"Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" gives readers Jefferson the politician and president, a great and complex human being forever engaged in the wars of his era. Philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson's genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously, catapulting him into becoming the most successful political leader of the early republic, and perhaps in all of American history.
Meachem’s biography is a substantive work of nearly 500 pages (not including 200 pages of notes and bibliography). While I cannot judge its accuracy, it is an extraordinarily detailed and well- documented account of Jefferson’s life, replete with endnotes for the serious reader. The image of Jefferson that emerges is that of a human being in all his complexity – a flawed giant if you will, who dreamed large and accomplished great things, as one of the founders of a nation. As a modern reader not steeped on politics of the era, I was intrigued to learn of the bitter political quarrels that divided the early nation, and the vitriol that characterized political debate. I was also interested to learn just how effective Jefferson was as a politician, despite strong opposition, weak resources, and the precarious situation the colonies and resultant nation faced. One need only remember that Jefferson doubled the size of the newly formed United States, and expanded its outlook to the Pacific, to acknowledge his stamp on the country's history.
This work is extensive as a biography, but less so as a history of the times in which Jefferson lived. Events are recounted insofar as they involved Jefferson. Thus, much of the Revolutionary War occurs off-stage, as it were, directly involving Jefferson only when he was forced to flee Monticello barely ahead of the British troops. As for the difficult issue of slavery, Meachem is no apologist, but somewhat redresses the balance of recent criticism by describing the multiple occasions in which Jefferson proposed a national ban on slavery, at risk to his own political career. The seeming contradiction between his protagonist’s public and private life is left a mystery, against which commentators are free to project their own interpretations. (As the author pointed out in a recent lecture, quoting Arthur Schlesinger), self- righteousness is easy; it is also cheap.)
I found this a dense but informative work, from which I learned a great deal. I would certainly recommend it to any serious reader who wishes to learn more about this complex, brilliant, and accomplished man.
In this book we are reminded that Thomas Jefferson was almost obsessive in pursuing an education in the classics, the arts and languages, as well as in leadership. He was an inventor of many things from apparently a dumbwaiter to a plow and even the round sundial and a bookstand. Some of these inventions are referred to within the pages of this dreary read. In short, it seems to me that he would be quite the handy man to have around as he was a problem solver and designer, as well as something of an engineer and efficiency expert. Not a bad list of qualities in your every day working man, never mind politician and political hero. One thing that touched me, being a reader was this.
On February 1, 1770, when his Shadwell house burned, his grief was primarily for his library, which was lost in the fire.
Jefferson was passionate when it came to serving his country and caring for his family, which at one point included not just his own wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, who was known famiiarly as Patty, and small daughter, but the wife and children of his brother. His sense of responsibility extended to the households of extended family members, and to this was added the house slaves left behind when his wife's father died in may of 1773.These slaves included Hemings family. The Hemings,Elizabeth, her sons Robert, James and john and his wife's half sister Sally Hemmings, were to serve him well and in many and various capacities over the years. Some in fact were regarded as members of his family, at least in his own heart.
Did jefferson strike a deal to win the presidency? Was a vote for Jefferson, merely a vote against Adams under whom he had at one time served as Vice President? He ran with Aaron Burr as his intended Vice President in his first term. The election was a bitter one.It seems as if political shenanigans have changed little since the early years of american politics. History tells us that Jefferson served two terms, I have to wonder if he did so reluctantly? Among the things Jefferson is known for besides drafting the Declaration of Independence, is his purchase of the area known as The Louisiana Purchase, abolishing foreign slave trade and he was the first to claim Executive privilege He retired from office in 1808, after serving not only as President of the United States for two terms.
He was a man well loved by his family for whom he seemed ready to jump any hurdle or take on any and all responsibility. He was cherished and respected by his grandchildren. After finally reaching the end of this tome, much of which is devoted to notes, which I confess to have mostly skimmed, I find that I respect Jefferson much more as simply a man, than as a politician or President. Not that his political career was a failure or in any way one undeserving of respect. It is more that his life as a family man was so stellar as to, for me, eclipse his public life and contributions. This integrity of spirit is what lent a positive light to his time serving his country while in office as Second Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, a position which he clearly enjoyed, then the First US Secretary of State to this newly minted country . He was also Second Vice President of the US, which led finally to his serving as Third President of the US.
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, in Albemarle County, Virginia, until his death on July 4, 1826. It seems that to the best of his ability, a last stand as a man in control of his life, he would also have a hand in controlling his death. He questioned the doctor repeatedly during his last hours, not wanting to pass from this life before the date of July the 4th. Oddly, his death came on the same day as that of John Adams.A man with whom he had many differences over the years, with whom he had once been rivals but who in the end had become a friend. The two men having made amends before their deaths. During their later years these two men shared many letters, explaining and clarifying their ideas and their ideals and sealing their unusual connection both to each other and to the country.
Jon Meacham’s wonderful “life” has filled in the shadows and illuminated his greatness both as a politician, leader and public figure and has exposed some of his personal failings as a man. How a ‘democratic’ leader, so committed to Liberty he risked his life to gain it for his country could maintain slaves is a deep, mysterious, fault. The relatively recent, DNA supported findings that several of these slaves were his own children – by another of his slaves, Sally Hemmings – is astonishing. ”This moral and political depravity” he called slavery but only at his death were his own slaves either released or sold off.
His relationship with Adams, a friendship that grew out of an original animosity, was sealed at his death by Adams dying on exactly the same day, (600 miles away) with his final words being the assertion “Jefferson survives”. Perhaps he does in the democratic mores of America, the concern of the Whigs was always ‘the people and government’ and that of the Tories was ever the Monarchy, class and wealth. Perhaps the best answer as to why Jefferson remains a hero to many, is his intelligence and in a wonderful tribute another hero to many Americans, President J F Kennedy, at a function for recipients of the Nobel prize said of this predecessor …”I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”!
It is a scholarly work … this thick Early Review copy has however, just 500 pages on the subject. A further 250 pages of notes, bibliography and index follow in support of the authors research. Not a light read then, but a very satisfying one.
The one quibble I had with the book was the fact that the author might have been too impressed with his subject. While Jefferson's failings were discussed, they felt a bit glossed over to me. Jefferson's ardent support of the French Revolution, despite having witnessed the brutality of the mobs first hand, stayed with him long after other supporters of that cause abandoned it in horror. The attempted seduction of his close friends wife was nothing short of sleazy. The nasty campaign Jefferson personally waged for the Presidency was barely mentioned. And of course, his relationship with Sally Hemmings, while discussed, was not really delved into.
The same man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who in his youth argued for the freedom of slaves and throughout his life longed for its eventual abolition, kept four of his own children as slaves along with their mother. True, he kept his word and freed them upon hi s death, but the rest of Monticello's slaves were sold to pay for the debts he incurred while living a lavish lifestyle far beyond his means. Something a man of Jefferson's intelligence had to know would happen. The author is correct that it is a mistake to judge historical figures who lived and died hundreds of years ago by modern standards. But even by the standards of his own day, some of Jefferson's personal actions and his domestic situation was considered vile and the height of hypocrisy.
It has become normal to consider the American Founding Fathers as mythical figures. Nearly perfect. Personally I don't think examining their failings detracts from their greatness. To me it makes their achievements all the more remarkable. Thomas Jefferson in particular was totally unable to live up to his own ideals. But he did help to chart a course that the rest of us could follow toward a better, more enlightened world.
The book covers Jefferson's entire life – birth to death, enriching the text through numerous quotations both from Jefferson's voluminous correspondence and the correspondence of others. We find he was an extremely sociable man, was fond of women, loved conversation, and abhorred conflict so much that he tried to apply power indirectly as much as possible, and much preferred writing and casual conversation to any sort of political debate.
Meacham neither exaggerates no seeks to avoid the Sally Hemmings “controversy” but simply states the case, that Jefferson had a long-term sexual liaison with a slave, and the children of that liaison were born into slavery. Since neither Jefferson not Hemmings left behind any documentation of their relationship and since the affair was apparently undertaken in secrecy, we just don't know how they felt about each other or what was the nature of their relationship. Meacham, wisely, doesn't speculate.
It feels odd to write this, but I think the book would have benefited from being longer. Though I'm pretty well read in the Revolutionary period, I had to set the book down to look up some references to vaguely mentioned events, and as well as Meacham writes, a few lines, or even a few pages, of more thorough explication wouldn't have burdened the reader and would have eased our understanding of Jefferson in the context of events in which he was not directly involved – and so which remain undocumented as events in his life.
This is a good book, but I recommend going in with a good understanding of at least the time-line of the Revolutionary period.
The above issues are not faults of the book, rather they are characteristics of which potential purchasers and reading should be made aware. However, make no mistake, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" is brilliantly written and worth the time and effort to enjoy.
Jefferson was both an idealistic theorist and a practical politician in his use of power. Meacham's case that much of his life can be understood in the interplay between these two poles is a good one. It is, by nature, a simplification of Jefferson the man, but does help us understand why the man who wrote "We believe these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal..." could also keep his own children and mistress as slaves until his death. Or why the man who fought so strongly against a Federalist government could add so much to the power of the Presidency by completing the Louisiana Purchase, essentially without authorization from Congress.
I suspect the depths of Jefferson won't be mined anytime soon. Meacham's book is quite good, but shouldn't be used as one's only source on Jefferson. Read this one, then find one or two others to get different flavors of his life!
Of course it's not possible to cover every aspect of such a varied and full life completely: for Jefferson's reading life, Kevin Hayes' The Road to Monticello remains the more thorough treatment. Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello goes into greater depth about Jefferson's relationships with the enslaved people who surrounded him. I would have liked more on Jefferson's scientific and literary pursuits, and on his agricultural and gardening interests. But as a biographical treatment, Meacham has done the reading public a great service with this book, and I'm sure it will receive the wide recognition it deserves.
A major theme for Meacham is Jefferson's skillful, often subtle, deployment of political capital and power: "He dreamed big but understood that dreams become reality only when their champions are strong enough and wily enough to bend history to their purposes. Broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson's genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power" (pg. xxviii). A good sum-up sentence for the books, I think.
This isn't a light and easy read, but it is also not unduly scholarly. For my tastes, I prefer the writing style of David McCullough, and his John Adam's biography is one of my all-time favorites. Still, I very much enjoyed this book, and for anyone interested in the early U.S., recommend it along with McCullough's John Adams and Walter Isaccson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.
Thank you to the publisher and LibraryThing for providing an advance copy of the book for review.
Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the most complex of all the founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin comes nearest to to Jefferson as a scholar and diplomat but without the opportunity as president. Jefferson; the philosopher, scientist, farmer, governor, diplomat and president makes for nearly timeless insights into governing in a democracy. Meacham skillfully dissects volumes of material to describe how Jefferson became the leader we know. He also shows the multiple sides of Jefferson. For example, his life long philosophical opposition to slavery but a slave owner. A republican and believer in limited central government but the first president to exercise war powers and expansion of presidential power. The story of the Louisiana Purchase shows a pragmatic president acting for the good of the nation despite concerns of constitutionality.
This book is a valuable reference source for Jefferson insights that are entirely relevant today as 200 years ago. For example, in 1811 Jefferson wrote to his son-in-law John Wayles Eppes describing the infighting in Congress. This sentiment might equally apply today!
"United by no fixed principles or objects and destitute of evrything like American feeling, so detestable a minority never existed in any country --- Their whole political creed is contained in a single word 'opposition'---They pursue it without regard to principle, to personal reputation or best interests of their country."
Finally, this book makes an excellent single reference about Jefferson and should be on everyone's bookshelf with an interest in American history.
Clear, concise, lucid, flowing text. Not the usual adjectives that are used to describe the narrative a work of biography. But that is what Meacham's latest work Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is. This is a thorough biography that is not too big to tackle by any readers standards. The difficulty that Meacham overcomes, to make a life of Jefferson accessible and understandable to all readers, is to me the greatest achievement this book attains.
Meacham covers the span of Jefferson's life in detail, but not too much detail as to lose the flow of the narrative and not get bogged down in the minutia. The prose Meacham employs engages the reader gives him a familiarity, it allows the reader a chance to at intimacy, and gives life to a man who has been in the grave for more than one hundred and eighty years.
As always, the author utilizes great resources. It is a rare historic biography that is at once both academic as well as recreational. Not a hagiographic biography. Meacham does not hide any of the family ugly issues and contradictions. It is comprehensive but not overwhelming.
Another Pulitzer for Meacham? One cannot tell, but after reading his latest effort I wouldn't bet against it.
Jon Meacham has written an incredibly readable, enjoyable biography of Thomas Jefferson.
Obviously with a subject as rich as Jefferson, and with only a single-volume, 500 page biography the author will have to give limited treatment to some aspects of Jefferson's life. Readers who have already read Malone's monumental 6-volume biography may be wishing at times for a more deep treatment of the Louisiana Purchase, the failed embargo, etc. Nonetheless, the book was thoroughly enjoyable. Highly, highly recommended.
I think this was necessary to get through the entire life of such a prolific and complex man during such a momentous time in history. For the main, I believe Meacham kept a balanced view of Jefferson, showing his weaknesses and failures as well as his strengths and accomplishments. However, the light touch mentioned above also means none of these are dwelt upon long enough to really absorb the issues. And at times I was not entirely sure how much Jefferson had contributed directly to yet another event or document.
Overall, I am pleased with the book. It gave me a good view into Jefferson, how he saw himself and conducted himself. With enough outside perspective to remember that no one actually knows himself as completely as he thinks. To fully understand the times and his actual influence requires knowing more about the other people he interacted with. That is not the scope of this book. But this book provides a good perspective on Jefferson to be used in comparison and contrast with others, such as a John Adams biography.
That said, while Meacham's style will never perfectly thrill academic historians, this biography is interesting and paced-well and shouldn't trouble too many presidential history buffs. Meacham has never had a real boat-tipping agenda with his biographies. He certainly wants to make Jefferson's life, times and experiences (told largely through secondary sources, anecdotes and at times brilliant story-telling) relevant to our current political and social setting. He did this wonderfully with FDR and Jackson and has continued his record with this excellent bio of Jefferson.
So, if I had to rate the book, I would give it 4 stars for research, 3 stars for the reader and 2 stars for the book itself, which simply failed to ignite my interest. Whole sections of the book slipped by without me being aware of the message as the reader devolved into a monotone because there was no way to inspire the narrative with any expression. Often the book went off on a tangent and explored issues that distracted me. Jefferson was one of the Founding Fathers, he helped draft the Constitution, authored the Bill of Rights, signed the Declaration of Independence, was Secretary of state, vice president, and finally, a two term President of the United States. The man was definitely a lover of politics, a believer in state’s rights and the voice of the people. His image should have jumped off the pages with passion. A brilliant man of many talents, he was interested in horticulture, music, farming, hunting, science, libraries, and politics. He loved America and wanted to see it thrive. He wanted to see the people happy and less divisive and he worked toward that goal his entire career, however, he was arrogant and was not easily persuaded to change his mind once set on a course of action.
He was a womanizer as a young man but when he finally married, at age 28, he was devoted to his wife and never married again after her death, honoring her wish that her children never have a step parent who cares nothing for them. Bereft, he takes his oldest child, Patsy, and travels to France where he becomes enamored with the country. Although he never married again, he was not celibate. He carried on a long term affair with Sally Hemmings, which began when she was just a young teenage slave of mixed race, who bore several of his children. Jefferson did not believe that slavery was moral, but nevertheless, he kept up the practice.
He never openly admitted his affair, Sally Hemmings, but modern science has proven that the DNA of her offspring are his. I am not sure the world would look kindly on that behavior, or that relationship, today. Perhaps a real student of history, rather than an ordinary reader, would be more suited to this book, since they would be interested in every detail, rather than the overview I desired. Jefferson may have died, but the legacy of his efforts will live on forever, since they formed the foundation of the country.