January 21, 2018

Review | Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

It took me a long time to begin to like Jon Meacham’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.  As I finished it, however, I found myself a reluctant admirer, appreciative of Meacham’s style and of the biography, not to mention of the man.

Meacham is the author of two previous books on American presidents, winning the Pulitzer prize for his look at Andrew Jackson in American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. With The Art of Power he delves into the life of one of the most beloved of founding fathers. As he notes in the closing pages of the epilogue, Jefferson has been evoked by more recent American presidents and political figures on both sides of the spectrum, proving to be “an inspiration for radically different understandings of government and culture.” This seems to me, and Meacham endorses the idea, to be due to Jefferson’s versatility in his lifetime. Rather than an ideologue bound to one philosophy, Jefferson was a pragmatic politician, and while he believed in the principles of freedom he espoused in the words he penned in the Declaration of Independence, the means he chose to approach and uphold those principles changed depending on his position.

As they say, where you stand depends on where you sit and examples from Jefferson’s life are plentiful.

As a member of the opposition party and vice president during the Adams Administration, Jefferson vigorously opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts as a blot on the liberty and freedom promised by the Bill of Rights. And yet, as President, he did not fully wipe out the effects of those First Amendment inhibiting laws. He allowed those punished under the law to be set free, but did not immediately return the fines that had been levied from them.

During this same time as vice president, Jefferson wrote the Kentucky resolution (James Madison wrote the Virginia resolution of the same time) in which he argued, through the proxy of the Kentucky legislature, that the Alien and Sedition were unconstitutional and that the states held the right, and the duty, to declare any acts of Congress that were not authorized by the constitution unconstitutional. It was a divisive argument from the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, says Meacham, coming from the “voice of the man who believed secession fatal to America instead of the man who wrote about the primacy of states’ rights.”

Later, as president, Jefferson–the man who had trumpeted the rights of states over the act of the national legislature–acted with executive authority outside of the bounds then available to him, sending military expeditions against the Barbary states and accomplishing the Louisiana Purchase, all without Congressional approval.

[…]Jefferson was to Washington and Adams what Dwight Eisenhower was to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman: a president who reformed but essentially ratified an existing course of government.

Jefferson wasn’t so interested in doggedly following the rules and norms of his ideology as he was in, for lack of a better way to put it, finding what worked and finding a way to do it. For man whose life was a study in contrasts (or hypocrisy, depending on your view), pragmatism was necessary. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, yet his earliest memory was of a slave handing him down on pillow to ride in a carriage and he never freed the slaves that he owned, even in death. He trumpeted states’ rights, but expanded the scope of the federal government when the opportunity was his. He loved his family dearly, but had no qualms pursuing the married woman of another man and possibly destroying hers.

Indeed, this comes to the thesis of Meacham’s book, less a biography than a portrait: “Jefferson hungered for greatness,” and he welded power–usually through written word–to obtain it. A benevolent welder of what power he held, Jefferson’s overriding description is that of a Renaissance man with boundless interests and whose overriding concern was the “fate of democratic republicanism in America,” for to his end he worried about the return of monarchical government, an influence that Meacham found as influential on Jefferson’s thinking as the Cold War was on American Presidents from Truman to George H.W. Bush.

The short-comings of Meacham’s biography are few, and he does not seem interested in hiding them. Setting out to restore Jefferson’s image, somewhat tarnished in recent years by revelations of his sexual relationship with Sally Hemings and acclaimed biographies of Jefferson’s rivals (Hamilton, Adams, and Washington, especially) in recent years, Meacham writes with more than a little hero-worship, arguing that while there have been many great presidents, none would be as interesting to spend time with as Jefferson, whose career touched on far wider a range than did his contemporary political rivals, or even of other politicians since. Indeed, he is persuasive, and it’s a fascinating picture that is difficult to dismiss. Yes, Jefferson is a slave owner, a pragmatic politician, and an occasional philanderer. But he is also a man who at his heart believed in the justice and goodness of man and who to his last day would welcome the friendship of any man who would accept his hand in fellowship.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is an excellent read, and Jon Meacham has written a fascinating and shining portrait of our third president and the lifetime he spent learning to weld, and then using, power.

[Previously posted at AttackoftheBooks.com]



About Daniel Burton

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas. He is active on social media, Republican politics, and has been named to PoliticIt’s list of the “Top-50 Utah Political Opinion Leaders” on Twitter. You can reach him directly at dan.burton@gmail.com

%d bloggers like this: