Jon Meacham: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
New Jefferson biography fails to examine founding father’s use of power
Published: January 2, 2013
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Of the 11 presidents elected between John Adams and Abraham Lincoln, all but three hailed from Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic party. Of the three, two would die within months of their inauguration—William Henry Harrison, after one month; Zachary Taylor, after 16—and the other would serve one quiet term, unable to pass even a sliver of his agenda. When he left the presidency in 1877, Ulysses S. Grant became the first non-Democrat to serve two full terms since George Washington had completed the task 80 years earlier.
America’s first century truly was the Age of Jefferson.
The sage of Monticello was not only able to handpick his successor (James Madison), he was able to handpick Madison’s successor (James Monroe). By the time Monroe ran for re-election—the only uncontested presidential election since Washington—the Federalists, Washington’s party, were no more. With equal parts good policy, sound governance, luck, political thuggery, and Three-Fifths Compromise, Jefferson and his Democratic Party had destroyed the opposition.
The Federalists were in good company: The graveyard was full of men who had crossed Jefferson’s path. Hamilton and James Callender were murdered and dead, respectively; Aaron Burr in exile; John Adams in forced retirement; Samuel Chase a shattered shell of a man; and the great financier of the revolution, Robert Morris, broke and friendless. Perhaps John Marshall stands alone as the only Jefferson antagonist to survive unscathed.
The subtitle of Jon Meacham’s new book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, seems to promise an exploration of how our physiocrat president, so constitutionally and temperamentally unfit for the rough-and-tumble politics of his age, managed to enforce his will so supremely over it. As Meacham points out, “Even in his own day, Jefferson faced the seemingly contradictory charges that he was at once an unrealistic philosopher and a scheming political creature.”
Ultimately, though, Meacham fails his subtitle because the book fails to engage Jefferson as a nuts-and-bolts powerbroker. What emerges instead is a great—if not excellent—one-volume biography of America’s third president.
Jefferson’s personal and public story is perhaps the best microcosm of the deep contradictions at the core of American history. Blessed by the circumstance of his birth as a slave-owning plantation master, Jefferson was free to explore the sciences of the Enlightenment with what ever energies he could muster. What was created through this collision of circumstance, injustice, and the throes of the times was a man who, within a single life, managed to simultaneously embody all that is great and all that is terrible about America.
It is fitting, then, that it was Jefferson who was summoned to bring together humanity’s greatest thinkers on liberty and forge from them the new country’s core principle: that all men are created equal. That such a distillation should fall from the lips of an owner of humans makes Jefferson more quintessentially American, not less so.
Other biographers have used this core Jeffersonian/American paradox as a way to address the puzzle at the center of both Jefferson the leader and Jefferson the man. Meacham instead weaves the inconsistencies together, placing them under a larger frame of Jefferson as president above party, a self-aware product of his time, possessed of an agrarian political slant, but no ideologue. In Meacham’s book, we find Jefferson recast as the 19th century’s most pragmatic leader. Here, Jefferson reads more like a tragic narrator than the aloof sage, calculating party boss, or daydreaming boob at the center of recent books on Jefferson.
The distinction is an important one and is key to Meacham’s characterization. The former Jefferson is some parts salesman and knucklehead, conveniently straying from principle through ignorance and intrigue; the latter is a wise statesmen, guided by principle, but flexible and creative, a man who “did what had to be done to preserve the possibility of republicanism and progress.” Other creatures of the Enlightenment experimented in medicine, the sciences, mechanics, and agriculture. Though he dabbled in all, for Jefferson, the real science was political systems. These were the ultimate tools to “exert some power over the affairs of the world.”
If the title of Meacham’s book had been “Thomas Jefferson: A Biography,” it would have been an unquestioned success. Haunting images and episodes go far to construct a clear and intimate Jefferson: watching Patrick Henry utter treason against the king; the earthquake-related drowning of Jefferson’s disabled sister; the newly appointed secretary of state happening upon a suicide victim in the woods, “the center of the head entirely laid bare.” Throughout, a bleak pre-industrial America lurks always at the periphery, overflowing with braggarts and duelists, secessionist plots and murders by poison. But a study on the art of power it is not, and sadly, we never do get a satisfying exploration of Jefferson’s masterful 1800 campaign, the swashbuckling congressional feats he engineered from the backrooms of the White House, or the take-no-prisoners political tactics he employed to bury the Federalist party once and for all.
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