Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham's biography of the third US President argues that Jefferson sought power and used it to his advantage, even as he claimed not to do so. While this could be said of virtually everyone who became President, in Jefferson's case it is a little surprising because he has such an aura of being a philosopher-sage, as opposed to simply a politician. Jefferson definitely had literary talents, he pursued scientific knowledge, and he had unique philosophical views, but he was more of a politician than most people probably think.
In Meacham's account, he devoted his life to the principle of democratic republicanism, as opposed to monarchy, and viewed many political questions through the prism of defending the American experiment against the threat of monarchy or sympathizers of monarchy.

Jefferson's life is a progression from the plantation life of his father's family to the House of Burgesses in Virginia, then to the Governorship of Virginia, then to the Continental Congress, where he drafted the Declaration of Independence, then to a diplomatic mission to France. From there, he became Secretary of State under George Washington, the Vice President under John Adams, and the President. Meacham treats the progression of Jefferson's life toward power as a kind of given -- he was born into privilege as the son of a landowner and slaveholder in Virginia, although he also inherited debts from his father -- and the book offers little explanation of the ways in which Jefferson rose to greatness, other than an innate brilliance. There are mentions of important teachers in Jefferson's life and turns of fate that led him to be in the right place at the right time, but it all seems to fit a little too neatly in Meacham's formulation of his life. The only troublesome step in the progression is the Governorship of Virginia, which Jefferson may have been unsuited for and for which he faced charges of cowardice because he had to flee from the capital when British troops advanced on it during the Revolutionary War.

Also, slavery plays a complicated role in the account, but Meacham does not plumb the psychological depths of Jefferson's life for signs of guilt over the institution, perhaps because Jefferson seems to have felt little guilt about slavery. Jefferson did not go as far as some of his contemporaries in coming to view slavery as an evil that needed to be eradicated -- after fathering several children with the slave Sally Hemings, he freed only Hemingses when he died -- though he did acknowledge it as an evil. His "solution" to slavery was repatriation of African slaves in Africa or perhaps a Caribbean island, and as Meacham says, he could not imagine a world in which whites and blacks coexisted as equals. Meacham's treatment of slavery is pretty balanced -- he does not give Jefferson a pass on the moral question of how a man who believed in the equality of "all men" could live within and support such an unjust system, yet he also does not unfairly pass judgment as a 21st century historian on an 18th century subject.

The portrait of Jefferson that Meacham offers compels readers to re-imagine Jefferson as a practical politician, while also giving insight into the ways in which his personality suited him well to the times in which he lived. His description of Jefferson's time as President as a definite success, in particular, stands out as one example of this compelling vision. The highlights of Jefferson's Presidency -- the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Louisiana Purchase, among others -- come through as significant, historical achievements. The description of Jefferson's democratizing influence on the culture of the Presidency also comes through, and it is Meacham's skill as a biographer that allows readers to see how both style and substance worked together to create a powerful Presidency.
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