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Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power Paperback – October 29, 2013
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Mr. Meacham states in the Author's Notes that this biography is, in part, a reaction to recent biographies of both George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton which have revised opinions of these three men, especially Hamilton. He writes, "Then came nearly two decades of highly acclaimed biographies of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington that understandably emphasized the virtues of their protagonist, often at Jefferson's expense"(pg. 507). He cites specifically Joseph J. Ellis's Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, but I imagine he would also include in that list John Adams, by David McCullough and Ron Chernow's two most recents works: Washington: A Life and Alexander Hamilton (all of them highly readable, excellent biographies).
Mr. Meacham does a good job--better than most--helping his reader understand that there was during the post-revolutionary period a real fear in certain quarters that the United States could revert to a monarchy. Not so well done in this book is separating over-heated political rhetoric from what Jefferson actually believed. The fact is, a man as unquestionably intelligent and savvy as Jefferson would have known the difference between hyperbolic political rhetoric-even his own-and reality.
It is clear that by the end of Washington's second term Jefferson and the Republicans (largely whipped up by Jefferson and Madison) were frustrated and chaffing at the bit. Even then, I cannot accept, as Mr. Meacham seems to imply, that Jefferson put much store in all the monarchical conspiracy theories that had political currency at that time.
On balance most historians seem to believe that it was Jefferson's actions and political maneuverings during the Washington administration which help ignite and escalate the overwrought, highly negative atmosphere that convulsed politics during Washington's second administration and beyond. However, Mr. Meacham does not see it that way. Rather he explains Jefferson's third-party maneuverings and obfuscations as a natural reaction to the situation in which he found himself and what, at his time, would have been expected of a man in his station. I did not completely accept this.
Jefferson's relationship with Philip Ferneau and the National Gazette is not fully explored in this book and leaves the reader with the impression that Jefferson was only tangentially involved with the newspaper that regularly ravaged Washington and his administration. But at least Mr. Meacham does allude to the conection. What is a more egregious omission is any exploration of how duplicitous Jefferson (and especially Madison) became in dealing with Washington in his second administration.
Although Washington knew and understood that he had political differences with the two men, he still considered them trustworthy confidants. He had no idea the degree to which, through indirect means, the two men were so actively working against him. Jefferson and Madison continued to allow themselves to be taken into Washington's confidence never once indicating that they were anything other that loyal friends. This I think is an essential part of Jefferson's character and should not be excluded from a biography of his life especially one whose stated thesis is to show how artful, skillful and subtle was his accumulation and use of power.
The final difference I have with THOMAS JEFFERSON: THE ART OF POWER is the thesis that Mr. Meacham proposes at the beginning of the book and attempts to support throughout: that Jefferson's vision for American, which contrasted with Washington's and Hamilton's allowed him and his proteges to control the Presidency for 40 years with only one four year interruption by John Quincy Adams. It is, of course true enough that Madison, Monroe, Jackson and Van Buren were disciples of Jefferson. But Mr. Meacham's argument that Jefferson accomplished this feat by opposing and triumphing over the policies of Washington and Hamilton is not accurate. In fact, Mr. Meacham seems to believe that Jefferson was able to win the Presidency because, "He understood the country was open to--even eager for-- a government that seemed less intrusive and overbearing than the one Washington and Adams had created" (pg. 352).
While it is true that Jefferson and his proteges could not wait for Washington to exit the stage, the country itself never gave that indication, not in the slightest degree. Had he run, Washington would have easily won a third term. Adams, of course, was defeated for reelection, but that was not a rejection by the voters of Washington. Adam's defeat was due more to yawning cleavage in the Federalist Party and the electoral advantage created by the 3/5 clause of the constitution giving a significant Electoral College advantage to states with large slave populations, than to any rejection of Washington, his policies or his style of governing.
Moreover, what Jefferson did to consolidate his hold on power was adopted in deed, if not in word, the Hamiltonian idea that the country needed a stronger central government governed by a stronger executive. For all of Jefferson's concern over what he characterized as monarchical power grabs by Washington, Jefferson did more to increase the power of the President with the Louisiana Purchase than Washington did in his entire presidency. And that by no means was the only time Jefferson broadened and consolidated powers of the presidency. Where Washington had used restraint, Jefferson often resorted to expediency. Many such incidences are skillfully explored in this book. The inconstancy they pose to Jefferson's rhetoric are attributed by Mr. Meacham to "pragmatism." In reality, they were actions which if Washington or any other Federalist had engaged in would been haled as auguries of monarchism by the Jeffersonians.
The part of this book I found most insightful and interesting is Mr. Meacham's discussion of the debt assumption crisis. I had always believed that Hamilton got the better of Jefferson in this bargain which both resolved the crisis created the debt incurred by the state during the Revolutionary War and sited the nation's capitol on the Potomac. However, Mr. Meacham does an excellent job of explaining all of the many and complicated subtleties, which seemed to be overlooked by other historians, which came in to play here. He argues persuasively how, even though Hamilton got what he wanted in the bargain, Jefferson also negotiated some meaningful concessions. The bargain struck between these two antagonists was actually much more balanced than I originally believed.
Having pointed to a few differences with Mr. Meacham and his view of Thomas Jefferson, I very thoroughly enjoyed this book and will most likely read it again. It is beautifully written, meticulously researched and goes a long way to re-balance the modern image of Jefferson, reminding its readers the debt that is owed to the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the Sage of Monticello.
This superb biography of Jefferson has so many assets: it is relatively brief; it covers most of the important aspects of this complex man’s remarkable life; it leaves us with undiluted admiration for an extraordinary man; and it creates a tension, so much a part of America’s post-Revolution history, between the two major parties that struggled for early supremacy in the opening days of the American republic’s history.
Many other historians have surveyed the same ground but few have captured the essence of Jefferson’s personality -- deeply thoughtful, hopeful for the future of the society that was being created, eminently fair but stubborn and occasionally searing, a marvelous friend but a relentless enemy. John Meacham makes a great contribution to understanding the nation’s early story in this history.
The scope of the book is vast, covering all of Jefferson’s life, a life lived during the period of time when important events occurred back to back, crowding together from the Revolution to the early days of Washington’s presidency, the struggle between the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Republicans, led by Jefferson, the early expansion of the country westward across the North American continent, the arguments with Great Britain. Jefferson was on center stage for most of this. His instincts were clear and sure: liberty, personal freedom, fairness, stubborness and unyielding when under attack.
In such a crowded life, the historian is faced with making choices. I would have wanted a fuller account of the election of 1800, which Jefferson barely won, defeating Aaron Burr by only two electoral votes; I would have liked to have had a more extensive discussion of his relationship with Sally Hemmings, whom he treated reasonably well but never was treated as an equal – a strange footnote to Jefferson’s life which, at least on the surface, was all about freedom and equal rights and the equality of mankind. The discussion of the country’s growing prosperity that enabled it to deal with British attempts to limit the success of the country could have been more extensive.
In such a complex life, any historian, including Mr. Meacham, has to make choices. In my opinion, this is a very successful work of history in painting a full portrait of a complex and extraordinary man.
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and people of good mental intent now more than in my 96 years of living.