Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham is the second Jefferson biography that I have read in the last few months. After reading American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis I thought that reading Meacham’s book would give me an interesting and perhaps alternate perspective on the subject of this American icon. My commentary on Ellis’s book as well as a basic recapitulation of Jefferson’s life is here.
Meacham’s book is extremely balanced in terms of the various aspects of Jefferson’s life. Though Meacham’s central theme and contention is that Jefferson was a masterful politician and wielder of various forms of power, this work effectively covers and connects Jefferson’s personal, professional and philosophical life. This is a very complete and rounded account. It more evenly covers the various facets of Jefferson’s persona than Ellis’s work. Conversely, I found Ellis’s book to delve deeper and to provide a more comprehensive analysis of Jefferson’s political philosophy.
Since there are so many interesting angles of Jefferson’s life covered in this work, I cannot comprehensively encapsulate the material entirely in a single blog post. I will concentrate on what Meacham intended to be the main theme, though really it is only one of several important threads. That main theme is that Jefferson was masterful and pragmatic when he applied power, particularly political power. This brilliant political style led to an incredibly transformative and successful presidency.
Jefferson’s accomplishments as America’s third President were transformative and impressive. Just to name some of his successes, the Louisiana Purchase, a bold move in many ways, doubled the size of the United States and avoided conflict with France. Capital improvement projects involving roads and waterways laid the foundation for future economic prosperity. This President also championed individual rights and expanded participation in government to the masses (at least for white male masses). All of this was accomplished despite the fact that, as I highlighted in my previous commentary, Jefferson’s political and social philosophy often veered into the radical.
During the period of George Washington’s administration, American politics and politicians split into two bitterly divided factions: the Republicans (no connection with today’s modern American Republican Party, this Republican Party eventually changed its name and is now, centuries later, the modern American Democratic Party), led by Jefferson, versus the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton. The Republicans believed in a smaller, weaker, central government. They were pro-agriculture, anti-capitalism, and wanted few checks on the will of the people. The Federalists wanted a more activist and powerful central government, especially when it came to the economics and finance; they were pro-capitalism, and distrusted the general population.
Jefferson, at least before he ascended to the Presidency, expressed support of an extreme version of the Republican viewpoint. He wanted a government with few checks and balances upon the will of the people. He advocated for the dismantling of America’s new finance system created by Hamilton. He also wanted America to remain primarily an agricultural society.
Yet, Meacham points out, as soon as he came into power he began to govern as a pragmatic centrist,
“Critics of Jefferson have argued that his vision of an agrarian nation with a weak central government puts him on the wrong side of history. It was Hamilton, they say, who correctly anticipated a future that would require a system of capital and large-scale action to create the means of national greatness. This critique of Jefferson, while familiar, is incomplete. Jefferson sent a reassuring signal to the manufacturing and financial interests who had learned to fear him as a champion of the agrarian over the commercial.”
During his first term in office, an incredible opportunity for the United States was presented when France offered to sell the enormous Louisiana Territory to America for a ridiculously low price. Jefferson, being a vigorous advocate of a limited government felt that he did not have the authority to make the deal and believed that he needed to initiate the lengthy process of amending the Constitution to acquire the authority. When it became apparent that France would withdraw the offer as a result of such a delay, Jefferson “put aside” his political convictions and just went ahead with the deal. Meacham portrays this event as the ultimate triumph of political pragmatism.
It was not solely as a realistic moderate that drove Jefferson’s successful tenure as chief executive. Though he wrote scathing attacks concerning his political foes, when it came to “face to face” communication Meacham describes him as a purveyor of “soft power”. Jefferson was a charmer and skilled in the art of persuasion. The author details how throughout his long political career, this Founder learned and honed the skills needed to convince rather then compel, as well as the skills needed to make people like him. Later as President these talents came in very handy,
“Jefferson governed personally. He knew no other way. He had watched Peyton Randolph lead the House of Burgesses, sometimes in meetings in Randolph’s deep-red clapboard house at Nicholson and North England streets in Williamsburg. From his time spent in the Confederation Congress and presiding over the Senate for four years as vice president, Jefferson appreciated how to handle lawmakers, for he had long been one. Even then a president’s attentions meant the world to politicians and ordinary people alike. For all his low-key republican symbolism, Jefferson understood that access to the president himself could make all the difference in statecraft— hence his dinners with lawmakers and his willingness to receive callers. The strategy worked. In the Jefferson years Republicans were heard to acknowledge that “the President’s dinners had silenced them” at moments when they were inclined to vote against the administration. “
Even his fervent supporters sometimes acknowledged that as governor of Virginia during the American Revolution, Jefferson seemed weak and indecisive at times. Meacham argues that he learned from these early mistakes. To the surprise of many of his critics, as President, Jefferson showed strength, even aggression, by boldly taking extra constitutional measures when buying Louisiana from France, warring with the Barbary States, etc.
“In the partisan wars of the 1790s, many of his foes had misinterpreted his disposition toward individual freedom rather than toward Hamiltonian authority as dreaminess and weakness. They would learn— quickly and unmistakably— that they were wrong. “
Jefferson was a brilliant and important enlightenment thinker. In terms of theory on individual liberty, his writings, including the American Declaration of Independence, draw a roadmap to individual rights and liberty that reverberates through the present day. He also articulated wariness over the power of government that also resounds through history.
Yet, as Meacham’s book argues, he was also a strong, competent and brilliant real world leader. I would contend that Jefferson was likely the only genius to attain the office of President of the United States. I think that such a combination of great philosophical theory and strong and effective leadership is rare in history.
Marcus Aurelius comes to mind. Indeed upon his retirement from the presidency Meacham writes,
“From France, the U.S. consul at Paris sent Jefferson a book about Marcus Aurelius. “ Along with the gift was a note comparing Jefferson to the Roman Emperor.
There is so much more to this book. Jefferson’s personal life is covered in rich human detail. This account includes his liaison with Maria Cosworth as well as his relationship, which may have been coerced, with Sally Hemings. As exemplified by his relationship with Hemings, a slave that bore several of Jefferson’s children, Meacham does not shy away from Jefferson’s flaws. His record on slavery was poor, even by standards of the time. He initiated a horrendous campaign of war and forced relocation upon several Native American Tribes. He persecuted political enemies and engaged at what were at times vicious partisan rancor.
This is a great book both for readers who know little or nothing about the man as well as for those who are more familiar with his life story. The life, including the contradictions, of this great thinker are well worth exploring. Meacham has proven to be an intelligent, fair and enlightening guide.