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A Political Man

by Michael F. Bishop
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham (Random House, 759 pp., $35)

Thomas Jefferson is not in vogue. His Democratic descendants long ago abandoned his philosophy of limited government, Republicans rarely invoke him, and scholars tend to focus on the gulf between his principles and his actions. The recent wave of books about the Founders burnished the reputation of the Federalists at Jefferson’s expense; he is depicted as an unrepentant slaveholder and unscrupulous politician more often than as a champion of liberty. Even his memorial in Washington seems cut off and adrift since the mania for security after 9/11 rendered it less accessible.

In the evening of his life, Jefferson knew his reputation would ever be an object of contention, and wished mainly to be remembered as the “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia.” But even these supreme achievements jostle for attention in a crowded and controversial life, during which he held the highest offices of state.

Jon Meacham, a Random House executive and former editor of Newsweek, is the Virginian’s latest biographer. A previous chronicler of FDR and Andrew Jackson, and a liberal television commentator, he is a sort of Democratic court historian, an Arthur Schlesinger for the Age of Obama. In polished, unobtrusive prose, he sands away the edges of his party’s founder, showing us a wise leader possessed of high ideals but adept at the political arts. Meacham’s book is not particularly original, but it is surprisingly and unfashionably celebratory. His Jefferson is more icon than man.

Meacham delivers one key insight: Never did a politician pursue power so assiduously, and wield it so gracefully, while disavowing interest in it. The conventions of the day demanded such protestations, but Jefferson, as he often did with pen in hand, went to extremes. With correspondents he lamented the miseries of political life and voiced his desire for retirement. While still vice president, and with years of public service ahead of him, he wrote: “My books, my family, my friends, and my farm, furnish more than enough to occupy me for the remainder of my life.” This was pious nonsense, of course, and just the sort of thing that set his critics’ teeth on edge. Alexander Hamilton, who would know, called him “a man of profound ambition and violent passions.” But Jefferson so idealized his private life, and so internalized his self-image as a farmer drawn reluctantly to the political fray, that he probably believed what he wrote.

Meacham makes no apology for adding to the vast Jeffersonian library, and indeed the time is right for a full, single-volume biography. A quarter-century has passed since Merrill Peterson’s massive Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation; its interpretations are dated and its proportions unwieldy. The more recent American Sphinx, by Joseph Ellis, is provocative and stylishly written but episodic. R. B. Bernstein’s Thomas Jefferson is good but brief, and the late Christopher Hitchens’s effort, though a joy to read, is briefer still. For concision, literary flair, and originality of argument, Jefferson’s Demons, by Michael Knox Beran (whose writing often graces these pages), is unsurpassed. All of these authors owe a vast debt to Dumas Malone, whose admiring six-volume Jefferson and His Time is one of the greatest American biographies.

Meacham’s treatment of Jefferson is as benign as Malone’s; he is dazzled by the brilliance of his subject. Jefferson “always loved the light,” Meacham notes, but there were shadows in his nature: wide-eyed protestations of innocence when caught in acts of political chicanery; dramatic departures from his avowed policy of executive restraint; and half-hearted condemnations of slavery while keeping more than 100 souls in bondage. And Meacham tends to ascribe Jefferson’s failures to external circumstance: His unfortunate wartime governorship of Virginia was undone by the constitutional defects of the office, and the embargo of 1807–09, which sent both the economy and President Jefferson’s popularity into a tailspin, was the “least bad” option available. There is truth in all this, certainly, but executive responsibility tended to expose the weaknesses in Jefferson’s character.

He is very fine company regardless. Though devoted to statesmanship, he loved women, wine, art, gardening, and music. About what other president can it be said that many books have been written about his passion for each? He is second only to Abraham Lincoln as the greatest prose stylist to live in the White House, and irresistibly quotable. He was the nation’s first great architect, eternally devoted to making America a more beautiful place, as Monticello, the University of Virginia, and the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond make clear. His “canine appetite for books” drove him to assemble one of the finest collections on the continent, the sale of which to the Library of Congress was a landmark in that institution’s development. And he was his country’s foremost patron of science, dedicated to expanding the frontiers of knowledge. His was an astonishingly useful life.

Meacham’s book is admirably constructed, with brief chapters that speed along the narrative. Sometimes his regard for his subject gets the better of him: Jefferson was not “a student of human nature,” as Meacham asserts, but seemed rather to avert his eyes from it. And though Meacham quotes at length from Jefferson’s first inaugural address, he omits the call for “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.” Presumably, this won’t do in the Age of Obama.

Meacham acknowledges that many have “treated Jefferson’s fears of monarchy as fanciful, paranoid, or at best exaggerated to the point of unseriousness,” but contends that such fears were “as fundamental to Jefferson’s thoughts and actions as the cold war with the Soviet Union was to American presidents from Truman to George H. W. Bush.” “Fundamental” they may have been, but surely it is the historian’s task to judge whether they were based in reality. And despite Washington’s sense of ceremony, Adams’s advocacy of titles, and Hamilton’s fondness for British institutions, the early American republic was threatened more by foreign intrigue than by homegrown monarchy.

Sometimes the author flies too quickly through his story and relegates to endnotes too much of his admirably extensive research. For example, he states as a given that Jefferson had a decades-long liaison with Sally Hemings that produced several children. Jefferson’s paternity is a strong possibility: DNA evidence establishes a link between the male Jeffersons and at least one of Sally’s children; he was a virile man whose wife died when he was only 39; Sally was his wife’s half-sister and may have resembled her; with only one black grandparent she was described as “mighty near white,” which might have overcome Jefferson’s horror of miscegenation; visitors to Monticello remarked on the resemblance between servants and master; and the only slaves Jefferson freed in his will were Sally’s children. The casual reader might wish to delve into the fascinating evidence — on a point that is still impossible to prove with certainty — without having to flip to the end of the book.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is an affectionate and insightful portrait of its subject, and readers unfamiliar with the third president will finish it much the wiser. Two centuries later, the Jeffersonian era seems familiar yet more civilized; political campaigns were vicious, but candidates were spared the extreme and undignified exertions required today. Jefferson “ran” for president by remaining at Monticello, writing letters and entertaining visitors; excerpts from the former and accounts of the latter depict a humane and cultured politician. But Meacham glides a bit too serenely over his subject’s many contradictions. Henry Adams warned long ago that Jefferson’s character could be depicted only “touch by touch, with a fine pencil, and the perfection of the likeness depended upon the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transparent shadows.” Not for nothing did David McCullough, that sunny chronicler of the American pageant, after resolving to write a history of the Jefferson-Adams relationship, recoil from the Virginian and devote himself to the New Englander.

Jefferson’s pursuit of the finer things enriched his life but ruined his finances. He died deeply in debt; Monticello and most of its contents were auctioned off to satisfy his creditors. His legacy to his beloved family was dissipated. And his historical legacy is more troubled than that of any other Founder. But those who would hurl him from his pedestal for his ownership of slaves should remember that his Declaration was a powerful weapon in Lincoln’s rhetorical arsenal. His life was colossal in its dimensions, and he remains the most fascinating figure in American history. A man so gifted and protean can withstand harsh scrutiny and still, in his words, “ride above the storms.”

– Mr. Bishop has held several posts on Capitol Hill and in the White House, and is the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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