Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power — Jon Meacham
A balanced portrait of Jefferson that is willing to explore difficult conundrums in his impressive life
This is the third review in an ongoing series I call The Hamilton Project. For more information and to read others in the series, click here.
“The real Jefferson was like so many of us: a bundle of contradictions, competing passions, flaws, sins, and virtues that can never be neatly smoothed out into a tidy whole. The closest thing to a constant in his life was his need for power and for control.”
Jon Meacham writes this in the epilogue to Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and it is a perfect encapsulation of his noble work on one of our greatest Founding Fathers. He makes the point that Jefferson has had a rough go of it for the past twenty years or so (he wrote it this in 2012), as new DNA evidence made it extremely likely that Jefferson had children by his slave, Sally Hemings. (Annette Gordon-Reed has done great work on this story over the years.) Even since Meacham wrote that, Jefferson’s historical reputation has done little to improve, as Hamilton has once again made the public question the character of Hamilton’s political nemesis.
It seems, based on Meacham’s own words in the epilogue and based on the book as a whole, that Meacham’s goal with The Art of Power is to provide a comprehensive, balanced portrait of Jefferson’s life: one that wrestles with the contradictions while portraying the characteristics that made him such a unique and even honorable man. Even though he writes it at the end of the book, Meacham’s placement of Jefferson in the context of all other humans (and not simply among those on Mount Rushmore) helps the reader understand that historical figures are, at the base level, just like the rest of us. They are complicated. They are not idealistic machines. They are human. Jefferson was human, with the same desires and faults as many others in history. That does little to detract from his impressive legacy, and it makes him all the more interesting as a subject for a biography.
One of the most perplexing questions surrounding Jefferson is how to reconcile his belief in people being born with “inalienable rights” (and even his early stance on abolition) with the slaveholder and plantation enthusiast he became in the early republic. Meacham’s answer: Jefferson was a pragmatist who only backed ideas which were likely to be successful at any given time. Another conundrum: Why was he apparently supportive of federal rebellion such as Shays’ Rebellion, then at least quasi-supportive of more federal power during the era of the Constitutional Convention (he was in France at the time), then an early states-rights activist and opponent of any federal power for most of his career in Washington’s cabinet and afterward, and finally not afraid to use federal power as President of the United States when he used all available executive power (and then some) to make the Louisiana Purchase and thereby double the size of the United States (of which all, it is important to note, officially became federal land)? The answer again: he was in favor of practically gaining power. But at the same time, he genuinely wanted what was best for the United States and believed that his ideas were necessary to achieve that. If I understand Meacham’s argument correctly, Jefferson believed that different approaches were expedient at different times and that one set of ideals could not be practical in all situations. This is, again, contradictory to Jefferson the Partisan in his days as an early Republican (Note: this is Republican at opposed to Federalist, with no direct connection to the modern party except for a few newly-discarded small government ideas). But Jefferson the Partisan vs. Jefferson the President is a very interesting comparison worthy of an entire read of this wonderful book. This exact contradiction is also one of the reasons I look forward to beginning Noah Feldman’s The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.
As always, I am interested in looking at the lives and religious beliefs of people from history and trying to ascertain whether they truly had a saving belief in the gospel. This is usually pretty difficult, as with Hamilton or Washington, and you’re left with a shrug because you don’t know their innermost thoughts. But every once in a while there is a Benjamin Rush who is a pretty convincing Christian throughout his life, and every once in a while there is a Thomas Jefferson. It is widely accepted among historians (real historians, I mean; David Barton doesn’t count) that Jefferson did not hold orthodox Christian beliefs. His rejection of the divinity of Christ and his cafeteria-style, pick-and-choose approach to Biblical truth, among other beliefs, puts him in this position. This means he was not, in fact, redeemed by the blood of Christ. Unless something changed later in life and it is not reflected in any documents, that is unfortunately the case. From a Christian perspective, this changes everything. How much different would his political life have been if he had embraced the entire Christian gospel? How much more likely would he have been to stand on principle? How much less likely to grab for power for its own sake? His entire life is that of someone who has no greater purpose beyond this world. This is not uncommon, but that doesn’t make it any less sad.
Christians today have much for which to thank Jefferson. His fierce belief in religious liberty provided the bedrock on which our entire nation was built. The Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty (one of the three accomplishments that he asked to be put on his tombstone) is testimony to that belief. His commitment and importance in this arena is difficult to overstate. But we cannot claim him as one of our own.
I can highly recommend Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power for many reasons. Meacham is brave and balanced in his portrayal of Jefferson, not willing to accept his critics or his hagiographers at face value. He provides an accurate and empathetic portrait of Jefferson at the same time, and that is difficult to find. Plus, I listened to the audiobook edition of this book, which is only 19 hours and voiced by Rory Gilmore’s grandfather himself. (The late Edward Herrman has a prodigious collection of historical works he performed, and for good reason.) It’s worthy of a read for those interested in the man or the trappings of the American Revolution and the early republic.
I borrowed an audiobook of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power from my local library. Borrow it, request it, or consider donating to your library today.