Book Review: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Last week I wrote a review of Harlow Giles Unger’s Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation. Normally, because of that, I would shy away from writing a review this week of another biography, let alone one of another famous Virginian. Yet, somehow, it seemed timely to discuss Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.

In terms of biographies of our third President, and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, this is hardly what would be considered the most comprehensive. That distinction would probably fall to Dumas Malone for his Pulitzer Prize winning, six volume series Jefferson and His Times. That shouldn’t be taken to say though that Meacham’s work shouldn’t be read, or that he treats the topic at hand curtly or glibly. Rather it should be taken to mean that he had a different purpose in writing then Malone did. 

Fast paced, the book puts the reader right into the middle of the action. Perhaps realizing that he had just under 800 pages to tell the story that he wanted to Meacham wastes little to no time in trying to tell it. In that sense it doesn’t waste any time putting readers into the middle of the story, and the Jefferson experience itself.

More than a biography this is a character study into who Jefferson was, and the reasons why he acted in the manner that he did. Because of that readers may, at times, find themselves hungry for more, disappointed with the time that is spent on a particular aspect of his life, the infamous Sally Hemming, the Burr Conspiracy and the Embargo of 1807 only receiving little attention. It is true that the book may, at times seem like it skims over the details of his life, and the events in it. This is because it spends considerable time exploring the nature of who he was, and the sometimes inconsistent manner in which he acted. Offering insightful perspectives, he takes the man “Who stood out from the crowd without intimidating it”, who was, as one historian described, “Shy in manner, seeming cold; awkward in attitude, with little in his bearing that suggested command”, to put forward the idea of a man who was able “to bring reality and policy into the greatest possible accord with the ideal and the principled.”

Here we see the picture of a man who, by his very nature, seemed to despise confrontation, and yet who seemed to flourish in it. Though an idealist, one is given the image of Jefferson that understood the very basics of human nature, politics and power, an understanding that allowed him not only to overcome and to win, but that also allowed him to evolve beyond his mistakes, to inspire men, bring order and clarity to ideas, and eventually prevail in his vision for America. “Jefferson understood a timeless truth: that politics is a kaleidoscopic, constantly shifting, and that morning’s foe may well be the afternoon’s friend.” In this Meacham walks the reader through the world of the revolutionary statesman, that harsh political world that was ripping itself apart amidst the challenges of factionalism, economic uncertainty and foreign intrigue, and demonstrates how his unique style of leadership rose him to the forefront of his age. 

Though this book does, rightly give a lot of praise to Jefferson, it does not shy away from where he missed the mark. He was, after all, a man who espoused the principle of freedom and equality, of liberty and justice, and yet owned slaves. Meacham here points to the inherent contradiction: 

In the end Jefferson could see slavery only as tragedy. He may have believed it to be “a hideous blot,” as he wrote in September 1823, but it was not a blot he felt capable of erasing… Slavery was the rare subject where Jefferson’s sense of realism kept him from marshaling his sense of hope in the service of the cause of reform. “There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity in 1814, but that was not true. He was not willing to sacrifice his own way of life, though he characteristically left himself a rhetorical escape by introducing the subjective standard of practicability.

It is a hard, and difficult topic to approach, and yet an important one to consider if we are to be honest with ourselves and our history. 

Where this book does seem to stumble is in the fact that in most places Meacham tends to be an unapologetic Jefferson apologist. That is fine for me. I am a great admirer of our third President. Yet there were places where the author tends to allow his own bias to carry too much weight. The second term of Jefferson, for example, tends to be largely considered a bit of a failure by most historians. Recognizing that many might disagree with him, he interjects his own opinion that the moves during that were made by the President were practical, if not pragmatic, for the long term good of the country and, at least, delaying war. That tends to be a matter that would be up for debate. 

Yet, it does offer terrific discussion, and insight into the discussion of some of Jefferson’s more controversial decisions, especially as he sought to bring America onto the World Stage, taking it from backward colonies to a continental power. These assessments allow the reader to overlook the weak arguments made to justify Jefferson’s place in the election against then political foe John Adams, in a race often argued to be the dirtiest and mist divisive in American history.

I would recommend Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, it is a great book to begin a more in depth look at the life of the man. Timely, with important lessons on politics, leadership and the nature of man, the story that this book tells is alas relevant today as they where when Jefferson lived. That said I just would not expect it to make you an expert on him or how life. For that you should turn to the previously mentioned Jefferson and His Time, as well as Malone’s published lectures on his leadership style. Those are probably the most comprehensive books written on him. Regardless this is a great primer that is worth the read, and is probably the best single volume book on his life. Well written, it is definitely a page turner that puts you in the middle of the story, offering critical insights that you aren’t going to find elsewhere. Just be certain that when you delve into Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power that you do so with eyes opened to what this book is, and what you are going to get out of it.

A solid read for someone delving into the life of Jefferson, one that is well worth the praise that it has received. If you have not read this book yet I would suggest picking up a copy and adding it to your weekend read list.

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