dirtbag", but that one might be reserved for Jackson).

It is not, however, a full biography. It focuses on certain critical points in Jefferson's life, but my no means covers his whole life.

quote:
(And reading Founding Father bios is fascinating for me, realizing just how much some of them thought badly of each other, or just simply HATED one another.)
That surprised me too. We always put them on a pedestal, but they could be just as back-stabbing and mud-slinging as any politician today.
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Artemisia Tridentata
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As long as we are talking about Ellis' books. I listened to one my last pass across the High Desert. It was called "Founding Brothers" It had segments, or seperate "stories" that wove together the input from several of the "band of brothers" (as they referred to themselves, Abigale Adams being the odd one out) (Washington, Jefferson, Both Adamses, and Hamelton, with lots of supporting players) It puts the storys together well and is well written.
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sndrake
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Artemeisia,

your mention of the book "Founding Brothers" is a good example of why I started with Franklin.

Ironically, Adams believed that history would give all credit (he was being somewhat sarcastic) to the revolution to Washington, Jefferson and Franklin.

And yet our history shoved Franklin to the periphery to a large extent.

(Although I haven't finished with the Adams bio, it's clear that Abigail was his most trusted advisor and much of what he did that was good couldn't have been done without her advice and support.)

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sndrake
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quote:
If you want a bio that depicts him as a dude who liked to get wide on the gonja weed with his brown eyed girl, there's the Fawn Brodie biography.
[Big Grin]

Not (cough) quite what I'm looking for. I've also decided to pass on the book that makes the case that Jefferson was someone with Aspergers or "high functioning autism." [Wink]

McCullough and Isaacson kind of set a standard for me - they are sympathetic to their subjects, but don't gloss over the flaws in the human being.

I suspect that it will be hard to find anything to match the literature on John and Abigail Adams - they left a lot more for historians to work with than their contemporaries.

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Artemisia Tridentata
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Yes, Franklin really was the first "American". In fact in his book, Ellis says that if there had been a phographer present at the begining to take a picture of the major events of the founding. Franklin would have been in every picture. Being older, he probably would have been the "father" of the "band of brothers" that pulled it off. The Ellis book runs into the 1820's. The last story is the "afterword" relationship between Adams and Jefferson, ending when they both died on the 50th anniversery of the Declairation of Independence,(7/4/1826). Franklin was long gone by then. He was already "The First American" before any of the others were even active. I think that is why he is "supporting" in this book.
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Dan_raven
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Card does a nice bit about Franklin being the greatest "Creator" magician of the time, for being able to magically create the US.

Gore Vidal has a series of books, from "Burr" through "Empire" that explores the powers of the time from Adams and Hamilton through the Spanish American War that set up the US as an Empire. While they are not as accurate, historically, as what you have been reading, the writing is great.

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sndrake
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Dan,

I read "Burr" when it first came out - quite a long time ago. I remember it as very well written.

More about the decision to start with Franklin:

In the HBO series "John Adams," the opening shot is a slowly widening pan of a graphic of a snake cut up in segments, each labeled with the initials of a colony or a region. Underneath is the phrase is "Join, or die."

I'm fascinated by techniques of persuasion. Today the phrase "join, or die" by itself would probably suggest a message of "join *us* or die" and I suspect it would probably have suggested the same thing to most people on first hearing in those days.

But when you add the graphic, it turns the more common interpretation/usage on its head -- "join *together* or we die."

This graphic was produced by Ben Franklin - the first political cartoon in the Colonies. To be honest, when I discovered that, I decided I really wanted to know more about Franklin.

Wikipedia entry on the cartoon - with graphic

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Lupus
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You should read 1776 by McCullough. It is set during the revolution, and has lots of interesting insights about many of the major players in the war, particularly George Washington. You really get to know him as a general.
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sndrake
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I think I've settled on "American Sphinx" as my next book. I just might get around to everything mentioned here so far, though.

I found this interview with Ellis on the "Frontline" site about the DNA evidence related to the Hemings controversy

quote:
In the wake of the DNA revelations, an already-clear pattern of denial in Jefferson's life is deepened and darkened. In my own book about Jefferson, I really stayed away from using the word hypocrite or hypocrisy. I talked about him as a man who is self-deceived, and whose denial mechanisms worked in such a way that he could sincerely say somewhat different things to different groups.

I'm not sure it's possible to sustain that anymore in the wake of the revelations on Sally Hemings. Jefferson was always capable, in effect, of lying, and then passing a lie detector test about what he had just said. He hires Calender to libel John Adams in the election of 1800. And Abigail and John Adams ask him if he did it and he says, "No, I didn't do it."

He does the same thing against George Washington in an earlier moment in politics in 1796, and then denies to Washington that he did it. And he seems to believe himself as he says these things.


The DNA study and statistical analysis of Hemings' pregnancies (all conceptions occurred when she and Jefferson were in the same place) came out after Ellis' book was written.
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Elizabeth
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"I'd love to hear an account of Jefferson. My current impression of him, from the Adams bio and Washington bio, is that he was a jerk. It'd be interesting to hear if he had any personally redeeming qualities."

Ouch!!
Is it possible to be in love with a historical figure? Well, I am in love with Tom J.

Adams would have a bad account of him since they were political rivals who became friends again in their final years, through letters. When I tell my students they died on the same day, and tell them what day it was, I get teary every single time.

He was an amazing gardener, too, there, Plaid. My favorite quote of his is actually,

"but though I am an old man, I am but a young gardener."

I think that sums him up. The more he learned, about anything, the more he realized he knew very little.

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MrSquicky
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quote:
And yet our history shoved Franklin to the periphery to a large extent.
Is that people's impression? It might be that I was educated in Philadelphia, but I was taught that Ben Franklin was likely the person most responsible for the successful founding of America.
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sndrake
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Elizabeth,

My impressions are a lot like those of plaid's - but we're taking it from the same source.

The portrait of Jefferson doesn't really come from Adams - who really didn't have any idea of the real depth of the contradictions in Jefferson. Adams was also - according to McCullough, anyway, disposed to forgive or at least swallow when offended and tried not to let it get in the way of work.

One of the things that McCullough reveals about Jefferson is that - contrary to some things he'd told others - he didn't free many of his slaves in his will. The reason is that he was deeply in debt and the family would need them as *assets* to help pay off the debt.

That debt wasn't a result of poor luck as a farmer, or his sacrifices as a public servant. They were the result of an impulsive buying pattern that sometimes resembled Michael Jackson, along with his continual tearing down and rebuilding of Monticello. All this is according to McCullough, anyway. I want to read another source to see if the representation is fair.

The founding fathers were all flawed men. Big deal. We're all flawed. Adams was vain and ambitious (but self-aware of those traits). Franklin was a great writer, scientist, propagandist, and many other things - but often cold and neglectful when it came to his family.

It doesn't diminish them or their accomplishments, IMO. To paraphrase someone whose writings influenced me: The question isn't how such brilliant people could be so deeply flawed, but rather "how could such deeply flawed people still achieve greatness?"

Since we're all flawed, the latter question holds hope for us all. [Smile]

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sndrake
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Squick,

Admittedly, I have no idea what they're teaching in American history now, but Franklin didn't get much coverage when I was in high school in the 1970s.

It also just might be that Franklin is given more attention in Philadelphia school curricula on that period of American history. [Smile]

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Elizabeth
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Good point. Perhaps he was not on the autism spectrum, but instead more on the attention deficit spectrum.

I always feel like I want to read a biography, but when it comes down to it, I don;t get through them. Have you read any good, mostly accurate historical fiction from the Revolutionary era?

(I have "1776" on my list. I also want to reread Howard Fast's novels. It's been decades. Oh, and Sndrake? I am now officially allergic to all apples. Waah.)

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Elizabeth
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As for Franklin, he gets a lot of text in our history book for fifth grade. The library was getting rid of some statues(busts) and I snagged George Washington(just a head) and Ben Franklin. (seated in a chair) I told the kids that George had been the head of the army and country for so long that he evolved away his body. I told them Ben was so intelligent that, as he aged, his brain was too heavy for his legs to carry, so he had to sit down.
But don't worry, I think only half of the youngsters believed me.
No, Ben gets big press not only in social studies, but in science classes in our school.

One place I think the Founding Fathers were NOT found was in battle. At least, not Adams, Jefferson, or Franklin.

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sndrake
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Elizbeth,

Very sorry to hear about the apples. [Frown]

I've only read a few fictional novels dealing with that period.

Two were when I was around 12 or so.

"Johnny Tremaine" is a classic.
My father steered me toward "Oliver Wiswell" which is told from a Tory perspective.
Both are YA books.

I was probably in my twenties when I read "Burr" by Gore Vidal.

Frankly, I don't remember enough about the books or feel my grasp of the historical "facts" of the time are sufficient to give an opinion on their accuracy.

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Dan_raven
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Ben Franklin may not have been the official "Father" of our country, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

He had more illegitimate kids, some growing up to be governors, than any other political official I've heard of.

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zgator
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quote:
One of the things that McCullough reveals about Jefferson is that - contrary to some things he'd told others - he didn't free many of his slaves in his will. The reason is that he was deeply in debt and the family would need them as *assets* to help pay off the debt.

That debt wasn't a result of poor luck as a farmer, or his sacrifices as a public servant. They were the result of an impulsive buying pattern that sometimes resembled Michael Jackson, along with his continual tearing down and rebuilding of Monticello. All this is according to McCullough, anyway. I want to read another source to see if the representation is fair.

That matches what Ellis says in American Sphinx. He was terrible when it came to money. It's interesting that, given that quality about him, he was the President that eliminated America's debt from the war.
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sndrake
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Dan,

Interestingly, it looks like the allegations about Franklin's womanizing are overblown. He had one illegitimate son - from before his common-law marriage (complicated story).

He was, according to his biographer, an accomplished and somewhat compulsive flirt. But there's little or no evidence he did much more than flirt.

His illegitimate son had his own illegitimate son, which complicates the story somewhat. [Wink]

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sndrake
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zgator,

As I recall, McCullough's comments on Jefferson's spending went something like this:

He recorded every expense meticulously.
He also recorded all his income meticulously.
He never actually totalled anything and matched
expenses against income.

He suggests it was more than carelessness - almost a form of determined denial on the part of someone as brilliant as he was.

And, yes, that makes his performance as President when it came to debt all the more remarkable.

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dkw
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Elizabeth,

Have you read John Jakes' American Bicentenniel series? And if not, would you like me to send them to you? We're downsizing bookshelves and I can't quite bring myself to toss them in the Goodwill pile, but if they went to someone I know would appreciate them I'd feel okay about it.

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Elizabeth
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Oh, dkw! That would be wonderful! It will get me through the Jamie-and-Claireless blues.
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Lyrhawn
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"1776" and "John Adams" were both fantastic books. I loved them. I want to read "His Excellency.." about Washington, but I got caught up in "Lincoln Douglas," which is a book about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and it's fascinating. It's not just about the two men and their history, it's about the state and practice of politics in America at the time, which is just as interesting.

I have "Passionate Sage" by Joseph Ellis, which is about Adams, but I haven't read it yet, and "Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America" by William Gienapp, which I also haven't read. And I just found "Dearest Friend," which is about Abigail Adams and is by Lynne Withey. I plan to get to all of those after I finish the Lincoln book I'm on now, but I also might get this other book on the construction of Washington DC that I saw in the store the other day. I'm a bit of a compulsive book buyer. I have de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," but haven't read that either. It's huge.

"Alexander Hamilton, American" is a good, concise biography of Alexander Hamilton by Richard Brookhiser. It doesn't maybe do as much to talk about his negatives as I would have liked, but it's fascinating.

If you liked "1776" by McCullough, get the Illustrated Edition. It rocked my socks. It's a cut down version of the story interspersed with maps, paintings, photos, pamphlets and other illustrations and drawings from the time. There are also about a dozen sleeves that come in it that you can open up and inside are reproductions of maps and letters that were written and created by the people in 1776 and they are stunningly awesome. It's adds a depth and richness that seriously made reading it an experience instead of just enjoyable. I can't recommend it enough. I got it for Christmas and read it sloooowly for four months, savoring every page.

After I finish the half dozen books I have that I haven't read yet, I really want to read a book on Madison and Monroe. They're just as much founding fathers, even if they come later, as the men who wrote and signed the Declaration.

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SteveRogers
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quote:
Originally posted by sndrake:
McCullough and Isaacson kind of set a standard for me - they are sympathetic to their subjects, but don't gloss over the flaws in the human being.

I've seen Isaacson speak when I went to a book signing for his biography of Einstein (which I still haven't read). I agree with you. Hearing him speak, he was a very intelligent, articulate, caring man with a good sense of humor.

He was very aware of the humanity of his subjects and that seemed to endear them to him even more. He seemed like a very sincere man who wanted to share the lives of his subjects with as much honesty as possible.

I read his biography of Franklin also. And really enjoyed it too.

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dkw
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Aaaaaaaaaarrrgh! Liz, I'm sorry, I just went to find them and they're already packed! In one of the thousands of boxes labeled "books." I can send them to you when we unpack, but that won't be until September. [Frown]
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plaid
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Stephen -- neat link to the Frontline article, thanks!

Lyrhawn -- I'm also interested in reading about Monroe, I don't know a thing about him. I'll try the Hamilton book at some point -- I don't know anything about him, I know from McCullough's books about Adams that Adams thought he was an opportunistic power-grabber, so I'm curious to hear something good about him.

I liked McCullough's book about Adams, though I think he was a bit TOO sympathetic to Adams. He does a great job of recording Adams's good qualities. And he does come down on him hard for supporting the Alien and Sedition Act. But while he mentions some of Adams's faults, he doesn't explain them in a way... I'm not sure how to put this... the faults are seen as more puzzling or as aberrations and not so much as part and parcel of Adams's character. So he talks about how devoted Adams was to Abigail... but then notes that while he was in Europe at one point he hardly wrote to her at all for a few years. Or how it could be that someone who was such a great statesman could be so useless as Vice President, tying up the Senate in its first session with lengthy debates on etiquette points of how to address Washington.

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sndrake
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Update: Everyone has been very helpful. Right now, I'm reading "American Sphinx" by Ellis. It's fascinating so far.

I expect to have some extra reading time on my hands over the next couple weeks, so I went and ordered three more books - all of which arrived today.

"Founding Brothers" and "His Excellency: George Washington" by Ellis.

And "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin"

Sooner or later, I want to hunt down a book on Abigail Adams. The glimpses of her (from her letters) in McCullough's book are fascinating. But since McCullough was writing about *John* Adams, you get only glimpses.

I plan to start with Franklin's autobiography after the book on Jefferson. I want to read what the old scoundrel had to say for himself in his own words. [Smile]

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Lyrhawn
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I have a book on Abigail Adams called "Dearest Friend," but I haven't had a chance to read it yet. I'll give it a look when I finish the two or three books I'm on now and I'll let you know how it is.
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Lyrhawn
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I figured this would be the best place to ask:

Does anyone know of a good book about the Revolutionary War told from the British point of view?

There are dozens of books about the war iteself, all of which that I've read are either told from an American POV or a neutral third party POV. But is there a book like McCullough's 1776 or John Adams only flipped and told from the other side, about King George and the generals and members of parliament and regular people in Britain? The more I read the more I'm curious how the other side of the war was prosecuted, how the decisions were made in the run up to the war, and what they thought of the whole mess.

Especially I'd love to read more about Edmund Burke, who spoke so ardently for the American cause in Parliament, and about many others as well. I know that McCullough covers a lot of this in 1776, but I'd like to read much further on the subject.

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zgator
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I have a English coworker, so I'll ask him. He always gets a bit out of sorts whenever I bring up the Revolution. I always console him by reminding him that we might not have been a position to save their butts in WWII if we didn't have our independence. He always mumbles something under his breath, so I assume he saying "You're absolutely right."
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zgator
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His response - "We don't really like to talk about that."

Apparently very little is taught about it in the schools as well.

me - "What about the British Empire? Didn't you learn about that?"

him - "Of course we did."

me - "How about India and Ghandi?"

him - "That didn't end so well for us either, so not really."

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Lyrhawn
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I believe they call that the "Stiff Upper Lip" style of teaching history.
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plaid
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quote:
Originally posted by Elizabeth:
"I'd love to hear an account of Jefferson. My current impression of him, from the Adams bio and Washington bio, is that he was a jerk. It'd be interesting to hear if he had any personally redeeming qualities."

Ouch!!
Is it possible to be in love with a historical figure? Well, I am in love with Tom J.

Adams would have a bad account of him since they were political rivals who became friends again in their final years, through letters. When I tell my students they died on the same day, and tell them what day it was, I get teary every single time.

He was an amazing gardener, too, there, Plaid. My favorite quote of his is actually,

"but though I am an old man, I am but a young gardener."

I think that sums him up. The more he learned, about anything, the more he realized he knew very little.

I (*finally*, after 3 years here in Virginia) visited Monticello. Way interesting; the building's got lots of neat stuff (octagonal rooms, interesting inventions), and the grounds were great -- historical veggies, fruit trees, grape vines... I particularly admired the 20' tall fig trees growing along the stone terrace (very hard to get fig trees to grow that big here, usually hard frosts will kill them back to their roots). And Jefferson had a special seed storage chest in one of his libraries -- the guy had his priorities right there. [Smile]

I do admire Jefferson's writings and curiosity and agrarian experiments. But his character was pretty lacking.

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