I've read a couple books on Thomas Jefferson in the past. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History to name a couple. Up until this newest book by Jon Meacham, I though that the essential character of Jefferson was essentially unknowable, a man of contradictions and hiddenness. Yet, Meacham manages, in his large but fascinating and quick read, to illuminate Jefferson through a new pair of eyes: that of his leadership. In doing so, we meet a new Jefferson, sometimes wily, always intelligent, always forward thinking.
Jon Meacham wrote one of my favorite books, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, which I've read at least twice and listened to on my iPod while running each summer. Meacham has a way of writing his history that manages to avoid the endless onslaught of names and trivial facts, and truly centers on the person. By doing so, he creates a momentum in his writing that's compelling and hard to put down.
Meacham's unique spin on Jefferson (if spin is the right word .... more of a focus) is how he developed his leadership and vision for America. This focus causes Meacham to rush in his writing through Jefferson's early years (before you know it, he's attending the second Continental Congress) and getting him to the national stage as quickly as possible, which was refreshening and never abrupt. He paints some familiar portraits of Jefferson, that of a hard working student in Williamsburg, a devoted husband (before being a bit of a scalawag in the wooing of women), and that of a slave owner who knew his status was wrong and failed to do anything about it.
Because of this, Jefferson comes alive in his pages. While not overtly revelatory, the book manages to be revelatory because you feel, after reading it, that you know better this sphinx of a man. The challenge of any historian is trying to make a subject that many people have written about new; authors of Washington and Lincoln biographies suffer the same fate. Because of the strength of Meacham's writing style, though, and the speed in which you can devour the pages, Jefferson is illuminated.
If you haven't read any book on Jefferson, this should be your initial entry into his world. It will be a journey, much like that of Jefferson and his wife as they traveled up the steep mountain of Monticello after they were married, which promises to bring much joy and excitement as you discover this man. And for those of you, like myself, who know a little of his story, it's still well worth your time.
Throughout our history Presidents as politically diverse as Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Kennedy and Reagan have enthusiastically embraced the legacy of their predecessor, Thomas Jefferson. Recent scholarship on the Founding generation, however, has unfairly diminished Jefferson in Jon Meacham's view. Biographies of Washington, Adams and Hamilton have all tended to reduce Jefferson to the role of an intriguer lurking in the background, a foil for Hamilton and Adams in particular. In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Meacham reclaims Jefferson's prominence in setting America on her course, asserting that most of the Presidents who served between 1800 and 1840 were Jeffersonians, and holds Jefferson up as a role model for today's politicians struggling to reconcile political idealism with the realism needed to traverse the rough waters of democratic politics.
The Art of Power is a very well written narrative and moves at a fast paced with chapters generally ranging from 10-15 pages. While Meacham clearly admires Jefferson, though, he is able to acknowledge Jefferson's failures and contradictions as well. However, there are several shortcomings that detracted from my enjoyment of the Art of Power.
First, while The Art of Power covers Jefferson's personal and political lives thoroughly, Meacham appears to have been poorly served by certain curious editorial choices. His summation of Jefferson's legacy appears in the Author's Note, and much of the detail necessary to inform the reader of vital details is contained in the nearly 200 pages of end notes. For example the text makes it appear as if there is no question whatsoever regarding Jefferson's paternity of his slave's children. Only in the footnotes will the reader learn of the controversy and evidence supporting both Meacham's conclusion and other possibilities. The complexities involved in other details of the Jefferson story sometimes also seem slighted in order to ensure the narrative pace remains speedy.
Next, despite his theme of a politician who mastered the art of power to successfully reconcile philosophy with practicality Meacham treads lightly on Jefferson's philosophy (one of very few omissions in his lengthy bibliography, tellingly, is Jean Yarborough's study of Jefferson's political and moral philosophy). This is a shame because his portrait of a Jefferson that does not fit the libertarian mold is provocative and interesting. Meacham's Jefferson is less antipathetic to large government, federal and executive power and commerce than is commonly understood today, but Meacham does little to explore further Jefferson's thinking on these and other matters, nor does he attempt any explanation of why the Jefferson of common perception does not fit Meacham's own reading, which would have been very interesting to me. His is a Jefferson more of action than thought.
Readers looking for a high readable introduction to the political events of Jefferson's time or personal life will enjoy this work, and it seems to fill the need for a good medium sized Jefferson biography to fill the gap between R.B. Bernstein's very perceptive short study and Merrill Peterson's 1,000 page tome. Those seeking a more rounded treatment of all Jefferson's facets may find themselves disappointed, however. Similarly, readers looking for a more robust treatment of the period may wish to utilize Meacham's exhaustive bibliography for further reading.
I'll admit to being a Jefferson fan. His vision is what led me to UVa, and his depth and breadth of knowledge and experience still astounds me. Truly a renaissance man who seemed to master most of what he attempted - languages, science, music, politics, and a man of stark contradictions. A man who owned slaves and yet campaigned to free them. A man who enjoyed political power but despised face to face confrontations. This book captures this man, and I think does an excellent job developing a focal point to use to understand Jefferson, his contributions and his flaws.
Meacham uses one "prism" to evaluate Jefferson's life - the acquisition and use of power to achieve Jefferson's vision and aims. While this is nominally a biography, the depth of the book lies in examining how and when Jefferson acquired and used power to achieve his aims. While I had hoped to read more about the University of Virginia, I knew the book wouldn't spend much time on it, and it didn't. The vast majority of the book is spent examining the unfolding disagreement between the Federalists, primarily in New England, who sought closer relationship with England and rule by the privileged and the few, and the Democrats, primarily in the Mid-Atlantic and South, who worked for individual democracy. It came as a surprise to me to learn that several times the Northeastern states contemplated secession over the style of government. This is little reported in US history.
Jefferson felt that the Revolution was fought to free the Americans to pursue individual freedoms, individual liberty which could only result from participative democracy. Many of the Federalists believed that the average citizen could not participate in government effectively and wanted a privileged ruling class. The battles fought during the end of Washington's presidency and John Adam's presidency were over this issue. When Jefferson won the presidency he used "Hamiltonian means to Jeffersonian ends" to quote the author. Jefferson actually strengthened the office of the presidency through the acquisition of Louisiana and many other actions that true "democrats" of his time felt left more power in the state than necessary. But, of the two visions - Federalist or Democratic - Jefferson clearly won and influenced the politics of the country for another half century. Many of his counterparts or followers became president (Madison, Monroe, Jackson) and this democratic vision defined the country at least until the Civil War.
Other reviewers have written about the gaps in the biography - not enough about Jefferson's slave holdings, not enough about his education and early childhood, not enough about his development of UVa. But those are incidental to the book Meacham set out to write. While they are part of Jefferson's life, they are not necessarily about his acquisition and use of political power to achieve his vision. When looked at in this context, the book is well-researched and very complete.
The one item that's missing for me is the "why" - why Jefferson, a relatively wealthy man, a slave holder, an admirer of French and the aristocracy over the English - would come to champion individual liberty and democracy. Yes, he was influenced by Hume, Locke and others, but that still doesn't explain the flash of insight that became such a compelling cause. Jefferson was surrounded by people who constantly failed - several sons and sons-in-law who were drunkards, bankrupts. He himself was a terrible manager of money. Yet he felt certain that the best government was the one that allows everyone, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, to participate in and to choose their leaders. What did he see, what did he believe about individual rights, freedom and the common good that led him to believe this English "rabble" could form a better government? Where those beliefs come from is still a bit of a mystery. Just as well, because he's been called a Sphinx, and often held contradictory beliefs. Perhaps we'll never really know what drove him, but The Art of Power goes a long way to explaining what he did and why he did what he did in the interest of his vision and the use of power.
I'm not a huge fan of the big popular biographies of notable Americans that seem to appear all the time. Not that there's anything wrong with them, really. Some are quite good. It's just that the authors of these books tend to try too hard to write with flair and try too hard to say something profound and meaningful about their subjects, and those attempts usually fall flat, resulting in boring, clichéd prose. Meacham's attempts have fallen flat. In addition to other stylistic issues, he leans too heavily on the passive voice, and he breaks down his narrative into sections as short as a couple of paragraphs, something he might've picked up in his years of magazine writing and uses in other books, to the same choppy effect.
Furthermore, a few years' study of a man and period just can't produce the results of someone who spends decades immersed in the study of that man and period. The former is likely to have something like this to say: "An eldest son in the Virginia of his time grew up expecting to lead--and to be followed. Thomas Jefferson came of age with the confidence that controlling the destinies of others was the most natural thing in the world." This is history for middle-schoolers. It misses all the nuance of how society, including primogeniture, was changing in the mid-1700s. Or he'll say something like this: "The first half of the eighteenth century was a thrilling time to be young, white, male, wealthy, and Virginian." More history for middle-schoolers.
Meacham covers the familiar contours of Jefferson's life just fine but adds little to our understanding of the man. If you like your history served up by a talking head whose specialty is pseudoprofound bromides about American history and politics, then this is your book. If not, then you're better off with Merrill Peterson, Dumas Malone, or even Joseph Ellis, none of whom is improved on here.
on December 9, 2012
I found this book a bit disappointing due to its lack of depth and choppy writing style. Whereas many good biographies discuss events and provide commentary to demonstrate how those events illuminate a broader theme, this book just reports events, sometimes at breakneck speed. To be fair, Meacham tried to fit an entire life into 500 pages which is a formidable task; but his choices of which subjects to breeze through are often confusing. For example, Meacham devotes 2 entire pages to republish a love letter authored by Jefferson, but discusses the landmark Supreme Court case Marbury vs. Madison in only a paragraph. This a curious decision for a book whose subtitle is "The Art of Power."
The writing style is also very abrupt. Meacham (or his publisher) uses white space and large capital letters to signify a change in subject, and these come all too frequently. On page 340 for instance, there are three such shifts in focus. This means many topics are covered haphazardly without much depth, and the overall effect is like viewing a slideshow as opposed to a fluid film.
The stop and go writing style is possible because the book lacks an overall theme. At times, Meacham zooms in and spends enough time on certain events that help create a portrait of Jefferson the politician such as his time in Williamsburg, his controversial governorship, his years in France, and his political battles with Adams and Hamilton. Chapter 38 on the embargo was probably the best in the book simply because it focused exclusively on its subject and presented the issue with necessary nuance and free from nongermane material. Even then though, the writing does not relate events to any broader argument put forth by the author. Other parts of the book are marred by too many distracting interruptions to include material that feels wholly unrelated to much more important episodes.
This is the first book I have read on Jefferson and while I did learn many facts, I did not come away with a deeper understanding of one of America's most important historical figures. This book might be good for others new to Jefferson, but I expect many readers will be unimpressed with the style and substance of this book.
Thomas Jefferson has been historically well served by biographers. Dumas Malone's classic 6 volume biography Jefferson the Virginian, vol. 1 (Jefferson & His Time (University of Virginia Press)), which won the Pulitzer Prize, is the towering achievement to which all subsequent biographies have been compared. Malone's expansive exegesis of Jefferson's career and thought is definitely a product of a more innocent time. There is no mention of his relationship with Sally Hemings, Malone having dismissed even the possibility of such a relationship given the "lofty" persona of his subject. America's recent political history has injected a significant dose of cynicism into our view of political leaders, making Malone's denial of the relationship seem quaint if not utterly myopic. But in matters of Jefferson's political and intellectual growth, the Malone biography is unsurpassed in its depth and analysis. If you are interested in Jefferson the political philosopher and revolutionary child of the Enlightenment, the 6 volume Malone biography is indispensable.
Jon Meacham, an editor at Time magazine, has written a one volume biography of Jefferson that in its language and point of view is representative of the writing that appears in that magazine. It is essentially a popular biography: relatively light on in-depth analysis but clear and well written in a gripping narrative style. Meacham focuses on Jefferson's political maturation and the important external events that swirled around Jefferson as he navigated the difficult shoals of a turbulent era. Meacham considers Jefferson's hunger for the acquisition of power, and his single-minded pursuit of learning the skills necessary for successfully mastering the exigencies of its use, to be his defining characteristics. He organizes his biography accordingly, and one can follow Jefferson's growth as a political leader while being only dimly aware of the nature of his intellectual maturation.
Meacham's assumptions about Jefferson's motivations for seeking power are the major factor in the biography's point of view. He focuses on the life and death political struggle between Jefferson, the finest exponent of a smaller, agrarian American nation, and the Federalists led by Hamilton. The Hamiltonians fought to lay the foundation for a potent Capitalist economic engine as elucidated in 1776 by Adam Smith in his seminal Wealth of Nations. In essence, the young American nation was asked to choose between competing visions: Hamilton's dream of an economic empire vs. Jefferson's "Empire of Freedom". These visions retain their relevance for today's difficult political choices. Meacham sacrifices some analytic depth in order to infuse his narrative with a novelistic intensity. When the material turns to Jefferson's personal affairs, Meacham provides the three dimensional life and honesty that eluded Malone. It is obvious that the two biographies are complementary and make fascinating concurrent reading.
This is a fine popular biography that explores those aspects of Jefferson's personality which have often been described as enigmatic. The idealist who penned the stirring credo "All men are created equal" was a large slave-holder who never saw fit to free his slaves. As a result of promising his dying wife that he would never remarry, Jefferson placed her slave half-sister Sally Hemings in a role whose sexual nature can only be described as a disturbing abuse of power, yet on his deathbed kept his promise to free her and their putative children. It was a promise that Jefferson made in order to entice Hemings to forgo the freedom of Paris and return with him to slave-holding Virginia, with its mandatory return of Hemings to that status. One senses a profound ambivalence towards the entire slavery issue in the breast of this quintessential 18th Century man of the Enlightenment. Meacham successfully creates a flesh and blood portrait of Jefferson that always holds one's interest, while simultaneously planting the seeds for a desire to learn more. That is not an insignificant achievement. You will enjoy this excellent biography while hungering for ever more information about America's most fascinating founding father.
on January 8, 2013
This is a very good biography of Thomas Jefferson. It is engaging, well written and refreshingly candid about Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings. But I must say that I was quite disappointed that the author ignored a very important aspect of Thomas Jefferson's character: his duplicity. Though Jon Meacham does explain how journalist James Callender reported Jefferson's illicit relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, Meacham completely ignores the fact that Jefferson paid Callender to libel John Adams while Adams was president and Jefferson was vice-president. This act destroyed a friendship that had flourished since Adams and Jefferson had served together in the Continental Congress back in 1776. Jefferson basically stuck a knife in his friend's back so that Jefferson's chances of winning the presidency in 1800 would be improved. Since Meacham's overall thesis was that Jefferson pursued power, one would think he would include this side of Jefferson's character. Jefferson was willing to bash a friend to gain power.
Joseph J Ellis, in his biography of Jefferson, AMERICAN SPHINX, brings out the whole tale. Ellis tells us that Callender's libelous accusations against Adams were "in fact, subsidized and approved" by Jefferson. When Jefferson became president, he did not give Callender a position he wanted, postmaster in Richmond, Virginia. As a result, Callender distributed Jefferson's letters to the Federalist newspapers. "I thank you for the proof-sheets you enclosed me," Jefferson had written to Callender, "such papers cannot fail to produce the best effect."
Callender had written that John Adams was mentally deranged, that he intended to have himself crowned as an American monarch, and that he planned to appoint his son John Quincy as his successor to the presidency, all of which was patently untrue.
Abigail Adams, who had also been close to Jefferson, wrote to him to explain "what has severed the bonds of former friendship . . ." During the Election of 1800, Jefferson was guilty of "the blackest calumny and foulest falsehoods." Jefferson wrote Abigail back and claimed he would never be involved with such "dirty work." "This," says Ellis, "was a lie."
Ellis says, "When confronted with the charge that, despite his position as vice-president, he had paid Callender to write diatribes against the president, Jefferson claimed to know nothing about it. Callender subsequently published Jefferson's incriminating letters, proving his complicity, and Jefferson seemed genuinely surprised at the revelation, suggesting that for him the deepest secrets were not the ones he kept from his enemies but the ones he kept from himself."
Adams perhaps should have learned from George Washington about Jefferson's tendency to back-stab, because Jefferson had also paid Callender to attack that venerable figure in print.
One of the criticisms of Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson was that he was too kind to Jackson and overlooked many of Old Hickory's faults. There is a similar weakness in Meacham's biography of Jefferson. He seems to want to present the third president in a more positive light. But isn't the job of the biographer to find the truth? That Meacham completely ignores this revealing episode in Jefferson's life is a major flaw in an otherwise enjoyable biography.
on July 10, 2013
This book is hard to rate. It's full of facts about Jefferson's life from birth to death, and, as it's ordered chronologically, the book takes the reader through many different phases of Jefferson's life in turn. It tries to tie many events with broader themes in Jefferson's life and career, such as how his idealism is put aside when he is in control. I learned a lot. I'm glad I read it. That said...
It felt like hundreds of correspondences by, to, and about Jefferson were fed into a computer, rearranged, and glued together in some minimally coherent way. The book jumps around from episode to episode and often stops short of making sense of some of the most interest questions that the book raises. For instance, several times Meacham mentions that Jefferson was running low on money or was in debt. Why was Jefferson low on money? How did that make Jefferson feel? Did he recover by selling assets at Monticello? So many questions, very few answers, and it leaves the book feeling shallow.
Perhaps Meacham was writing for a more academic audience. The volume of correspondences collected in the book is impressive. Perhaps the way he tied episodes to broader themes is a new perspective on Jefferson (I wouldn't know). If what you want is a lot of raw materials assembled mostly chronologically, with a little hypothesizing about what made Jefferson who he was, then this book would be great for you. If you want to get into the mind of Jefferson, you may be a little frustrated.
on January 5, 2013
Meacham's book falls flat on Jefferson.
His theme is Jefferson's art of power, and much of the book covers up the problems that Jefferson had, largely brought on by himself, and the rest of the book is Meacham's fixation that Sally Hemings bore several children to Jefferson. And speaking of children, while Jefferson was married for ten years, his wife Martha was almost constantly pregnant. They had two daughters that survived birth, and the rest of the story is Martha's strength continuing to wane. After all, there were no dietary supplements and medical knowledge was nothing in comparison to today, but quite simply, Jefferson could possibly have given her a rest and allowed her to regain her strength in an effort to prolong her life, but no, Jefferson always had to have what he wanted.
Jefferson lived at Monticello and not Mount Olympus. All of his great quotations regarding the evil of slavery are stirring words that lack deeds.
Having read Malone's biography of Jefferson more than a third of a century ago, and reading several more since that time, I find this biography one that will not make the hall of fame. I was not impressed with the way the author keeps sticking us in the eye about Sally Hemings, and breezes through some of the short comings of Jefferson like a shopper going through the gates of Wal Mart on Black Friday.
The fact is, while he wrote the Declaration of Independence, he was a failure as a war time governor of his state, spent money all his life that he didn't have while at the same time trying to convince his pundits of an image of a nation that had small, serene farms, was more comfortable with France during his ministry there, was duplicitous during his term of Secretary of State, constantly frustated and thwarted by Hamilton, and one of the few, if not the only major Founding Father that Washington dressed down after the agony of Jay's Treaty was ratified and funded. The reader will find a full account of this in Washington: A Life Ron Chernow goes into it in more detail.
Washington understood his being two faced and told him so in a letter, which Meacham barely mentions, as well as barely mentioning John Marshall's trump card decision in Marbury vs. Madison.
Certainly the nation enjoyed a great expansion during the Louisiana Purchase, but this was not so much Jefferson's cunning as it was Napoleon's need for money, and any sitting president would have jumped at the chance.
Meacham also excuses his failed second term when he opted for an embargo that choked the economic trade of America. Yes, he kept us from going to war with England, knowing that we did not have time to build a navy that could compete, and yet he was responsible for our lack of seapower. Adams had made progress in building frigates, Six Frigates but Jefferson cut the budgets and tried to do it on the cheap, building gun boats which are only marginal for coastal defense and not suitable for the high seas or against a ship of line, so, as in many other episodes, Jefferson creates the problem, and Meacham makes excuses for him
Jefferson was certainly a great man and influential but he had shortcomings that Meacham doesn't want to expose.
I am confused as to why the author felt it necessary to list 250 pages of notes, bibliography and index on this book. No person in a long lifetime could possibly resource all the material listed, and the inclusion of so much is over the top and adds not one bit to any sense of this being a scholarly work.
I have read a number of bios of Jefferson, and this one is weak, choppy and jumping to conclusions and inadequate.
on August 5, 2013
This book is a good brief summation of the activities of the mysterious and fathomless Thomas Jefferson. Easy to read with some good information. Having read Merrill Peterson's Jefferson biography, it comes across in comparison almost like a brief summation of the life and times of Jefferson. The Peterson version is the best on the subject of any others I have read, but the Meacham version is interesting and skims over a lot of details without missing the important high points. This version may be more appealing to the average history buff due to it's compact simplicity. The Peterson version tends to draw one into the center of the times and events going on in Jefferson's life and it is written in a concise and detailed manner that, for me, was more what I was looking for in a Jefferson biography. Both of these works are well worth one's time in reading them.