The Jeffersonians: The Visionary Presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, by Kevin R.C. Gutzman

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Kevin R.C. Gutzman, and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In the early years of the American Republic, the Founding Fathers sought to craft the foundation of the country, then lead it in their own image. Once Washington had laid some of the essential groundwork, it fell to a few men to build on it and create a strong nation. Kevin Gutzman explores three of these men throughout their presidential tenure: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Gutzman argues that they were intertwined under the ‘Jeffersonian’ umbrella, while still being independent from one another. Gutzman presents, in detail, their respective presidencies, which occurred consecutively, thereby creating an era of government, legal precedents, and development of a country from its thirteen colonies into a geographic juggernaut. Full of anecdotes and well-placed arguments, Gutzman does a stellar job of connecting these three men together for the reader.

While all were strong political allies, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe had different outlooks for the country they helped develop. As Gutzman opens the tome exploring the presidency of Jefferson, there is a strong view towards setting the scene and building on core values the country had developed under Washington, while also exploring some of the newer ideas that came to the surface. Many of the constitutional questions that shaped a more modern America came from the Jefferson period, as interpretation of laws and the foundational rules of the country were being hashed out and challenged. Jefferson was also keen to create a mark on the international scene, using his ambassadors to form pathways for the still youthful country seeking to stand on its own. Gutzman effectively shows how Jefferson mandated this and made the country one that Washington would have been happy to see still progressing.

James Madison took up the torch when Jefferson, eager to create the two-term precedent that Washington began, stood down for new blood to take over governing. Madison’s impact was to keep trying to fill Jefferson’s shoes and keep the country on track, while also being faced with the first major international crisis to befall the country, a war with the British. Madison had to develop keen leadership skills and rely on many of his military men to keep America ready for any attack, and to fend off a reverting back to British control. Gutzman shows that the battles of the War of 1812 were hard fought and Madison was not one to get into the fray, but he valued the importance of America remaining independent and ready for whatever was tossed its way. Building on the Jefferson presidency, Madison sought to push America out of its infancy and into rugged adulthood, where it could grow and prove its prowess.

James Monroe was a leader who looked back as much as he did ahead, trying to keep the momentum going without losing much of what’s his predecessors forged for him. A man of great intellect, but not as gritty as the others, Monroe held his head high and focussed his attention to ensure that the work Jefferson and Madison did was not lost. Gutzman shows him to be the less impactful of the three men, but still trying to keep things running effectively and helping to shape Jeffersonian policies to keep Congress working effectively and with a detailed purpose. Gutzman shows how Monroe used the life lessons from his predecessors to shape America into the power that it would be moving towards its most tumultuous years. Monroe did all he could to keep things steady, without toppling too many apple carts along the way.

While the book was well written and full of formidable themes, there was a huge amount to digest. The history and the day-to-day exploration of things in a detailed narrative could, for some, get to be too much. Kevin Gutzman does well to leave the reader feeling as though they are a part of the action, but there is just so much going on that it can be overwhelming. While this is not an academic tome, its detail and analysis could keep only the most dedicated readers holding on. I was so pleased to be able to pluck something from each chapter, which helped me see how things are interconnected. The theme of three independent men directing the country through their respective presidencies is a stellar undertaking and Gutzman easily argues that this occurred. However, the names and places, as well as historic events, proved a great deal, as I sought to synthesis all that I read. Thankfully, he uses relatively short chapters, permitting the reader to launch themselves through the tome with relative ease, should their interest persist. I would gladly explore some of Gutzman’s other works to see if I can take more away from them, but I cannot say enough about this tome and the effort invested in it to give the reader something about which they can feel highly educated by the end of the reading experience.

Kudos, Mr. Gutzman, for piece of historical writing that left me hungry for more, even though I needed to pace myself to absorb it all.