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Book Review: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham

Continuing my presidential biography series, we come to the problematic third POTUS.


Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Random House, 2012, 759 pages



In this magnificent biography, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston brings vividly to life an extraordinary man and his remarkable times. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power gives us 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. Such is the art of power.

Thomas Jefferson hated confrontation, and yet his understanding of power and of human nature enabled him to move men and to marshal ideas, to learn from his mistakes, and to prevail. Passionate about many things - women, his family, books, science, architecture, gardens, friends, Monticello, and Paris - Jefferson loved America most, and he strove over and over again, despite fierce opposition, to realize his vision: the creation, survival, and success of popular government in America. Jon Meacham lets us see Jefferson’s world as Jefferson himself saw it, and to appreciate how Jefferson found the means to endure and win in the face of rife partisan division, economic uncertainty, and external threat. Drawing on archives in the United States, England, and France, as well as unpublished Jefferson presidential papers, Meacham presents Jefferson as the most successful political leader of the early republic, and perhaps in all of American history.

The father of the ideal of individual liberty, of the Louisiana Purchase, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and of the settling of the West, Jefferson recognized that the genius of humanity - and the genius of the new nation - lay in the possibility of progress, of discovering the undiscovered and seeking the unknown. From the writing of the Declaration of Independence to elegant dinners in Paris and in the President’s House; from political maneuverings in the boardinghouses and legislative halls of Philadelphia and New York to the infant capital on the Potomac; from his complicated life at Monticello, his breathtaking house and plantation in Virginia, to the creation of the University of Virginia, Jefferson was central to the age. Here too is the personal Jefferson, a man of appetite, sensuality, and passion.

The Jefferson story resonates today not least because he led his nation through ferocious partisanship and cultural warfare amid economic change and external threats, and also because he embodies an eternal drama, the struggle of the leadership of a nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world.




I continue my trek through presidential biographies. I felt that Lin-Manuel Miranda was rather unfair to John Adams, but he pretty much got Jefferson right.



Lin-Manuel Miranda cast Jefferson as the antagonist for much of the second arc of Hamilton. Jefferson is the Founding Father who's most fallen out of favor, not only being a slave-owner (like Washington), but actually fathering children with his slave mistress (a sin Washington was, so far as is known, never guilty of).

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson (by Rembrandt Peale, 1800)

Jon Meacham's biography of Jefferson is extremely sympathetic, but I came away from it feeling like Jefferson, for all his ideals, was not a man who stood on principles. He had heavier feet of clay than Washington. Where John Adams was quarrelsome and acerbic but honest, Thomas Jefferson was suave, diplomatic, conflict-averse, and duplicitous. Meacham goes out of his way to portray Jefferson as a "man of his time." And yet, often his words sound like apologetics for a man who was, frankly, a hypocrite. Often, his excuses for Jefferson's backtracking are so generic as to apply to any politician.


As much as Jefferson, loved France residence abroad gave him greater appreciation for his own nation. He was a tireless advocate for things American while abroad, and a promoter of things European while at home. Moving between two worlds, translating the best of the old into the new and explaining the benefits of the new to the old, he created a role for himself as both intermediary and arbiter.


Unlike his fellow Virginian Washington, who never left North America, Jefferson spent time in France and England. He didn't fight in the Revolutionary War; he was cajoling the French for aid. He would be a lifelong Francophile and mistrustful of Britain, one of his many defining conflicts with Alexander Hamilton. Their real conflict, however, as colorfully portrayed in Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical, was Hamilton's Federalism vs. Jefferson's Democratic Republicanism. Hamilton wanted a strong national government, a central bank, the power to tax, a standing army. Jefferson opposed all of these things... until he took office. Washington tried to stay impartial, but he was a Federalist at heart, so Jefferson lost. As Washington's Secretary of State, Jefferson grew increasingly frustrated and disenchanted with the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Secretary of the Treasury.

He eventually resigned and went back to Monticello, but not for long. In 1800, he ran for President against John Adams, and lost. But under the rules of the time, that meant he became Vice President under his opponent.

John Adams was a Federalist, like Washington. He tried to maintain relations with Jefferson (they had been friends since before they spent time together as American ambassadors in Europe), but they disagreed over too much politically, and Jefferson ended up being shut out completely during Adams' administration, never consulted or asked to contribute anything.

John Adams was not a very popular president, so when Jefferson ran against him again in 1804, he won. And thus began the reign of Jefferson.


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.


During Jefferson's presidency, the United States would expand tremendously in size, and the power of the presidency would likewise expand. Jefferson opposed a strong federal government until he was in charge. He was ever-fearful of an imperial president, until he became president. The Federalists feared that Jefferson would sweep away everything they had built in the past twelve years. Instead, for all his proto-libertarian Republicanism, Jefferson did very little to undo the work of his predecessors, and instead, expanded federal power.

Jefferson Nickel

Meacham describes this as Jefferson being canny and pragmatic, realizing that idealism had to give way to realism. But really, it was Jefferson doing what Jefferson did: backing away from his principles when they were inconvenient.

The Louisiana Purchase was of questionable Constitutionality. Jefferson himself wasn't sure whether he had the authority to make the purchase without Congress's approval. But he went ahead and did it. In retrospect, of course, we know it was one of his greatest accomplishments, not only because it increased the size of the U.S., but because it was a great bargain with France, with whom the U.S. had fought a "quasi-war." In one stroke, Jefferson enlarged the country and removed a potential adversary from our shores. But it was very clearly against his Republican principles, and he'd have been outraged had Washington or Adams presumed to expand their power so greatly without Congressional say-so.

This is evident again and again in Meacham's biography. Jefferson had high ideals, which he was always willing to abandon in favor of pragmatism. More than once, there is an episode of Jefferson being two-faced to friends or allies, which he considered merely being diplomatic, or avoiding unnecessary conflict, but he was in fact just being a weasel who didn't like confrontation.

And nowhere was this more evident than in his lifelong relationship with slavery.

Jefferson always understood slavery to be evil. He said so repeatedly. He made a halfhearted attempt to suggest it should be abolished in the Bill of Rights. He was firmly rebuffed, and never made any attempt to end slavery again. He continued to insist that slavery could not endure, but he also believed that whites and blacks were two "separate nations" who could not coexist. He believed that eventually, the only peaceful solution would be deporting all the slaves back to Africa.

Jefferson wrestled with the cognitive dissonance of being a slave owner whose entire life was dependent on slaves while claiming to be against slavery. This was a square George Washington was never really able to circle either, but Washington at least freed his slaves after his death — Jefferson had children with them.

Sally Hemings

This is one of many artistic renderings one can find of Sally Hemings, but the truth is, we don't really know what she looked like. She was half-white — in fact, she was actually the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson's late wife, Martha. She was described as fair-skinned, and generally assumed to have been quite pretty. Several of her children apparently passed for white after she and Jefferson died. But she spent her entire life a slave.

If there is one thing that can be said in Jefferson's defense, it's that so far as we know, he didn't start banging Sally while his wife was alive. Jefferson never remarried (his dying wife had made him promise not to, probably because she didn't want her daughters to suffer under a stepmother as she had). But they were definitely having relations when she came to France, as a teenager, to be his daughter's nanny. She actually negotiated privileges with Jefferson while in France; she could have sued for emancipation, as slavery was illegal in France. She agreed to go back to Virginia with him, in exchange for "exceptional liberties," and the promise that their children would be freed when they turned 21.

Thus began a debate that has roiled Jefferson historians for centuries: what sort of "relationship" did they have? In the modern era, it's impossible to regard a slave-slave owner relationship as being truly consensual. But what motivated Sally to go back to Virginia with Jefferson to become a slave again, where she would eventually have at least six children with him? (Jefferson did keep his word and free those who lived to adulthood.) Did she genuinely love him, or was she just making the best bargain she could in her situation?

We really don't know. We don't have any writings by Hemings or even second-hand accounts. Jefferson himself refused to ever comment on the matter. Everything is supposition and extrapolation, and until DNA tests were done on their descendants in the 1990s, there were even historians who claimed that there was no proof they really did have a relationship. Despite the fact that not only was it evidently an open secret at the time, but it blew up into a public scandal during Jefferson's presidency.

Cartoon of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson


It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself. The boy is ten or twelve years of age. His mother went to France in the same vessel with Mr. Jefferson and his two daughters. The delicacy of this arrangement must strike every person of common sensibility. What a sublime pattern for an American ambassador to place before the eyes of two young ladies!


It was a hit piece by a former friend named James Callendar that brought the matter out into the public. It severely damaged Jefferson's already-strained friendship with John and Abigail Adams. Yet Sally remained at Monticello until she died, nine years after Jefferson did. He didn't even free her in his will.

Jefferson Memorial

Perhaps it's not fair that this one thing should erase Jefferson's legacy. He did so much, from writing the Declaration of Independence to putting the United States on a path to becoming a major power, founding the University of Virginia, and setting down many of the principles patriots quote to this day as the quintessence of American liberty. He was an intellectual, keenly interested in books and science, and his writings were extensive. He was intelligent, interesting, and likeable.

But he was also very much a "man of his time," and that means he was a Virginian slaveholder who took his privileges and prerogatives for granted. He lived beyond his means and was heavily in debt when he died. He sensed monarchism in all his political opponents, including Washington and Adams, yet during his own presidency, he was criticized for being so monarchical that his own Republican party started accusing him of being as bad as the Federalists. He was supportive of the French Revolution.


What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.


After he left the White House, he resumed writing to his old friend and political foe, John Adams, for many years. The two of them would die hours apart. Lying on his deathbed for days, Jefferson forced himself to live until July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, through sheer force of will.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power was a good history of Jefferson's political career and description of his political philosophy. As Meacham tells us, it's not meant to be a complete biography of his life and times and so does not go too deeply into his childhood and personal relationships. Thus we get a good sense of Jefferson the politician, and how and why he came to think the way he did, but outside of politics, not as strong a sense of Jefferson the man. Because of this, but also because of Meacham's clear adoration of his subject, I thought it was quite good, but not quite up to the standard set by Ron Chernow's biography of George Washington or David McCullough's biography of John Adams, both of which are thorough, even-handed, and excellent biographies.





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