Thomas Jefferson’s eloquent writings have made him revered as the nation’s premier spokesman for democracy. A man of the Enlightenment, he pursued an extraordinary range of interests and served in the nation’s highest offices; a man of contradictions, he cultivated the image of a philosopher who was above the political fray. And yet, as Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham demonstrates in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, our third president was as much a man of action as he was of ideas.
Meacham’s Jefferson, at his core, was a politician who eagerly sought office where he could work toward the future he envisioned for his country. In his meticulously researched and very readable book, Meacham writes, “The closest thing to a constant in his life was his need for power and control. He tended to mask these drives so effectively . . . the most astute observers of his life and work had trouble detecting them.”
Once in office he emphasized one overarching political concern: the survival and success of popular government. More than George Washington or John Adams, he believed in the possibilities of human beings governing themselves. Like all effective politicians, he articulated the ideal but acted pragmatically, as in the case of the Louisiana Purchase. The philosophical Jefferson thought there first should be a constitutional amendment authorizing the president to purchase new territory. But when it seemed Napoleon might change his mind, the realist Jefferson immediately went ahead with the deal without an amendment. His personal political style was smooth, although he relied on his allies to be more confrontational. Indeed, Meacham believes Jefferson led so quietly that popular history tends to downplay his presidential achievements.
The book also examines Jefferson’s hypocrisy on slavery. He knew slavery was morally wrong but he could not bring himself to sacrifice his own way of life on an issue whose time, as he saw it, had not yet come. After attempts early in his career to limit slavery, he gave up trying, concluding that to pursue it would end whatever future he might have in public life.
Jefferson comes alive in this discerning and elegant biography, surely one of the best single volumes about him written in our time.