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Meet Thomas Jefferson
on November 22, 2012
How many biographies of Thomas Jefferson do we really need? What else is there to say and how many ways are there to say it? I had asked myself the same questions but "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" occupies a niche that I have not found to be filled before.
Author Jon Meacham promises to show us the political genius of Thomas Jefferson, the son who assumed leadership of his family upon the death of his father, the student who learned at the feet of George Wythe, the young Burgess who admired the rhetoric of Patrick Henry and who absorbed the political skills of his seniors, the delegate to the Continental Congress who authored the Declaration of Independence and the initial draft of "TheDeclaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms", the governor who organized Virginia's defenses and fled in disgrace from the raiders of Banastre Tarlton, the husband and father who withdrew to domestic tranquility of the mountaintop until, as a grief stricken widower, he accepted his country's call to diplomatic service in France. It was in France that he came to love his second country even while he watched it descend into the throes of Revolution and Terror. Called home to serve as the first Secretary of State, Jefferson gradually became the leader of the opposition, even to Washington and, as second Vice-President, to the Adams administration. After enduring a bitter campaign and contentious balloting in the House of Representatives he emerged as a President committed to limiting the size and scope of the national government who, never the less, used the Navy he wanted to abolish against North African pirates and bought Louisiana, even though he doubted his constitutional power to do so. Readers are shown a politician who uses allies and editors when are helpful and who cuts his ties when they become liabilities. In retirement we are introduced to the Sage of Monticello who still cares for his country, builds a university for his commonwealth and reconciles with his erstwhile friend and political foe, John Adams. Finally we watch those two molders of America die on the Fiftieth Independence Day. Such is the stuff of which a political genius is made.
We have heard all that before. What is it that Jon Meacham brings to the Jefferson canon that was not there before? I think that it is the way that he presents the Jefferson story. Meacham's prose carriers the reader along as it flows naturally down the river of Jefferson's life. The periodic assessments of Jefferson's actions and legacies provide the reader with opportunities to reflect on just what Jefferson did and accomplished. The seeming absence of an agenda is a welcome contrast to many recent Jefferson books. If this tome has a weakness its willingness to accept as fact matters that remain within the realm of controversy. Throughout the book Meacham writes of the relations between Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the children they had together. It is only in the Notes and Acknowledgments that he concedes that "The 1998 DNA findings and subsequent scholarly reevaluation that established the high likelihood of his sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings." A reader who did not persevere that far would never know that there was any doubt about the relationship.
So what is it that makes this book unique, that makes it worth reading another Jefferson biography? I think that it is the way it makes Jefferson seem real, someone the reader comes to know, to appreciate and admire. This book makes the reader not just a researcher or an observer but a companion, a friend, even an intimate. That is what makes this a unique contribution to the Jefferson lore that any Jefferson fan or historian needs to read.