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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2013
This book is very informative and gives you a very good picture of the difficulties that Jefferson and others encoountered in setting up on of the worlds greatest demoracies of all times. It wasn't a pushover and the author clearly lets the reader know what and who was involved in early American history.
Every American should read this book so they can appreciate what Jefferson himself, albeit not a puritian of his days, but a great statesman who knew what he wanted and what he wanted for his country. You will not agree with ever thing Jefferson did to win his battles. But he always had the good of his country in mind.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon November 23, 2014
It’s very difficult to write a biography of a political giant like Thomas Jefferson without writing as much about one’s own times as about the world of the title subject. How else can we understand the past, if not in terms of the present, and of our hopes for the future?

So assessments of Jefferson have changed with the times, even on the short scale of a few decades, or even just a few years. For Reaganites, Jefferson is a small-government hero. For social activists, his conflicted attitudes and behaviour regarding slavery diminish his other accomplishments. For Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson is a model of pragmatism informed by idealism. He is just the kind of politician that his country seems so to lack today.

Meacham’s key theme, and the source of his book’s title, is his portrayal of Jefferson as a man who was always willing to accept an incremental victory, a politician who played the “long game,” who would rather move one step toward his goal than stand so firm on principle that he made no progress at all. Near the beginning, Meacham writes: "Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma."

And, later on: "Viewed in terms of philosophy, the contradictions between Jefferson the nationalist and Jefferson the nullifier seem irreconcilable. Viewed in terms of personality and of politics, though, Jefferson was acting in character. He was always in favor of whatever means would improve the chances of his cause of the hour. … He was not intellectually consistent, but a consistent theme did run through his politics and his statecraft: He would do what it took, within reason, to arrange the world as he wanted it to be."

This view of Jefferson as a master of realpolitik threatens to topple him from the monumental caricature by which most of us have been “educated” about him, but Meacham’s unfailing admiration for his subject doesn’t make such dethroning easy.

Throughout his book, Meacham defends Jefferson, man and politician, taking on one by one the standard criticisms of his policies — and his life. Yes, Jefferson sometimes made what many view to be very bad decisions (his second-term embargo of British trade is the best-known example). Yes, the small-government idealist was not above using, even extending, executive power when he felt it was necessary to achieve his ends. Yes, the great champion of liberty was a lifelong slave owner who never publicly acknowledged his children with Sally Hemings, his late wife’s half-caste half-sister.

Through it all, Meacham is understanding, accommodating, accepting. His Jefferson is flawed, but he is never venal, never mean-spirited, never thoughtless.

It would be hard fully to assess Thomas Jefferson from just this one source. As other reviewers have pointed out, much of the real nitty-gritty is missing. Complex issues are glossed over so that more time can be spent on Meacham’s sole task: presenting Jefferson as a Renaissance Man, a scholar and philosopher, an aristocratic farmer whose ideals drove him to play the political game for a lifetime, and to play it better than anyone else.

For the casual, non-professional reader, like me, the recurring message of "The Art of Power" is that principles are advanced only by the practical application of the tools of politics. Consultation and debate, persuasion and compromise, these are the apparent contradictions that move policy and politics forward.

And in today’s political climate, these are the skills that are most glaringly absent. In the end, Meacham urges us to solve our current problems by asking, in many places and in many ways:

“What would Jefferson do?”
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2012
I know the book has been widely praised for its style and scholarship and rightfully so. I personally found myself sensitive to the following two elements. The author provides us with a keen sense of the importance of this presidency in shaping the future course of American history. Its not entirely the great man theory but Jefferson attracted a significant following which enabled the politics of optimistic democracy American style.
Secondly this book brings back to life the manners and mores of an exciting moment in history, the early days of the American republic.
A wonderful book not just for history buffs
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on October 25, 2015
Beforehand, I didn't have a very good opinion of Thomas Jefferson. Having read biographies about Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and John Adams, I knew Jefferson to be, at least, an hypocrite.

Reading Jon Meacham's work opened my eyes even more. Pampered in childhood, pampered as a teenager, pampered through adult life, Jefferson even ask James Madison to "take care of me when I'm dead'...

Yeah sure, the 3 most important achievements of Jefferson's life cannot be taken away; writer of the Declaration of Independance, Purchaser of the Louisina Territory and founder of the Virginia University for white males. However how can you be credited with the Purchase of the Louisiana Territory when Napoleon was so driven to sell it? Had any other man be President at the same time, the result who have been the same, Napoleon would have sell to the US. Jefferson was just lucky it happened on his watch.

Here are the many things I cannot forgive Jefferson; first, he built his voluminous library, his impressive holding of work of arts with borrowed money, money which he never repaided. He died with a dept of over $2 000 000 in current money. He learned real fast in life that, if other could pamper him, he could do it himself with the money of others.

Secondly, he had the habit, disguised as a well-meaning wish to avoid direct personnal conflict, to stab friends as well as foe in the back. He, while Vice-President for example, used an editor paied by the Goverment to lauch a newspaper solely for the purpose of blaspheming, insulting and vilipending Federalists in order for one day gain power for himself. He even WROTE many of the articles appearing in the newspaper. He wrote those awful lies and would sit smiling with Washington and Hamilton in cabinet meeting.

Thirdly, he accused all Federalists to be monarchists, to be sold body and soul to the King of England. Federalist were, Jefferson accused, abuser of power. When he himself took power, he shamelessly pushed foward the boundaries of the Executive Power like no other. He was a demagogue of the first order. In fact, Thomas Jefferson is the Father of trash-talking in American politics.

I almost forgot, when he wanted a woman, he had to have her, even if she was married to his friend.

Speaking of women and family, the author would have us believe that Jefferson loved his children, his grand-children, that he cherished his family.
The plain thruth is, he only loved half his family, his all-white half. He kept the children he had (throught sexual abuse, or rape, of Sally Hemings) in bondage. He author wrote: " he was apparently able to consign his children to Sally Hemings to a separate sphere of his life in his mind even as they grew up in his mist." Madison Hemings, his child said: "He was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us children" adding "Jefferson was, however, affectionate toward his white grandchildren".

How can History see Jefferson as a Champion of Liberty when he kept HIS OWN CHILDREN in slavery is beyond me.

Some would argue that Jefferson's first and only mission in life was to ensure self-goverment. However, EVERYTHING he did was to ensure his pampered life.

I didn't like him before reading the book, now I like him even less.
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on March 22, 2013
I finished this effort but it didn't give me a great feeling for Jefferson's importance and how it came about. Well written but not particularly dynamic. For the unacquainted it would work but for those truly curious, there are older, better volumes.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon September 14, 2013
i enjoy history and love to read about the details of a persons evolution. i enjoyed learning about Thomas Jefferson and how he came to power as well as his personal life.
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