Thomas Jefferson Crib Sheet


Name: Thomas Jefferson

Lifespain: April 13, 1743 (?) or April 2nd, 1743 (?) – July 4th, 1826. (Yet again, Julian Calendar people complicate everything. Leave it to the British to sort this out…

Home State: Virginia

Served as President: 1801-1809

Vice President: Aaron Burr (1801-1805); George Clinton (1805-1809)

Spouse: Martha Wayles Jefferson

Historian Rank: 4

Why you may LOVE him…

Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential American Renaissance Man. His accomplishments and achievements are equal to some small countries. There was hardly any subject that Jefferson did not comment on in his life, from the five languages he spoke to the 6,000 books that became the Library of Congress. Kennedy once complimented the intellectual talent before him as the greatest collection of minds in the White House since Jefferson dined alone. He broke unbelievable ground when he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and his classic The Notes on the State of Virginia. All of his works were well ahead of their time and excruciatingly relevant even in the 21st century. For better or worse, he did not invent the American Political Party but he came close to perfecting it. Just two decades after forming his Democratic-Republican Party, he swept himself into office as President and sent the Federalist Party to oblivion. If his political acumen is not impressive enough, Jefferson reigned during the Louisiana Purchase, one of the greatest land grabs in World History. He then was instrumental in launching the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a ecological masterpiece study of the American West. All of this while keeping the nation at peace. As England and France were engaged in the bloody lose-lose nature of the Napoleonic War, American commerce prospered more than ever. Finally, anyone who has walked the campus of the University of Virginia can marvel at the national treasure created by the greatest of American thinkers. He saw the American Revolution bigger than perhaps any contemporary refusing to be a small irrelevant pocket of the world but instead being the first step in a global revolution. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, become the first Secretary of State, second Vice President and finally, the third President. He ushered America out of the cradle and into the world. Was there anything he could not do?

Why you may HATE him…

Jefferson is one of those historical figures that many claim to be enamored with but surely would frown upon his actions. What a pity it will be for our right wing friends to find out that this Founder had nothing to do with writing the Constitution, never openly supported it, and stood idly by as it came dangerously close to being rejected. When the new government was formed the first Secretary of State hired Philip Freneau, a New Yorker who only knew English, as a State Department translator. Freneau would go on to be a partisan hack, writing a newspaper that would make MSNBC blush all while on the government dollar. Freneau’s National Gazette once led to an angry mob out to kill Washington and only then did Jefferson concede maybe they had gone too far. Jefferson frequently called Washington senile because he disagreed with him and concocted a bogus government scandal involving Alexander Hamilton which proved absurdly untrue. Shortly after leaving office his Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were cited as precedents for the 1832 Nullification Crisis and eventually the Civil War. Once President, Jefferson delighted in the fame he was garnered for the Louisiana Purchase even though he had nothing to do with it and his constitutional (he’s a fan now!) scruples almost killed the deal. Finally, in 1807 he launched a disastrous embargo policy that ruined New England’s economy, foolishly playing into French hands and probably handed his successor the War of 1812 by irrevocably exploding American-British relations. Finally, this lover of liberty, crusader for the rights of man and unabashed supporter of freedom owned people. He may have fathered children with one of them and actively thwarted abolition movements until the day he died. Historians almost universally gloss over slave ownership but as the self-proclaimed champion of liberty, Jefferson should have been better. He had to be better. Does this sound like a hero to you?


On August 16th, 2013, ousted Egyptian Prime Minster Mohamed Morsi semi-quoted Jefferson when he opined, “bloodshed irrigates the tree of liberty in Egypt.” He was not taking the Founding Father out of context. Jefferson was a worldwide revolutionary in the 18th Century, almost delighting in the deaths of monarchs, naively loving the French Revolution and patting himself on the back for a worldwide revolution that was not occurring. He would not turn on his beloved French. Not after the Reign of Terror. Not after the beheading of their King and Queen. Jefferson simply believed the bloodshed was somehow necessary to a liberty revolution. Jefferson was no friend of peaceful revolution in his time and continues to inspire violence to this day.

Final Verdict in Five Words: He should have known better.

James Monroe (1817-1825)


Book: The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness

Author: Harlow Giles Unger

1. Date published- Nearly 40 years after Henry Ammon’s classic Monroe biography, Unger’s 2009 work is a much needed work for the 21st century. Those attempting to trade a bit of the scholarly depth for a contemporary lens will find this work to be a much appreciated addition to Monroe literature. The recent nature of the work allows Unger to explore Monroe in a fresh perspective such as where the Monroe Doctrine fits in the 21st Century world. The most tangible aspect is evident from Unger’s reference to Monroe as a founding father. With the rise of groups such as the Tea Party and the continued prominence of WWTFD searching for the supposed soul of the founding fathers collectively, Unger’s work seems especially relevant and essential for the context in which Monroe lived.

Grade: B

2. Scope- As with all works of the revolutionary era, the life of the founders has much to do with the formation of the nation as the nation they would lead. For someone such as Washington or Adams, the early life is essential to the biography even though it does not necessarily contain a narrative of the presidency. Unger attempts to put this treatment with Monroe, giving up nearly two thirds of the work to Monroe’s young life, his diplomacy, and his cabinet position with James Madison. This places far too much emphasis on a young career for this consensus top 15 president. That is not to say the scope is completely off. Few would deny that moments such as the Louisiana Purchase and the burning of Washington are unworthy of the many pages of reference in the work. However, Monroe has a doctrine named after him. To give the Monroe Doctrine and its immense importance such little attention holds back this work from being all encompassing in scope. With the spread of mass communication reaching unprecedented levels, the Monroe Doctrine deserves a better treatment in its most up to date work on the man who penned it.

Grade: B-

3. Author- Harlow Unger has been dubbed “Americas Most Readable Historian.” The reason for this moniker is quite evident from the writing style. He has written over 20 books, mostly about the Revolutionary era and almost always biographies. Writing about Patrick Henry, Lafayette, and George Washington to name a few, Unger has been a consistent force in the short biography version of this project. For someone attempting to not get bogged down in weighty works, Unger gets to the point in a concise fashion and doesn’t make you feel like you are missing something. His background besides history is in broadcasting and journalism, but evident bias or blatant revisionism is not suggested in the work. Unger benefits by simply updating a 40 year old work and does not feel the need to embellish or outsize the man in Monroe. The Yale graduate remains on an even keel and leaves many opinions to the reader, as he should.

Grade: A

4. Length- At the risk of comparing Unger’s work again to Ammon’s, this work is the condensed and concise story of James Monroe. Clocking in around 350 pages, the assessable work can be completed briskly with relative ease. However, one should not be fooled by the slightly short work. It avoids pitfalls of short biography by delving into Monroe’s early struggles, family confrontations, and the importance of his development. It has many features of long biographies such as extended passages, letters, and other primary source materials. For a man who burned all of his correspondence with his wife, Unger is able to recreate his marriage, his family life, and he more than a few times reveals an emotional and human side of the fifth president. Readers will be shocked by how quick the work is, but they will be equally shocked by how much they enjoyed it.

Grade: B+

5. Mission- Rarely is the mission evident before even looking at the prologue or introduction of a historical biography. Whether at Unger’s urging or just a happy editorial addition, “the last founding father” at once conveys the mission and context that Unger creates. He not only wanted to tell the story of Monroe, but what Monroe meant to the nation as it said goodbye to knee breeches and powdered wigs on its way out into nation adolescence. The mission is to show how a man who was president in 1825 was still of incredible importance to 1776. What the end of the Monroe presidency represented was a new age for the young nation where others were suddenly asked to carry the torch and steer the ship. In that sense, Unger accomplished his goal, showing how Monroe embodied the graying revolutionary generation and put a capstone on the era that today is seen as immaculate.

Grade: B+

John Adams Crib Sheet


Name: John Adams AKA His Rotundity

Lifespain: October 30th, 1735 (?) or October 19th, 1735 (?) – July 4th, 1826. (Again, Julian Calendar people complicate everything. Leave it to the British to sort this out…

Home State: Massachusetts

Served as President: 1797-1801

Vice President: Thomas Jefferson

Spouse: His third cousin Abigail Smith Adams

Historian Rank: 12

Why you may LOVE him….

John Adams is not your flawless, cherry treeing, key in the lightning, rhetorical master the elusive “founding fathers” seem to embody. He was a brash, rude, vain and irritable man passionate about the American cause. Most would take that. Mr. Adams’ life reads like the back of a hall of fame pitcher’s baseball card. He took on the impossible task of defending the British soldiers at the Boston Massacre. After securing a legal victory for the British, Adams was one of the first and most vocal colonists to move toward independence. He turned aside pleas for continued patience and put the colonies full speed ahead toward independence. He then left his family and all he knew to become the most traveled American of his era. What Franklin had on him in years, Adams had in diversity. In an age where men would barely leave their birth town, Adams visited France, Holland, and Great Britain in just a handful of years. He hated slavery, never owned one and wanted it banned in the infant nation. After the war, Adams wrote the Massachusetts Constitution that became the first constitution to be ratified by the people. He is credited with being the loudest and most persistent advocate for checks and balances. He never swooned over the French Revolution as a worldwide crusade for liberty. He was the first Vice President where he was roundly criticized for his insistence on making America as respected as possible (Spoiler Alert: It backfired on “His Rotundity”). Finally as the second President John Adams was a staunch supporter for the “evil” strong military, a strong central government and kept America out of an impossible European War that surely would have snuffed the candle in the cradle. Going to war would have secured his legacy, staying out of it probably cost him his job. One of his final acts as president was appointing John Marshall Chief Justice. Marshall would go on to establish American Judicial Review thus securing a true three branched government. Opt hated, never ignored, John Adams knew he wouldn’t be beloved and at the end of the day he didn’t care. Is that not the rebel we all claim to love?

Why you may HATE him…

John Adams was the most traveled American statesman of his era. He didn’t speak French then tried to lecture the French people. It seems he embarrassed himself and America in the Court of St. James. All of his travels solidified his arrogance. Surely not unlike his contemporaries, Adams did not actually think highly of the so-called common man. His letters are littered with references to the “unwashed” and “unlearned” and he was not shy about limiting access to the federal government. He was never the “high” federalist like his friend (or foe?) Alexander Hamilton but he certainly would have been comfortable in a monarchy. He was a bitter and sore loser, leaving DC at 4 AM rather than see Jefferson sworn in as Washington had so gracefully done for him. I must be forgetting something… Oh yes! He jailed, imprisoned and convicted  political dissenters. No president before and since has so openly rounded up and targeted political opponents like John Adams. What Nixon may have done behind closed doors, Adams did through the Alien and Sedition Acts. He certainly was no advocate for liberty as he made criminal the act of critical journalism, public opposition and simply being a foreigner. Some many argue that he did what he had to do with a European War looming, sadly it looks like he was not pushed into the extremity of his views. They seemed to be in line with his thinking all along. He was the condescending and elitist guy that will always be better than you no matter what. Hey Mr. Adams, who decided to make you king?

Final Verdict in Five Words: Overlook at your own peril.

George Washington Crib Sheet



Name: George Washington AKA Father of His Country

Lifespain: February 22nd 1732 (?) or February 11, 1731(?) – December 14, 1799. (Julian Calendar people complicate everything. Leave it to the British to sort this out…

Home State: Virginia

Served as President: 1789-1797

Vice President: John Adams

Spouse: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

Historian Rank: 3

Why you may LOVE him….

You do not get a nickname like “Father of His Country” for birthing heirs (George was impotent). Washington could have died in 1783 and would still hold legendary status in many circles. He married one of the wealthiest widows in Virginia and he owned upwards of 20,000 acres. By all accounts he was top dog in an era of gallant horsemen. Washington received rave reviews on the dance floor and attended the theater well above the rate of his contemporaries. He may have fired the first shot of the French and Indian War (AKA the first truly world war) and he led a cobbled group of militia (plus the French let’s be real) to defeat the greatest army in the world. However, Washington did indeed live beyond 1783, played an instrumental role in decrying the ineffective Articles of Confederation, helped build a new government and then was unanimously elected its first President. He would go on to establish a new political power out of thin air. He led nation from the cradle on a track toward becoming the greatest and most powerful nation in the world. He could have been King, but instead he carefully and knowingly set truly American precedents and forever cemented his nation on a republican path. His greatness was the only thing Jefferson and Hamiltion could agree on. Yet, despite a certain third term at hand he walked away. He retired on top, battled and bruised but never beaten. What’s not to love?

Why you may HATE him…

Washington claimed to be constantly and steadfastly cognizant of the precedents he set as the first hero in an infant nation. And no, I am not going to bury this slaveholding and Indian scalping warrior. Certainly in light of the 21st Century these are undesirable but surely risk-free when it came to precedent. No one saw equality like we do today. Heck, women haven’t even been voting for 100 years. The reason you may hate Washington is he was more British than American at almost every turn. In fact, his support of the American cause may have just been an outlet of petty grievances with British creditors. He hosted exclusive levees, decked out his slaves in pretentious regalia, drove around in a horse drawn carriage, was president of the Primogeniture Cincinnatus Society, and openly expressed his love for all things British. History is never as clean as our high school courses would lead us to believe, but taking off your rose colored glasses would reveal a very vain and thin skinned man. Washington is someone who many historians believe passed over a third term because the press finally insulted him. He never thought of himself or America in general in the exceptional ways that Jefferson or Franklin did. He saw the young nation as Britain’s kid brother and in many ways set precedents toward that aim. Why else did he insist on being called His Excellency?

Final Verdict in Five Words: The right man to start.

James Madison 1809-1817


Book: James Madison and the Making of America

Author: Kevin R. C. Gutzman

1. Date published- Gutzman’s 2012 work is the most recent work about James Madison available. It is a welcome addition to Madison biographies specifically because it is a generation removed from Rutland’s work and benefits from an updated perspective. Possibly reflecting on the conservative views from the author and the mood of the country, generally a great deal of time is dedicated to the struggles of government action. Many other works of Madison obviously highlight his role in creating a modern constitutional republic, but it was 2012 in which modern thinkers pondered the role of government and the grey areas that complicate the issue. Perhaps succeeding generations will find this aspect of Gutzman’s focus a bit narrow, but this link to such a poignant philosophical struggle highlights Madison’s own challenges and certainly the strength of such a recent work and fresh perspective.

Grade: B

2. Scope- This category was created to truly highlight the presidency of each man and hopefully make selections that cater to that criteria. Gutzman’s book is tricky to examine in scope. The “Father of the Constitution” is aptly nicknamed and Madison’s efforts in both the Philadelphia Convention and the ratification struggle are the best parts of the work. Gutzman masterfully unravels the weekly (sometimes daily) developments in the colossally important process. If Madison was an Alexander Hamilton or even a John Jay this scope would be perfect. He is not. Madison is the fourth president of the United States and consensus founder or at least co-founder of the Democratic-Republicans. Gutzman is seeking to put Madison in the context of Making America and though he nails the Constitution part, the lack of coverage of the presidency conveys a sense that the presidency of James Madison was not integral in shaping America. The lack of scope can simply be highlighted by the fact that the Constitution construction is covered in 190+ pages. The enormously significant time serving as Secretary of State and President is given just 55 pages. Events such as The Louisiana Purchase, Embargo Act, War of 1812 and even the tremendously significant match with Dolley Madison are seemingly marginalized in this work. It takes away from the overall scope.

Grade: C-

3. Author-Kevin Gutzman is a tricky character to take up as someone to write an unbiased biography. He continues to be a History Professor at Western Connecticut State University. He has written many works on the Revolutionary Era especially on Virginia politics and their role in the Revolution. He certainly checks all the boxes when it comes to credentials and legitimacy. It should not be a surprise to readers that Gutzman has dedicated much time and research into the Constitution itself and frequently classifies himself as a states rights activist. Without even researching this author it is clear from this work that Gutzman values an Anti-Federalist. The politics from this era are tricky to view in the scope of the 21st century and trickier still is trying to reconcile Gutzman’s often staunch libertarianism with his criticisms of Madison. It is obvious from the get-go that Gutzman does not put on airs. His writing style is very direct, even demeaning to a reader expecting the self-described “definitive biography.” It could very well be considered one of the more accessible works but Gutzman’s biases become ever more clear because of his choice of words. For example, Gutzman tries to suggest that something as complex as the War of 1812 would have “obvious” conclusions.  Shockingly, Gutzman, as someone from academia, cites little when making bold analyses and rarely delves too deeply into primary letters or sources. He lets his views really conflict his analysis and lets his psuedo-common man approach dumb down the book. What starts as part of the book’s charm eventually becomes evidence that Gutzman is not as interested in being a scholar as once thought. Mr. Gutzman “obviously” is a confused individual. I won’t bother to cite it.

Grade: D

4. Length-At just over 350 pages this work matches the criteria for a short biography. For someone attempting a shorter work on each president this is to be preferred over Rutland’s work. What Gutzman offers is a slightly longer “short” biography encompassing more about Madison’s life while still moving at a brisk pace. The trademarks of a comprehensive work such as letters, long quotations, or excessive coverage of biographical events are completely absent from the work. What Gutzman does is try to cover everything in a brief and quick way. The only exception is the middle portion which displays more of a long biography style of the creation of the Constitution. Readers will notice a very sudden transition into day-to-day developments and the slowing narrative of the Constitution. Overall, it is a serviceable source for a short biography even though it sadly does not give the Presidency its due.

Grade: B

5. Mission- Gutzman’s misson was to write the updated standard in biography for James Madison. He wanted to present a biography of a man and his accomplishments but also put them in the context of the world he lived in. The mission comes very close to fruition when he shows Madison’s seeming ambivalence in regards to his prime: Bill of Rights, Presidency, etc. However, the glaring omission of Madison’s presidency and lack of true inspection makes the mission less successful. If the goal is to create a new standard work, then a generation of readers will dismiss the importance of the fourth presidency along with the War of 1812 and almost single handed destruction of an opposing party. The mission comes close to completion but Gutzman left the door wide open to have his work be eclipsed before it reaches definitive status.

Grade: B-

James Madison 1809-1817


Book: James Madison: The Founding Father

Author: Robert Rutland

1. Date published-Originally published in 1987, Robert Rutland’s book attempts to update the life of James Madison for a late 20th Century audience. The result is a focus on efforts to preserve the union and also a candid discussion of Madison’s life and status as a slave-owner. This is particularly representative of biographies of the 1980s and 1990s that seem to highlight slavery in a matter of fact way without being overtly negative. This work was originally considered because of its most recent coverage of the post-presidency of Madison. This has since changed with the updated 2013 release by Kevin Gutzman. This is certainly not the most recent work but is an update that at a time was of superb value for contemporary readers.

Grade: B

2. Scope-For this work scope is a tricky barometer to judge. The pre-presidency is at once well documented but also lean. The narrative begins long into Madison’s life, past the Revolution, and into the 1787 Constitutional Convention. From here until his death in 1836 the scope of Madison’s life is complete with a decent sized chunk devoted to the presidency. Despite barely registering at 250 pages, the scope covers a lot of ground. However, the events before 1787 are almost non-existent with hardly a token mention of Madison’s upbringing and career that led to his prominence.

Grade: B-

3. Author- Robert Rutland seems to never decide if he is a cheerleader or a critic of Madison’s life. The result is a remarkably even-handed look at the successes and failures of his life. Particularly beneficial to the reader is sympathy for supposedly hypocritical moments of Madison’s life. Here Rutland shows his strength in highlighting the existence of the hypocrisies but also putting them in context and attempting to fairly put them in place. Rutland previously wrote about Revolutionary figures such as George Mason as well as multiple writing credits on Madison’s papers and other of the era’s most important documents. For all the extensive research conducted on Madison’s life it is perhaps most surprising that Rutland chose the route of a short biography over a single volume epic.

Grade: B+

4. Length-At barely over 250 reading pages, this work is a solid choice for those seeking a short biography on Presidents. The length allows a brisk overview of key events while giving due attention and detail to more important moments. However, the work does feel too brief especially considering the lack of discussion about his birth, education and career prior to 1787. In other short biographies of notable stature particularly His Excellency (Washington), these aspects of the subject’s life are brief but mentioned in their rightful place in the chronological development of the man and future President. The length is solid but could have used just a bit more.

Grade: B

5. Mission-By the mid-1980s, authors such as Rutland worried that Madison had been given an unfair shake and cited the work of Henry Adams as instrumental at creating an impression of a weak president. This work was an attempt to put Madison in the perspective of some of the greats. Rutland reveals in the closing chapter that the overall mission was to showcase Madison as  an elite president and the founding father of the nation. The statement is bold and the mission ends up falling flat as a result. There are surely many aspects of Madison’s career highlighted in this work. Unfortuantely, to make a claim that he was among the founding brothers of the nation, Rutland never gets concise enough to hammer home the claim that Madison alone was responsible. The part of updating the perspective was a successful mission especially in 1987. Yet, as a work to stand a the standard bearer for the fourth president, the mission falls short.

Grade: B-


Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809










Book: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Author: Jon Meacham

1. Date published- Released in late 2012, Meacham’s book is the most recent biography on Jefferson and maybe the most recent substantial work on any president to date. If one is attempting to emphasize recent works this is ideal. The result is an updated perspective on the life of Jefferson. The most important aspect is that Meacham’s book updates the way we view Jefferson. For example, an overwhelming amount of Jefferson scholars throughout the 20th century slanted toward a southern narrative that seemed to downplay and, in Randall’s case, discount the reality of Jefferson’s slavery life. He did indeed have children with Sally Hemmings and Meacham deftly puts that fact into perspective despite centuries of perspective. Meacham gives an updated take on the Jefferson Presidency especially the 1807 Embargo which has largely escaped criticism in other Jefferson works. There will come a time when Meacham and/or his characterization of Jefferson itself becomes dated but for now it is as fresh and as fair of a perspective as this project can get.

Grade: A

2. Scope- The scope of the work is a quickened yet comprehensive life of Jefferson. It would be exceedingly splitting hairs to point out spots of his life that Meacham did not cover. As compared to the less recent work from Randall, the pre-presidency is given a solid look and recanted at a complete but brisk pace. Perhaps one cannot have a perfect scope of Jefferson as his accomplishments in every aspect of his life could in itself become a thrilling narrative about early America. For a work of slightly over 500 pages, a fifth is dedicated to his presidency, a solid portion of a full life of public service. Particularly interesting is that the two Jefferson biographies in this project lack the scope when it comes to his retirement. Any University of Virginia student could inform you that a biography of Jefferson must include the fitting capstone in his career. In Meacham’s book it tarnishes an otherwise solid scope.

Grade: B-

3. Author-Jon Meacham is a well decorated writer who has multiple credits such as Newsweek, Time Magazine, and Executive Vice President of Random House. He is also a Pulitzer Prize winning author for his biography on Andrew Jackson in 2008. This book characteristically does not show signs of a journalist. This is only his second biography after the well received work on Jackson which will appear later in this project. Meacham has shown again that he can rapidly and thoroughly cover his subject. His admiration for Jefferson is abundantly clear but his overt approval of his actions at times distracts from the objectivity.

Grade: B+

4. Length-At over 500 pages, there is no mistaking that this should be taken as a short biography. There is no aspect of Jefferson’s life that is left uncovered. The length may be deceptive to a reader eager to delve deeply and completely into the rapid events covered in the book. For most US Presidents this work could have been covered in 250-300 pages but Meacham wisely goes the complete route by covering it all. The work never drags and is a quick read for any interested party and never shifts into a wonky extreme or gets too personal. However, you are reminded that the contradictions and seemingly irreconcilable faults of such a great man are not discussed at length.

Grade- B

5. Mission- For most of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Jefferson was the mind and philosophical saint of the American Revolution. Despite being a slaveholder, womanizer (relatively) and otherwise flawed man, Jefferson emerged from history on Mount Rushmore. In the past generation, Jefferson has taken an awful beating and Meacham interestingly blames recent lauding of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton at the inevitable expense of Jefferson. Meacham’s mission then emerges as almost too simple. It is a steering of the ship back to the accomplishments of Jefferson. It is told through the ways he wielded and attained power and how his whole life simmered down to that ideal. The result is a focused and at times narrowed mission to right the ship, admit faults and attempt to pick up a tarnished Jefferson back to greatness. Meacham comes close but the cat is already out of the bag. Adams always feared that history would sweep him under the rug. Now that he is re-emerging it is only works such as Meacham’s that can keep Jefferson on the pedestal.

Grade: B+