A popular biography of such a well-trod subject as Thomas
Jefferson contained in a single, not overly long, volume will
leave things out. And in this case, the author makes no pretense to
new scholarship. But the approach has advantages if well executed.
Jon Meacham pulls it off neatly in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of
Power, focusing on what matters, on the overriding issues and events
as well as telling trivia. He captures who Jefferson was, not just
as a statesman but as a man.
By the end of the book, as the 83-year-old Founding Father
struggles to survive until the Fourth of July, 1826, the 50th
anniversary of his masterful Declaration, the reader is likely to
feel as if he is losing a dear friend. Jefferson just makes it,
dying on that fateful day. I warn you, there may be tears.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning author honored for a similar treatment
of Andrew Jackson, Meacham proclaims his subject the most successful
political figure of his time. He might have gone further, tagging
him as the most important political figure in our history. Beyond
his contributions to the Revolution and to America before his defeat
of President John Adams in the election of 1800, President Jefferson
showed masterfully that the other party could take over and run the
country for two terms change some things, keep others the same
without the world going to rack and ruin. In brave new democratic
experiments, the first such transfer of power is always the
It was a time of unusual partisanship. George Washington was
appalled by it. Todays squabbles are halcyon by comparison: editors
were jailed along with a Congressman for speaking their minds;
Jeffersons Vice President was under indictment for murdering
Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist opponent, in a duel; and secession
(Northern) was openly contemplated.
Jeffersons Republicans, ancestors of todays Democratic Party,
believed that the Federalists secretly favored the return of British
rule or monarchy in some form. Hamilton and his fellow travelers
charged Jefferson with fomenting a Mobocracy.
Yet Jefferson ruled and America survived; indeed, it thrived. He
did it with reason and the written word (he was a poor orator), and
harvested votes with his charm rather than arm-twisting. Sworn
political enemies almost always came away from encounters with this
accomplished, affable man with at least grudging respect.
From 1801 to 1809 America would double in size, stay out of a war
with Britain, become more fiscally and militarily sound, and get to
know its continent better thanks to Lewis and Clark as well as to
its leaders inquisitive nature. It was hard to argue with those
outcomes, and most Americans didnt. They elected Jefferson and
Jeffersonians for decades to come: Madison, Monroe, and Jackson.
Of course, there were non-political sides to this complex man,
some quite engaging and surprising. He would get up every morning
and plunge his feet into a bucket of cold water. …