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Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 13, 2012
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, November 2012: As multifaceted a character as has ever been seen in American history (not to mention politics), Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the ideal leader for the young nation still struggling with external threats and its own identity: a to-the-core individualist and visionary who both embodied and reconciled the contradictions of individualism and a shared nationality. It’s no mean feat to render the life and times of such a figure (much less make it compulsively readable), but as with his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Andrew Jackson (American Lion), Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power vividly illustrates the world and impact of our third president, deftly weaving the threads of Jefferson’s personality into a complete portrait of a singularly complex politician and thinker--a philosopher president. --Jon Foro
Praise for Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
“Fascinating and insightful … Many books have been written about Jefferson’s life, but few have created such a vivid portrait … Meacham immerses the reader in that period of history to explain Jefferson’s behavior during an era when the nation was as contradictory as he was … extraordinary … essential.”—The Associated Press
“[A]ccomplishes something more impressive than dissecting Jefferson’s political skills by explaining his greatness, a different task from chronicling a life, though he does that too — and handsomely. Even though I know quite a lot about Jefferson, I was repeatedly surprised by the fresh information Meacham brings to his work. Surely there is not a significant detail out there, in any pertinent archive, that he has missed.”—Joyce Appleby, Washington Post
“[Meacham] argues persuasively that for Jefferson the ideal of liberty was not incompatible with a strong federal government, and also that Jefferson’s service in the Congress in 1776 left him thoroughly versed in the ways and means of politics … Meacham wisely has chosen to look at Jefferson through a political lens, assessing how he balanced his ideals with pragmatism while also bending others to his will. And just as he scolded Jackson, another slaveholder and champion of individual liberty, for being a hypocrite, so Meacham gives a tough-minded account of Jefferson’s slippery recalibrations on race … Where other historians have found hypocrisy in Jefferson’s use of executive power to complete the Louisiana Purchase, Meacham is nuanced and persuasive..”—Jill Abramson, The New York Times Book Review
“[Meacham] does an excellent job getting inside Jefferson's head and his world … Meacham presents Jefferson's life in a textured narrative that weaves together Jefferson's well-traveled career.”—USA Today
“A big, grand, absorbing exploration of not just Jefferson and his role in history but also Jefferson the man, humanized as never before. [Grade:] A-.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Impeccably researched and footnoted … a model of clarity and explanation.”—Bloomberg
“[Meacham] 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 … [an] absorbing tale.”—Christian Science Monitor
“Absorbing . . . Jefferson emerges in the book not merely as a lofty thinker but as the ultimate political operator, a master pragmatist who got things done in times nearly as fractious as our own.”—Chicago Tribune
“[Jefferson’s] life is a riveting story of our nation’s founding—an improbable turn of events that seems only in retrospect inevitable. Few are better suited to the telling than Jon Meacham. . . . Captivating.”—The Seattle Times
“[Meacham] brings to bear his focused and sensitive scholarship, rich prose style … The Jefferson that emerges from these astute, dramatic pages is a figure worthy of continued study and appreciation … [a] very impressive book.”—Booklist (Starred Review)
“An outstanding biography that reveals an overlooked steeliness at Jefferson’s core that accounts for so much of his political success.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Jon Meacham understands Thomas Jefferson. With thorough and up-to-date research, elegant writing, deep insight, and an open mind, he brings Jefferson, the most talented politician of his generation—and one of the most talented in our nation’s history—into full view. It is no small task to capture so capacious a life in one volume. Meacham has succeeded, giving us a rich presentation of our third president’s life and times. This is an extraordinary work.”—Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello
“This terrific book allows us to see the political genius of Thomas Jefferson better than we have ever seen it before. In these endlessly fascinating pages, Jefferson emerges with such vitality that it seems as if he might still be alive today.”—Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals
“Jon Meacham resolves the bundle of contradictions that was Thomas Jefferson by probing his love of progress and thirst for power. Here was a man endlessly, artfully intent on making the world something it had not been before. A thrilling and affecting portrait of our first philosopher-politician.”—Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra: A Life
"A true triumph. In addition to being a brilliant biography, this book is a guide to the use of power. Jon Meacham shows how Jefferson's deft ability to compromise and improvise made him a transformational leader. We think of Jefferson as the embodiment of noble ideals, as he was, but Meacham shows that he was a practical politician more than a moral theorist. The result is a fascinating look at how Jefferson wielded his driving desire for power and control."—Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs
"This is probably the best single-volume biography of Jefferson ever written; it is certainly the most readable."—Gordon Wood, author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution
“This is Jon Meacham's best book yet. Evocatively written and deeply researched, it sheds brilliant light on facets of Thomas Jefferson we haven't seen before, gives us original and unexpected new insights into his identity and character, and uses the irresistible story of this talented, manipulative, complicated man to bring us life lessons on universal subjects from family and friendship to politics and leadership. The Sage of Monticello made a considerable effort to turn his life into a mystery, but in a splendid match of biographer with subject, Meacham has cracked the Jefferson code."—Michael Beschloss
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
I became interested in the founding fathers after a trip to Washington DC this summer. I decided to start with the co-author of the Declaration of Independence. He doubled the size of our country with the Louisiana purchase and had a very strong republican stance. In the late 18th century it was all about republicanism vs. federalism (monarchist views) It was the same argument then as it is now with the democrats... Are the citizens smart or is only the government smart. This is 500 pages or so, but an easy read and the chapters are short. You will of course, learn a little more about John Adams, James Madison, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton as well.