Monday, April 22, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

After winning the Pulitzer Prize for his masterful biography of Andrew Jackson, Jon Meacham turned his considerable skills to the most enigmatic man in American History: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson ranks at the top of any list of most important men in the history of the United States.

Born to the planter class in Virginia he never knew anything other than a life of luxury. That did not shield him from the troubles of life. Loss was something that Jefferson knew quite well. He lost his father at a young age. His beloved wife died from complications of childbirth. He outlived all but one of his children. He was also a man who loved liberty. His vision of a nation of liberty would come to dominate the debate in the formative years of the United States. Here we encounter the enigma. Jefferson was a believer in freedom who owned slaves. The story of Jefferson's slaves are very much wrapped up in his own story. Meacham comes back to this topic over and over again. The subject of Sally Hemmings is never far away and it makes for an interesting topic.

Jefferson was a man of many accomplishments. He served in the Virginia legislature, the Continental Congress, as governor of Virginia, as ambassador to France, As the first secretary of state, as the second vice-president of the United States, and as the third president. He wrote letters, books, and legislation. Of course he is famous as the author of the Declaration of Independence. On his tombstone he only asked that three items be remembered. Those accomplishments are the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statutes of Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. In some ways this sums up his life quite nicely.

Any biography of Thomas Jefferson is a daunting task. There is a wealth of primary source material and an avalanche of secondary material. Huge multi-volume biographies are out of style in our time and that may not be a bad thing. Instead of trying to cover every aspect of Jefferson's life in detail he gives an overview of Jefferson's story, but the focus of the book can be found in the title. Jefferson was a man who craved the power to make the world a better place. This is part of the contradiction. In the thought of the time no leader of a free society was supposed to desire power. Jefferson actively desired power, but had to cultivate an image of indifference. A vocal enemy of political parties he helped to create and lead the first political party in the United States. In a usual Jeffersonian twist this party was an opposition party that he led as Washington's secretary of state and Adams' vice-president.

Meacham has given a wonderful start to Jefferson studies for this generation. His prose is always delightful to read. The book is well researched, but is accessible to the general reader. It is doubtful that we will ever truly be able to understand Thomas Jefferson, but this volume will help to gain insight into fascinating person.

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