Ellis Joseph opens up to his readers through an examination of America’s third president, Jefferson Thomas. As it concentrates on Jefferson’s character, the text gives insight to the ideologies and decisions he made that in turn, led to his different achievements in office. For instance, there was the Louisiana Purchase and the Declaration of Independence, which has shaped the politics of the United States since its drafting. However, there are many more achievements as evidenced by documents passed down through history and his duties whilst serving in different offices, aside from that of the president. In the book, Ellis shows the harsh realities faced by Jefferson particularly with regard to his ideologies and the political setting in which he led. For instance, Jefferson’s beliefs went against slavery but since the emancipation was yet to take place in America, Jefferson was a slave owner. With such factors in mind, Jefferson’s referral as a ‘Genius of Liberty’ goes against all concepts appertained by the understanding of liberty.
In “Self Evident Truths” (1-30), Ellis brings forth information on the signing American Declaration of Independence by the existing thirteen American states (2). Consequently, the declaration called for equality among all races as before God towards “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (2). Jefferson Thomas signed the Declaration of Independence under the state of Virginia alongside other American politicians. While the declaration called for the aforementioned equality among all human beings, slavery was still acceptable among American citizens with a majority of them practicing slave ownership. Jefferson was also a slave owner; in fact, it was not until the American Civil War of 1861-1865 that emancipation was acquired for black slaves. With such factors in mind, it is safe to assume that Jefferson failed to implement the declaration to its fullest in America. The existence of slavery is the first mark of failure to adhere to the ideology of a free nation with African Americans forced into slavery.
The second chapter, “The Passionate Idealist” (31-62), gives emphasize on Jefferson’s understanding of slavery institution. According to Ellis, Jefferson knew that American societies had wrong beliefs on certain factors ranging from slavery to gender equality. However, little could be done, as he was president during the eighteenth century and the understanding on humanity in present day America is different when compared to the same. Finding basis on the title, while Jefferson was a renowned spokesperson, he could not talk the whole country into changing their norms and adopting those he advocated. Therefore, in this chapter Ellis subtly admits to Jefferson’s shortcomings but at the same time makes readers aware of the fact that he was well placed to be at par with his fellow Americans than he would have been if he had adopted everything he advocated.
“The Power of Opinion” (63-88) revolves around the understanding of public opinions by Jefferson. In other words, while he had concepts regarding America and its citizens, Jefferson was wise enough to keep said opinions to himself and instead, voiced those of the public. Therefore, the third president of America was a democrat as opposed to a liberalist, who sought to tailor his views to those that suited his political pursuits. After all, as a human, he was bound to have flaws and Jefferson’s major flaw was his inability to stand his ground as president and bring change to the country and its people. Instead, his defense lay on the possibility of future generations bringing the aforementioned change, especially with regard to slavery and race equality.
In “A Second Revolution” (89-114), Jefferson had won the elections of 1800 and argued that his rule will enforce the concepts of the Declaration of Independence in America. However, rather than enforcing said concepts, Jefferson’s rule seemed to reform them as it entailed the application of the set ideologies on the whites and omitting the African Americans. In other words, slavery was encouraged by Jefferson’s government thus refuting the wordings of the Declaration of Independence on equality. In addition, “Empire for Liberty” (115-144) narrates Jefferson’s participation in spreading slavery to all the states of America. For instance, he authorized policies that saw Native Americans lose their lands and cultures. At the same time, slavery practice expanded to the west though Jefferson counteracted efforts to expand it to the northwest. It is important to note that Jefferson sought after a bigger United States and the prevention of a possible civil war hence his reluctance to prevent the expansion of slavery. However, Native Americans were not considered part of those protected by the existing American government. Jefferson’s dealings in both chapters contradict all the views expressed in his letters and political ideologies. While calling for equality, the Native Americans were still human and lived on American soil. By disregarding the plights of the minority groups, African Americans and Native Americans, the Declaration of Independence proved null and void except in the case of whites.
“The Race of Life” (145-167) gives emphasis on the aforementioned racial criteria that presided over the government and its people. Different aspects of the society were influenced by race and in turn, most if not all of the American citizens were by the beginning of the nineteenth century race oriented. For instance, Jefferson believed that the American population did not have to share the same religious enthusiasm for them to show a sign of unity (167). Therefore, all matters of state were according to the Jefferson administration handled as per the existing cultural norms and societal expectations (167). Gradually, the issues of race in the United States became the determinant factor on what was acceptable and what was against the law. It is safe to argue that as Jefferson was led by the will of the people, his previous ideas on racial equality were diminished thus allowing the people free reign, provided they were white Americans.
Conclusively, Ellis’ terming the book “Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty” is refutable but is also applicable in Jefferson’s presidency. The third president failed to ensure the true definition of Liberty in America. Because one race oppressed other races existing in the country, and was supported by the law, liberty as freedom and pursuit of happiness was only in writing. On the other hand, Jefferson realized the time for change was yet to come and so decided to join in the lucrative trade of slavery. Included essays in the text attest to these notions as the personal turmoil of Jefferson are explained while his hypocritical ideologies are explained. He was in a way a “Genius of Liberty” as he practiced said liberty to the extent allowed by Americans but was wise enough to realize the constraints to any efforts made towards complete liberation of American citizens. Still, the man falls short of the given book title and fails to deliver the ideologies any reader has set before reading the text.
Ellis, Joseph J. Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty. New York: Viking Studios, 2000. Print.