Personal Complexities and Power

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Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham

A friend of mine, who at the time was deputy commissioner of a state agency in Georgia, had a very large portrait of Jefferson hanging on the wall outside his office. Each occasion I had to visit his office found me in the anteroom taking in the painting. On one such occasion, he stepped out to hand something to his secretary and smirked at my obvious admiration of both the painting and the man.

“Like that?” he asked, as he nodded toward the painting.

“Definitely,” I replied.

“A damn kook,” he said. “You want the painting you can have it.”

I didn’t take it, but our exchange pretty much defines feelings toward Jefferson in these United States, even after two centuries. Jefferson stood at the epicenter of a social and political revolution that now defines our world, and such people will invariably draw polarized reactions to anything they do. Jon Meacham knows that. Even so, what Meacham does in this book is to portray the many complexities of Thomas Jefferson and how those traits were brought to bear on the changing world of the eighteenth century.

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Meacham’s portrayal of Jefferson is one of a confident man, a visionary thinker in many realms – politics, religion, science, and philosophy, and architecture, to name the most obvious. But Meacham goes to pains to point out that Jefferson didn’t live in the clouds; over and over, Jefferson proclaimed that an idea was simply an idea unless one had the ability to implement it. Toward that end, Meacham’s Jefferson knew how to articulate ideas, particularly in writing (he was a less-than-imposing public speaker), and he knew every trick of political power of that time. He made many mistakes in exercising power, but he learned from them.

Beyond politics, he designed his Monticello home and devised many inventions within it. He spoke and read a number of languages. He carried on friendly correspondences with a number of prominent people, both in the newly founded United States, and in Europe. He lost his cherished wife early in his life, and following his period of grief, he apparently carried on a number of liaisons, both here and abroad. He cherished his friends and family, but paid little apparent attention to the multi-racial children he sired with Sally Hemings. He was a lifelong friend of John Adams, but for a while their politics made them adversaries. And he constantly feared that the European urge to monarchy would poison the new republic he helped form.

It would be easy in writing of this era to be seduced by events, to leave Jefferson as a supporting character to history. But Meacham resists this. Instead, he stays close to Jefferson the man, the friend, the father, the politician. As such, many readers will likely feel cheated by this book, as many of the events of the Jeffersonian era are given only passing note. Early in the book Meacham repeats himself in places, which always unsettles me a bit. But his prose is elegant, his portrayal of Jefferson fair and, I think, honest. It’s a book worthy of the man he portrays, and I believe it’s a significant addition to the many books already written about Jefferson.


My rating: 18 of 20 stars




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