A book that refreshingly adds real substance to the abundant literature on Jefferson.


The two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning historian enlightens us on the mindset of Colonial Virginia through Thomas Jefferson’s drive to change the education system.

Beginning with young Jefferson’s student days at the College of William & Mary, Taylor (History/Univ. of Virginia; American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, 2016, etc.) describes a church-run school whose students had little or no interest in learning; few stayed long enough for a degree. They were irreverent and defiant, and they drank, gambled, fought, and even destroyed church and town property in drunken riots. Due to certain entrenched rules about honor, no Southern gentleman would testify against a fellow student. Within this milieu, Taylor depicts Jefferson as a man trained from childhood to exercise sovereign authority over slaves. Jefferson felt slavery was wrong in principal but essential in practice, and his abolition plan could only work with deportation. Officials in Virginia used the Bill of Rights’ guarantee of free exercise of religion to ban state assistance to churches and repealed the incorporation of the Episcopalian Church. This included cutting funding and eliminating the parish tax. Jefferson fully supported this secularization and planned to use those savings and taxes for a public education system. His master plan included primary schools, including girls, and colleges (secondary) run by each county feeding one university—at Charlottesville. His schools were to be absolutely secular, and while rejecting leadership by blood, he ensured that class distinctions remained, seeking enlightened aristocrats of merit. The narrative bogs down a bit at the end with the history of the university, but Taylor is a master historian, and he delivers a highly illuminating account in which “Jefferson’s social context in Virginia looms even larger than his unique personality and career achievements.” Furthermore, the author plumbs the depths of his subject’s objectives, faults, and ideals.

A book that refreshingly adds real substance to the abundant literature on Jefferson.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-65242-0

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

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A highly instructive exploration of “current affairs and…the immediate future of human societies.”

Having produced an international bestseller about human origins (Sapiens, 2015, etc.) and avoided the sophomore jinx writing about our destiny (Homo Deus, 2017), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) proves that he has not lost his touch, casting a brilliantly insightful eye on today’s myriad crises, from Trump to terrorism, Brexit to big data. As the author emphasizes, “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths.” Three grand stories once predicted the future. World War II eliminated the fascist story but stimulated communism for a few decades until its collapse. The liberal story—think democracy, free markets, and globalism—reigned supreme for a decade until the 20th-century nasties—dictators, populists, and nationalists—came back in style. They promote jingoism over international cooperation, vilify the opposition, demonize immigrants and rival nations, and then win elections. “A bit like the Soviet elites in the 1980s,” writes Harari, “liberals don’t understand how history deviates from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality.” The author certainly understands, and in 21 painfully astute essays, he delivers his take on where our increasingly “post-truth” world is headed. Human ingenuity, which enables us to control the outside world, may soon re-engineer our insides, extend life, and guide our thoughts. Science-fiction movies get the future wrong, if only because they have happy endings. Most readers will find Harari’s narrative deliciously reasonable, including his explanation of the stories (not actually true but rational) of those who elect dictators, populists, and nationalists. His remedies for wildly disruptive technology (biotech, infotech) and its consequences (climate change, mass unemployment) ring true, provided nations act with more good sense than they have shown throughout history.

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-51217-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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