Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Image of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Release Date: 
November 13, 2012
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“. . . biography at its best. . . . deserves the widest readership.”

Few individuals have been subjected to as much study and scrutiny, reverence and revisionism as has Thomas Jefferson. Just as Mahatma Gandhi has been the most profiled in Asia and Winston Churchill the most written about in Europe, so, too, is the polymath of Monticello the subject of more nonfiction books than any other American.

There has never been—and it is unlikely there ever shall be—a man to rival Thomas Jefferson’s brilliance. The brilliance of the author/architect of the country’s Declaration of Independence was recognized by John F. Kennedy, addressing Nobel Laureates attending a White House dinner, who proclaimed that it was the greatest gathering of intelligence in that grand place since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

With all of the scholarship that has been devoted to chronicling the life and times of Thomas Jefferson, the excellence bar for any new Jefferson study must be high.

Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power brings a breadth, sensitivity, majesty, and eloquence that mirror those of his subject.

The author brings impressive authority and distinctive perspective to this writing. Beyond writing several critically acclaimed, major nonfiction studies, he serves in senior publishing roles and is concurrently active in the media. As an executive editor at Random House, he benefits from interaction with the leading authors of the day. Indeed, the all-star coterie of “selfless readers, advisers, interlocutors, and editors” he acknowledges includes such renowned biographers as Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, Joseph Ellis, Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, Stacy Schiff, and many more.

Assessing Jefferson’s life work—most particularly the efficacy, excellence, and effectiveness with which he applied the art of power—Jon Meacham concludes that despite shortcomings, inevitable disappointments, mistakes, and dreams deferred, the great philosopher-president consistent with the Oath of the Young Men of Athens to leave their place better than they found it—”left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the arena of public life.”

His place-making genius was informed by his seeking, learning, insight, and illumination. He left America’s places better through orchestrating the Louisiana Purchase, designing of the University of Virginia, and the creating of the ultimate epitomization of the house as autobiography: Monticello. In every place—Monticello, Paris, boardinghouses he passed through on his travels, and the President’s House in Washington, DC—Thomas Jefferson “craved talk of the latest in science and the arts and adored conversation with the beautiful women, politicians, and men of affairs who made the world run on both sides of the Atlantic.”

The man who is portrayed, really, brought to life, in these pages bridged trafficking in big ideas and doting on details, coveted the power to play for the highest stakes yet sought to avoid confrontation, oversaw a land-based agricultural enterprise while embracing every facet of knowledge.

Addressing Thomas Jefferson’s genius in applying the art of power, Mr. Meacham writes, “Jefferson was the rare leader of men who stood out from the crowd without intimidating it. His bearing gave him unusual opportunities to make the thoughts in his head the work of his hands, transforming the world around him from what it was to what he believed it ought to be . . . shaped by the need to make the world conform to his will . . . He was the father of the idea of the American progress, of the animating spirit that the future could be better than the present or the past. The greatest of American politicians in ensuing generations have prospered by projecting a Jeffersonian vision that the country’s finest hours lay ahead.”

All too many of the ‘critical reassessments’ of Jefferson in recent years have overly tilted to a glass nearly empty perspective, thereby lacking in a balanced exploration of the entirety of the man, his times, his pressures, his work, his motivations, his inner conflicts. This study is distinguished by its recognition and communication of the essence of the inner life and visible accomplishments of “a breathing human being who was subject to the passion and prejudice and pride and love and ambition and hope and fear that drive most other breathing human beings.”

As respectful and admiring as is Jon Meacham of his subject, he is pragmatic in insisting that Jefferson be viewed in his time and place, for “To understand him requires seeing the world as he saw it and recapturing, as much as possible, the pressures he felt, the jealousies he suffered, the fears he harbored, and the hopes he nurtured.”

Other than his great attachment to Monticello, for “the man who lived and loved and led . . . like so many of us: a bundle of contradictions, competing passions, flaws, sins, and virtues, that can never be smoothed out into a tidy whole. . . . The closest thing to a constant in his life was his need for power and control.” At the same time, this drive was so masked as to be virtually undetectable, for “Jefferson is the founding president who charms us the most. George Washington inspires awe. John Adams respect.”

Mr. Meacham rates “the philosophical master of Monticello” as “the most successful political figure of the first half century of the American republic. For 36 of the 40 years between 1800 and 1840, either Jefferson or a self-described adherent of his served as president of the United States. This unofficial—and little noted—Jeffersonian dynasty is unmatched in American history.”

Modeling impressive scholarship presented in an engaging, easy reading, highly entertaining style. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power manifests biography at its best. This book achieves that critically important yet all too rare publishing fete of facilitating the reader’s positive reflection on her/his own life to acknowledges and accept personal shortcomings. Recognizing that even the great Jefferson, for all that he accomplished in many realms, concurrently fell short of what he aspired to in others and was burdened by internal conflicts, may be comforting, even affirming to readers.

Jon Meacham and the many who supported the production of this magnificent biography deserve our thanks for this brilliant, incisive, nuanced interpretation of our most important founding father who influenced the destiny of his country more than any other. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power deserves the widest readership.