Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham

Four stars

Seeking to continue my trek to better understand the birth of America and its Founding Fathers, I tackled Meacham’s biography on Thomas Jefferson. Choosing to infuse literary breath into one of the key actors in much of the early creation of the state and its constitutional foundations, Meacham not only offers an over-arching narrative, but delves into the corners of Jefferson’s life, allowing the reader to have a better and well-rounded approach to this key historical figure. While Meacham offers Jefferson’s life through nine lenses, dividing his life into smaller and more digestible portions, three significant themes emerge as central arcs to better depict Jefferson’s life. A synthesis of the text sees Jefferson as a committed man, a stalwart politician, and a sharp statesman. These themes emerge throughout the text, even with the firm chronological flow of Meacham’s tome. A biography worthy of examination for the reader looking to better understand Jefferson and the rumours swirling around his earlier historical depictions.

That Jefferson is a man committed to all he undertakes cannot be denied, based on Meacham’s text. The biography moves forward to show that Jefferson, who came from a well established family, grew up with a strong thirst for knowledge. Jefferson always sought to open his mind to new ideas and to learn from whomever he could. He read and spoke as one would imagine a Greek thinker might have done 2 millennia earlier, always asking questions and building his ideas on those who influenced his life. From there, Jefferson became a man not only of knowledge, but one who dabbled in many areas: literature, politics, science, innovation, and even architecture. His passions extended outside of the esoteric, finding his greatest love in women. While Meacham hints at Jefferson’s fondness for the opposite sex, there is little to deter the reader from feeling that Martha Wayles was the love of his young life. Their marriage, a decade long, was filled with passion and six children, though few survived. Jefferson took her death personally and used his depression to fuel his aforementioned passions. While rumours around his involvement with Sally Hemings, Meacham handles it with the greatest aplomb, addressing it not as a tabloid scandal but presenting its inevitable occurrence. Whether the Jefferson-Hemings interaction was based on an amorous connection or strictly a power relationship cannot be definitively known, though Meacham does mention reports of the strong physical resemblance of Hemings’ children to Jefferson and how his time on his estate matched with the pregnancies. This did not mar Jefferson’s life or the high regard in which he was seen. His personal life and interests were strongly supported by Meacham throughout the tome, including his final years at the Monticello estate, where a detailed architectural and design discussion ensues. Jefferson’s connection to his personal beliefs are well-rooted in his final years, as he sought to better understand the emancipation movement and the American move towards the abolition of slavery. Meacham argues throughout the tome that Jefferson was a man like no other, with his own interests that fuelled his mind to the bitter end.

Born in Virginia at a time of strong political sentiment and eventual rebellious sentiments towards the British, it is no wonder that Jefferson found himself at the centre of the controversies in his political life. While he served in the House of Burgesses, where another Virginian named Washington made his mark, Jefferson began to hone his political skills and formulated his deeply-rooted beliefs. Meacham argues that Jefferson’s passion with the written word acted to propel the revolutionary movement forward as he helped to create the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence and penned the final document himself. This authorship saw him gain much favour within the Colonies, but he became a hunted man by the British Red Coats. His political life resurrected itself after the War of Independence when he headed to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress, but soon crossed the Atlantic to work for the new America in Paris. Jefferson took that time to critique the constitutional document presented by the Congress and added his concerns. Jefferson saw the intricacies of the new America and sought to individualise it from the British influence so prominent in the Colonies. Jefferson’s political side reared its head again after he accepted a position in Washington’s Cabinet at Secretary of State, but became more powerful upon his departure from that body. As Jefferson saw himself as a Democratic Republican (not the oxymoronic phrase it would have today), he realised that there was a need to stand for an independent-minded form of government in America that did not promote a monarchy of some sort, as promoted by the Federalists. He battled the likes of John Adams on this point and, as Meacham illustrates, sought to ensure that the shackles of British oppression did not seep back in with the appearance of a crowned or hereditary monarch in the collective colonial unit. Meacham shows Jefferson’s passion for political ideals throughout the narrative and promotes the importance of the first political schism and party politics in 1796. Meacham depicts Jefferson’s political knowledge on numerous occasions throughout the tome, leaving no doubt about his political importance in early America.

The image of strong statesman seems a foregone conclusion when examining Jefferson’s political acumen, though the terms differ greatly. In his time as Secretary of State, Jefferson sought to work effectively with the European allies that helped secure a colonial victory, while also mending fences with the British. Jefferson utilised some of his time in the position to build strong ties and promote the new America, while also ensuring that this new state did not fall prey to those wishing to strike on a weakened and somewhat scattered colonial collective. Meacham shows that Jefferson’s ideas became his ideals, from which he would not stray. This left him no choice but to leave the role when the Federalists rooted their monarch-centric views within Washington’s Cabinet and Jefferson found himself at odds with the likes of John Adams. However, he hoped to push his republican ideas from the outside and eventually in the vice-presidential role, which clashed thoroughly with the aforementioned Adams. It was this that fuelled the great election of 1800, pitting Federalists against the Republican ideals on which Jefferson stumped so heavily. This is also the election that required a deadlock breaking in the House of Representatives, as Meacham depicts both in the preface and with more detail within the tome, where discussion of bribery and promises begat the final sway needed to secure victory. Meacham illustrates that Jefferson sought to push a hands-off approach to the state by positing that there need be time for Americans to find their niche. Jefferson scaled back the military and navy as well, feeling that the revolutionary times were past. Meacham discusses the great embargo with Britain, after a naval clash, and how the president sought to keep war off the table, no matter the public outcry for its use. All this pales in Meacham’s great argument surrounding the height of Jefferson’s statesman role; the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon. While this might seem a little awkward, discussing land as the highlight of a presidential career, Meacham presents it in such a way as to show how Jefferson used the new constitution to develop its Living Tree doctrine (even though the phrase had not yet been coined in Britain). The treaty for obtaining the land had to be ratified in the Senate, but Jefferson went ahead and made the arrangements. This constitutional see-saw battle helped hone the precedent of executive decision-making and legislative agreement. It happens all the time with multinational treaties and was, as the history buff will remember, the downfall of Wilson’s League of Nations. Meacham utilises this example to show how Jefferson could run an effective state, while not dictating his preconceived notions to ensure success. Perhaps it was this that helped solidify the republican movement and helps Meacham argue the position so effectively.

It is quite difficult not to play a comparison game when the reader has delved into numerous biographies about actors whose lives intertwined. Having read McCullough’s John Adams and Chernow’s Washington, the comparisons rise unsteadily to the surface. Length is the first and greatest discrepancy here. Applause to Meacham for succinctly laying out the life and times of Jefferson, while highlighting many important aspects. While Meacham admits he had not sought to write a life and times of the third president, such was the final project, which skims over many of the areas that were of greatest importance. I would have hoped for more time on the Continental Congress and creation of the constitutional documents, for these were areas of greatest importance to Jefferson in years to come. I would also have loved a further fleshing out of the personal life of Jefferson during his ‘down years’ and not brief linkages. Had I not read the other two biographies, I would likely not be making these comments, but I cannot unread what I had put in front of me and, like life in general, I bring these experiences to the forefront as I delve deeper in my understanding of the political and historical actors who shaped the world. That being said, Meacham is a wonderful wordsmith and weaves a wonderful tale from start to finish. A plethora of sources and first-hand accounts pepper the text and bring the story to life in ways that few could do with such ease.

One additional theme from the biography comes from its epilogue and author’s note. Meacham argues that while Jefferson’s views were his own, he could garner much support from those around him, both at the time and in the decades (centuries) to come. Washington and Adams had the greatest respect for the man, as did the likes of Lincoln, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan. Jefferson’s views could appeal to those across the political spectrum, for they were rooted not in strict ideology, but in nation building and sovereignty. While America had its share of ups and downs, these political giants all turned to Jefferson’s Declaration and subsequent republican sentiments to shape the country in the 21st century. For this, his legacy parallels Washington, though for different reasons.

Kudos, Mr. Meacham for this wonderful biographical piece. Thomas Jefferson came to life in this depiction and for that you deserve the greatest of praise. I look forward to examining more of your work at a future time.