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I am looking for books and or dvds on Thomas Jefferson. Any recommendations?

Also I noticed there is a HBO documentary on John Adams. Is anybody watching this, and what do they think?

I've been watching John Adams. While he himself comes across as an occasionally brilliant man, he's mostly portrayed as being petty and envious. I liked the portrayal of George Washington though, and Thomas Jefferson comes across as the most respectable and intelligent of the founding fathers. He doesn't play a very large part, though he does show up in 5 of 7 episodes.

While the series doesn't romanticize the Founding Fathers, making them larger than life, it rather shows that they are "only human". That's the impression I've gotten, at least. Still though -- its very historically correct and a compelling drama, and I do recommend it.

I also recommend the Thomas Jefferson Wiki, which is maintained by his foundation at Monticello.

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I basically concur with JMartins' opinion of the series, except that I had a more favorable impression of Adams. Because he is the Founding Father I know least about, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of his portrayal. I did like the portrayal of Benjamin Franklin, who appeared in the early episodes. His depiction as a worldly, intelligent, savvy man fits with the biographical accounts of him I have read. Washington is great, and the scene of his swearing in (with Adams at his side as Vice President) in front of the cheering patriotic crowd was very moving. As for Jefferson, I am really enjoying his portrayal now, although I detested the early scenes of Jefferson where he was portrayed improbably as some sort of smart aleck dandy. However, that portrayal ended and what emerged was a dignified, very serious, very moral man.

Finally, I adore the opening credits of the series. There is rather simple martial music with close-ups of actual revolutionary flags or good copies of them. With the music stirring our patriotic feeling, flags billow with the words, "Unite or Die," and show a snake representing the colonies chopped into pieces. The sequencing of the flags is timed beautifully to the music and achieves a great dramatic climax, all within a couple minutes.

Overall, the effect of the opening sequence and the series is to place me at the scene of our Revolution. It made it quite real, that these men and women were fighting for their lives and in so doing, fought for our lives. They fought a life and death struggle for freedom, and won.

In sum, despite some serious flaws (such as the annoying early portrayal of Thomas Jefferson and an over-emphasis on "humanizing" the characters), I recommend the series.

I will ask any John Adams experts out there, whether academic or armchair, if they care to comment on the veracity of his portrayal.

Edited by Galileo Blogs
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I basically concur with JMartins' opinion of the series, except that I had a more favorable impression of Adams. Because he is the Founding Father I know least about, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of his portrayal.
I haven't seen the series, but I think it's based on David McCullough's book, which is very complimentary to John Adams.

This is all from memory, so E&OE...

The only thing I remember that a director might portray as envy, was Adam's attitude toward George Washington. I don't see it as envy as much as an honest, though incorrect, evaluation that Washington was revered more than he deserved. Adams was very well-read and intelligent. Washington was more wise than well-read, and his character and leadership were what made him (in the words of biographer Flexner) "the indispensable man" of the revolution. Adams did not see it that way. I think one sometimes sees the same evaluation at work in well-read, detailed-oriented contemporary people who end up working for a boss who is a good leader, but who often leads by getting advice from multiple sources, chewing on it and making a decision that was not of their own creation.

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  • 5 months later...
I am looking for books and or dvds on Thomas Jefferson. Any recommendations?

Also I noticed there is a HBO documentary on John Adams. Is anybody watching this, and what do they think?

Okay, the topic has been dead a while, but I couldn't pass this up:

If you are looking for insight into Thomas Jefferson's political thinking, I highly recommend a book called "The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson" I am not currently at home with my excessive, but precious library of history books, so I can't think of the author off the top of my heaf (Onuf, maybe?). If you're looking for a good general biography, Joseph Ellis' American Sphinx is a good start, though a bit iffy on the Hemings matter at the end. There's all sorts of "scandolous" books out there regarding his daliances with various women (there's one called "Thomas Jefferson's Women," or maybe it's called"The Women of Monticello" that came out recently, as well as a history of the Heminges at Monticello entitled, The Heminges of Monticello that can give you insight in those matters, if you care. If you want personal information (regarding matters other than women), I would suggest Jefferson's Secrets. There is a lot of focus on the Hemings issue again, but I found some information in this book that I hadn't come across before in any author biographies concerning his finances and health in his later years. FYI: the man deserves a medal for putting up with the crazy medical treatments they had for urinary disorders back then - OUCH. I just recently started reading a new book called Twilight at Monticello, about his retirement years and this is particularly amusing for me since the title of my thesis on Adams and Jefferson was virtually identical, and written many years prior.

But, if you want to get to know the man and what he thought, philosophically, about a broad range of matters, I highly recommend reading his letters/correspondence with two people inparticular: James Madison and John Adams (and his letters to Madison during the decade or so that he and Adams were not friends at all will, I forewarn you, make you detest him a little bit, esp if you are as fond of Adams as I, and many people on this site are). He stabbed Adams in the back a lot (and openly confessed his actions to others, but never confessed to Adams), but they still managed to make amends for that in their retirement years. These letters are available in many books and letter collections. His letters are insightful, but unlike Adams he never kept a journal so it can be hard to pin him down for what he really thought- some letters between two people on the same thing are blatantly contradictory, for example. I respect the man greatly, but he knew how to pull political strings. He was the Democratic-Republican version of Alexander Hamilton, but a lot more secretive about it. But definitely stick to his letters from the time period of about 1789 to 1826. In these letters, he basically changes his mind about anything he said in any letters prior to 1789 (okay, not about everything, but a lot of things) so the earlier letters are not as "useful." His letters to Adams are the best source for his opinions on all matters besides politics; his letters to Madison are the best source for his thoughts on politics.

As for the HBO Adams series, I adore it and proudly own it. It does portray him as petty at times, yes, but the fact of the matter was that he could be. He was very stubborn and he knew it; he knew it was what he was most detested for and yet he knew that his reasons for being stubborn were just. He didn't pander to anyone's political interests or party; that's what made him particularly remarkable. The one complaint I have about the series is that it can be jumpy from one event of his life to the next and leaves a lot of holes that could be confusing for someone that is not real familiar with his life or struggles. I was particularly disappointed by how much the series downplayed his efforts in Amsterdam in acquiring a loan, by his methods that COngress strongly advised against, that literally saved the REvolution. Beyond that, it was very accurate to detail: including the storm that raged outside during the official vote for independence on July 2, 1776 (yes, the 2nd, not the 4th... long story). Jefferson is portrayed as shy, and intellectually senstive to attacts on his writings and opinions because he really was. Franklin is portrayed as very amicable and pandering to others' ways because he was. Adams is portrayed as very stubborn and rude at times because he was; he detested holding back words and opinions simply to appease the sensibility of others. Abigail is very dutiful and the only person really able to hold any pwer of persuasion over Adams because that's who she was. They were all brillantly played - and some even bore an uncanny resemblance: such as the guys playing Elbridge Gerry and Henry Laurens; seriously, look at the paintings of them then look at the actors. Creepy.

What was truly brilliant, however, was the fact that almost all of Adams' dialogue taken, word-for-word, from his own letters. The words his character speaks in the series were, in large part, Adams' actual words. (But some of the added one's were fun, too, like the comment about Franklin looking like he had been tailored by a taxidermist prior to making a public appearance together in Paris. I don't recall seeing that comment in any of his letters, but it definitely seemed like something he was probably thinking at the time!

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