Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
2012, 800 pp
Link to the Amazon review
Throughout our history Presidents as politically diverse as Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Kennedy and Reagan have enthusiastically embraced the legacy of their predecessor, Thomas Jefferson. Recent scholarship on the Founding generation, however, has unfairly diminished Jefferson in Jon Meacham's view. Biographies of Washington, Adams and Hamilton have all tended to reduce Jefferson to the role of an intriguer lurking in the background, a foil for Hamilton and Adams in particular. In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Meacham reclaims Jefferson's prominence in setting America on her course, asserting that most of the Presidents who served between 1800 and 1840 were Jeffersonians, and holds Jefferson up as a role model for today's politicians struggling to reconcile political idealism with the realism needed to traverse the rough waters of democratic politics.
The Art of Power is a very well written narrative and moves at a fast paced with chapters generally ranging from 10-15 pages. While Meacham clearly admires Jefferson, though, he is able to acknowledge Jefferson's failures and contradictions as well. However, there are several shortcomings that detracted from my enjoyment of the Art of Power.
First, while The Art of Power covers Jefferson's personal and political lives thoroughly, Meacham appears to have been poorly served by certain curious editorial choices. His summation of Jefferson's legacy appears in the Author's Note, and much of the detail necessary to inform the reader of vital details is contained in the nearly 200 pages of end notes. For example the text makes it appear as if there is no question whatsoever regarding Jefferson's paternity of his slave's children. Only in the footnotes will the reader learn of the controversy and evidence supporting both Meacham's conclusion and other possibilities. The complexities involved in other details of the Jefferson story sometimes also seem slighted in order to ensure the narrative pace remains speedy.
Next, despite his theme of a politician who mastered the art of power to successfully reconcile philosophy with practicality Meacham treads lightly on Jefferson's philosophy (one of very few omissions in his lengthy bibliography, tellingly, is Jean Yarborough's study of Jefferson's political and moral philosophy). This is a shame because his portrait of a Jefferson that does not fit the libertarian mold is provocative and interesting. Meacham's Jefferson is less antipathetic to large government, federal and executive power and commerce than is commonly understood today, but Meacham does little to explore further Jefferson's thinking on these and other matters, nor does he attempt any explanation of why the Jefferson of common perception does not fit Meacham's own reading, which would have been very interesting to me. His is a Jefferson more of action than thought.
Readers looking for a high readable introduction to the political events of Jefferson's time or personal life will enjoy this work, and it seems to fill the need for a good medium sized Jefferson biography to fill the gap between R.B. Bernstein's very perceptive short study and Merrill Peterson's 1,000 page tome. Those seeking a more rounded treatment of all Jefferson's facets may find themselves disappointed, however. Similarly, readers looking for a more robust treatment of the period may wish to utilize Meacham's exhaustive bibliography for further reading.