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A monumental account of a 50-year political partnership that shaped the early history of the United States.

In a dual biography of uncommon merit, Louisiana State University historians Burstein (Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello, 2005, etc.) and Isenberg (Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 2007, etc.) pierce the “poetic protection” that surrounds the Founding Fathers to create a clear-eyed view of the political careers of two remarkable elder sons of the Virginia elite. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and James Madison (1751–1836) emerge in a new light as individuals who made equal contributions to the early republic. The younger man, Madison, neither a shy dullard nor a junior partner, as often described, was a forceful legislator and a persuasive writer, and he orchestrated Jefferson’s career, acting like a sort of campaign manager. Jefferson, a man of great feeling with an almost retiring manner but a lyrical pen, thrived in politicized settings, seeking to crush his enemies. The two men first met in 1776. Both were affable, bookish intellectuals, both served as president and both were accomplished political thinkers and tacticians. Always remaining “Virginians first, Americans second,” they changed their young nation’s political discourse and direction. Against a sweeping and readable history of the era, the authors explore the lives and political thought of the two men as well as their shared affection for the land and farming, as evidenced by their beloved country seats—Madison’s Montpelier and Jefferson’s Monticello—which are 25 miles apart. Burstein and Isenberg bring vivid life to Jefferson’s work on the Declaration of Independence and Notes on Virginia, and demonstrate the ways in which his sojourns in France influenced his views on such matters as creating opportunities for the poor, the importance of individual rights and farming’s contribution to society. The authors deem Federalist Papers contributor Madison a bold legislator who, while hardly the “father” of the Constitution, was nonetheless outspoken at the Constitutional Convention.

A superb book that greatly deepens our understanding of these founders.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6728-2
Page count: 832pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2010


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Kirkus Interview
Nancy Isenberg
author of WHITE TRASH
July 19, 2016

Poor Americans have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement. They were alternately known as “waste people,” “offals,” “rubbish,” “lazy lubbers,” and “crackers.” By the 1850s, the downtrodden included so-called “clay eaters” and “sandhillers,” known for prematurely aged children distinguished by their yellowish skin, ragged clothing, and listless minds. Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over 400 years, in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg upends assumptions about America’s supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery. “A riveting thesis supported by staggering research,” our reviewer writes in a starred review. View video >


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