Jefferson’s art of power grew from strong self-understanding

By Joe Rutherford/NEMS Daily Journal

Few Americans who enjoy learning more about our nation’s founders and framers will pass the chance to read Jon Meacham’s exceptional new biogaphy, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.”
In the book, released last month by Random House, Meacham further confirms his gift of flowing enormous amonts of scholarship and research into a compelling story, this time about the forces, energies, situations, fears, passions, obsessions and loves that shaped Jefferson as he became an immortal figure and influence in the American experiment.
Meacham won the Pulitzer Price for his earlier “American Lion,” his engrossing biography of Andrew Jackson, a warrior and populist dynamo whose fierce partisanship included utter devotion to the Union, the cause that many of his age peers and friends disparaged and abandoned in the lead-up to the Civil War.
Meacham writes of Jefferson as the complete American, the fully human man of great ideas and ideals who, while falling short of some of the ideals he espoused, remained engaged in the idea the still-young nation he was elected to lead would become preeminent in ways unimagined before the age of Enlightenment, whose ideas he embraced.
Meacham’s grasp of Jefferson’s character and vision is alive with the opportunity of a new nation annd the dreams of that unique generation of leaders who had their minds and hearts focused on what they had begun.
“The man who saw America’s story in terms of the march of ‘human events’ was aware of the scale of the expriment in which he was participating,” Meacham writes of Jefferson in the early 1780s. “In the first week of December 1783, Jefferson made inquiries about purchasing a mechanical copying device through Samuel House, a brother of Eliza House Trist and a Philadelphia merchant. He wanted to make sure that his role was part of the saga of the age when the time came for the telling of tales and the weaving of history. Jefferson had been thinking in such terms since he began sending out his original version of the Declaration of Independence. Now he was taking steps to preserve the daily, even hourly, record of a life lived on the largest possible stage.”
Jefferson, of course, was not universally loved or admired in his own era, and Meacham’s unfolding of his life through the details of scholarship provides a balance for understanding why he was both immensely successful politically and so thoroughly despised by some with opposite views of everything from public policy to personal piety.
Jefferson was a cosmopolitan and broadly sensual man, imbued with confidence by a strong father and mother with high expectations, a man enlarged emotionally and intellectually by the challenges of early and frequent loss of people whom he loved, and a figure supremely confident in the power of a better idea.
Reviewers across the nation have found common ground for praise of Meacham’s method in showing all of us much more of Thomas Jefferson:
• “Accomplishes 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 (Andrew) 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
• “Impeccably researched and footnoted … a model of clarity and explanation.” –Bloomberg
The notes and bibliography, one of Meachamm’s greatest gifts to readers, runs more than 200 pages and are a treasure of further knowledge and insight in this extraordinary single volume.
joe.rutherford@journalinc.com