Book Review: Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson:  The Art of Power
By Jon Meacham
Random House, New York, 2013

Despite weighing in at over 500 pages, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham, seems to be just an introduction to the man.  It’s not that The Art of Power is a bad book.  On the contrary, Meacham tells his story well, and despite its length, the book moves along at a good pace.  The problem is that even though the book focuses on one major theme of Jefferson’s life –his desire for and exercise of power – Meacham skims over many key events, leaving me curious and unsatisfied about the details. 

I grew up in Canada and never studied much early US history in school.  (I got a bellyful of British history, though.)  The Art of Power filled in some large gaps in my knowledge. 

The biggest revelation to me was how very precarious the American experiment in republican democracy was in its early years.  I knew of Jefferson’s belief in democracy and the right of everyone (or at least every white male) to participate in it. And I knew there were certain factions that wanted to establish an American aristocracy, even a monarchy after the revolution.  However, the Federalists were more than just a faction  — they held sway during the latter years of Washington’s presidency and all through John Adams’.  The Art of Power details Jefferson’s decades-long struggle against the Federalists. 

Meacham also does a nice job of setting America’s nascent democracy in contrast to Britain’s stifling monarchy on the one hand, and the revolutionary excesses and Napoleonic dictatorship of France on the other.  America had a choice to make.  Jefferson wanted the US to follow neither example and to chart its own path.  It’s easy to scoff at the patriotic hype nowadays, but in Jefferson’s time America’s form of government really was a radical departure and a bold experiment. 

Meacham is clearly a Jefferson admirer.  He does not sidestep the controversies surrounding Jefferson’s life and career, but he usually puts them in favorable light.  Probably the most controversial aspect of Jefferson’s life was his attitude to slavery, and to one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, in particular.  As a philosopher, Jefferson recognized slavery was an abomination.  As a pragmatic politician, he apparently decided fairly early in his career that abolition would have to be the task of another generation.  As a wealthy Virginia landowner and slave owner, he had a vested interest in the survival of the institution.   And after the death of his wife, Jefferson began a “relationship” with his wife’s half sister, the slave Sally Hemings.  Whether she had any say in the matter is highly debatable.  Without making excuses for Jefferson’s conduct, Meacham tries to place it within the context of the times.   

My main frustration with The Art of Power is that the book seems to gloss over specific details of exactly how Jefferson exercised power or influence at key events in his career.  Meacham’s description of the 1800 election that brought Jefferson to the Presidency, for example, makes it seem like Jefferson was virtually a spectator, an off-stage presence who somehow, almost accidentally, emerged as President.  Of course, he must have campaigned intensely for the office, likely for years, even if campaigns in those days were done differently than they are today.

Similarly, I learned more details about how Jefferson managed the Louisiana Purchase from reading Stephen Ambrose’s book Undaunted Courage about the Lewis & Clark expedition.

I realize there’s so much material about Jefferson that it’s impossible to do justice to his whole life in one volume.  But that just makes me wonder if Meacham might have produced a better book had he attempted to cover less of the full span of Jefferson’s life but in more detail.

If you’ve never read a biography of Jefferson, this is probably a good one to start with.  I certainly learned a lot from the book.  Afterwards you may want to fill in the gaps with books on specific topics or events you’re interested in.  Meacham’s 40-page bibliography would be a good starting point. 

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