Oct 18

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham ★★

I published this book review on 10/18/2020, but after some forethought and starting yet another period history book on the War of 1812, am realizing that this book does not deserve the faint praise that I gave to it. I also added additional reasons why I truly disliked this text.

This book unsurprisingly details the life and thoughts of our third president, Thomas Jefferson. I had already read the biographies of Washington, John Adams and Hamilton before attacking this book. I had awaiting me yet a history of the war of 1812, Andrew Jackson, as well as that of Madison and Monroe. After that, I will return to studies on the Civil War. This book was not as well liked by me, and does not stand up to the standard set by the other biographies mentioned above. I realize that this book might have been a NYT best seller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, yet truth be told, such accolades are essentially meaningless. This text is much shorter than other period biographies in several ways. There are multiple short chapters, each chapter named in standard fashion by some brief snippet of text found within that chapter. This book has a lengthy reference section, yet the text itself is only 505 pages, and the type face is 12 point on 15 point leading (larger than the typical 10/13 or 11/14 point type found in most texts), in narrower than typical columns, thus deceptively making the reader believe they are getting as much content as a typical biography text.

As would be expected, Meacham starts with the birth and early years of Jefferson’s life, being born on his father’s land at Shadwell, VA which lies in the shadow of Monticello. He attended college in Williamsburg, and there demonstrated some of his brilliance that led him to rise to echelons of power. His teachers and acquaintances at William and Mary college eventually put him into revolutionary circles. Meacham does not point out any illustrative traits that would suggest Jefferson’s greatness, and instead avoids laudatory praise at this stage in his life. Jefferson was eventually assigned the duty of writing the Declaration of Independence, though with the help and corrections of other founding fathers. During the Revolutionary War, there are large lacunae in Jefferson’s life, save for an episode in 1781, where Benedict Arnold and a troop of Redcoats moved on Monticello, with Jefferson running for his life, branding him a coward by many. Jefferson, having a love for all things French, became involved as an ambassador to France, and was assigned to be the secretary of state by Washington. Meacham omits much of the struggles between him and Hamilton while serving on Washington’s cabinet. Jefferson’s time in France and his interactions with John Adams in England are chronicled.

Jefferson was described repeatedly as a man that loved agriculture and loved the land. He designed and built, and then rebuilt the mansion at Monticello, and had his best moments while at Monticello, or at his vacation home at Poplar Forest. Jefferson was non-confrontational. He was not a Trump. Jefferson enjoyed the art of hospitality while at Monticello. Meacham speaks about Jefferson’s family. Jefferson lost his wife fairly early on and never was remarried. Jefferson’s sexual escapades included Sally Hemings, one of his “slaves” (though more white than black) who he took to France with him. He had a number of children from his real wife, though only two survived early childhood. With Sally, Jefferson also had children who were freed at Jefferson’s death and then went on to productive lives in the north as whites.

The presidency of Jefferson was notable for three events. First was the Louisiana purchase. Almost simultaneously was the commissioning of Lewis and Clark for their expedition. Thirdly was the trade embargo with England in hopes of avoiding a war with England. Sadly, many details were missing from each of these episodes. This is true of many other events in Jefferson’s life, making it very frustrating to read this book. Meacham did not master the art of story-telling.

Up until now, Jefferson’s life had not been portrayed by Meacham in glowing terms. Meacham was open about the many inconsistencies of Jefferson and tended to disparage him all along. Most notable was Jefferson’s inability to remain consistent with his ideology. Jefferson soundly condemned Hamilton’s banking system, yet realized he could not live without it and left it essentially unchanged. Jefferson condemned strong federal functions, yet purchased the Louisiana territory from France almost independent of the congress. Jefferson deployed the navy against the Barbary pirates, again in contrast to his arguments against Hamilton in forming a strong military. Jefferson remained a Francophile, blinding himself to the French revolution and its associated atrocities. Jefferson remained forever duplicitous regarding slavery, both wishing it gone, but finding that he couldn’t live without it. Jefferson was a brilliant, convivial man of great contradictions.

The last few years after his presidency was spent back at Monticello. Jefferson engaged in starting the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in valley below Monticello. This was intended to deter Virginians from needing to go up north to Harvard and Princeton for their education.

There are several reasons why I have problems with this book.

  1. Many of the events in Jefferson’s life are mentioned by starting the event story, but never completing it. This made the reading of this book to be very frustrating. A side story was started, and one expects that the story will perhaps be completed later in the book, yet it doesn’t happen. There are huge silent periods. What was Jefferson doing for most of the Revolutionary War? How was he aiding the war effort, and did he have any input into how congress or the war conducted itself? Meacham starts the story of the commissioning of the Lewis and Clark expedition, yet one is left with Lewis and Clark somewhere in the Rockies, presumably hunkered down for the winter after sending gifts back to Washington. Did they ever make it to the Pacific and back to the east coast? How did it affect Jefferson and further development of the country? The Louisiana purchase is briefly mentioned, but then one if left dangling. And then what happened? How did it go through congress? How was it received? How was it paid for? How did Jefferson justify the purchase as it seemed to go against his small-government Republican principles? At the end of Jefferson’s life, he started to build a university in Charlottesville and would watch its construction from Monticello. What became of that? How far did the university go in Jefferson’s lifetime? What was distinctive about it? How did it become the University of Virginia? How was it financed, since Jefferson was stone broke at the end of his life? I could mention many more examples of Meacham leaving the reader dangling.
  2. Details of importance related to many of the events of Jefferson’s life are glossed over. One misses the struggles of the Federalists vs. the Republicans, thus failing to show how Jefferson altered politics at the beginning of his term. One misses how Jefferson’s British policies were responsible for the eventual War of 1812. One loses the fanatical Fracophile leanings that Jefferson possessed that blinded him to tragedies such as the reign of terror in the French Revolution. One is not filled in how Jefferson’s enlightenment world view affected his religion and his decisions as President. The embargo enacted by Jefferson toward the end of his second term had colossal effects on America’s relationship to England and France, yet this is barely discussed.
  3. There is offered no serious analysis as to how Jefferson’s decisions and life affected the world to come. I don’t expect Meacham to offer his personal opinions, but I would love to know how the various controversies of Jefferson’s life, and how they were analyzed from and 18th and early 19th century perspective. Jefferson truly hated Hamilton for his system of banking, yet almost nothing was mentioned about it, even though it was a very big deal to Jefferson. Regarding Jefferson with his stance with the Indian populations; what were they? There was no serious analysis of Jefferson’s thinking regarding slavery, and how he justified his stance. Books of this sort should lead the reader in deep thought about the nature of our government and issues that existed in Jefferson’s time that persists today. Meacham does not compel the reader to think seriously about anything, and perhaps he is simply catering to the mentality of the readers of the New York Times?

One is left with an enormous question as they come to the close of reading this book. What was so great about Thomas Jefferson? Yet, the last two chapters of this book were an apotheosis of the man. The events surrounding his death, his worship by his friends, and his legacy were not well explained by this text. Is the book worth reading? Perhaps, in that, you do receive a brief history of the man, Thomas Jefferson. My advice would be to seek out other texts on Jefferson if you are indeed seriously interested. You will be disappointed with this text. What you will be missing is the development of the greatness of the man. Perhaps there is a better biography of Jefferson out there; this book is not the definitive text of Thomas Jefferson’s life.

Tagged with:
1 Comment »
preload preload preload