National Review / Digital
A Political Man
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham (Random House, 759 pp., $35)


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.

December 17, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 23

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