Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Guest Review: Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power

Summary: In this magnificent biography, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston brings vividly to life an extraordinary man and his remarkable times. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power gives us Jefferson the politician and president, a great and complex human being forever engaged in the wars of his era. Philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power.

Thomas Jefferson hated confrontation, and yet his understanding of power and of human nature enabled him to move men and to marshal ideas, to learn from his mistakes, and to prevail. Passionate about many things—women, his family, books, science, architecture, gardens, friends, Monticello, and Paris—Jefferson loved America most, and he strove over and over again, despite fierce opposition, to realize his vision: the creation, survival, and success of popular government in America. Jon Meacham lets us see Jefferson’s world as Jefferson himself saw it, and to appreciate how Jefferson found the means to endure and win in the face of rife partisan division, economic uncertainty, and external threat. Drawing on archives in the United States, England, and France, as well as unpublished Jefferson presidential papers, Meacham presents Jefferson as the most successful political leader of the early republic, and perhaps in all of American history.

The father of the ideal of individual liberty, of the Louisiana Purchase, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and of the settling of the West, Jefferson recognized that the genius of humanity—and the genius of the new nation—lay in the possibility of progress, of discovering the undiscovered and seeking the unknown. From the writing of the Declaration of Independence to elegant dinners in Paris and in the President’s House; from political maneuverings in the boardinghouses and legislative halls of Philadelphia and New York to the infant capital on the Potomac; from his complicated life at Monticello, his breathtaking house and plantation in Virginia, to the creation of the University of Virginia, Jefferson was central to the age. Here too is the personal Jefferson, a man of appetite, sensuality, and passion.

The Jefferson story resonates today not least because he led his nation through ferocious partisanship and cultural warfare amid economic change and external threats, and also because he embodies an eternal drama, the struggle of the leadership of a nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world. -- Random House

Last summer at BEA, I was so excited to see that Jon Meacham was going to be signing copies of his new book THOMAS JEFFERSON, THE ART OF POWER. I rarely wait in lines for author's autographs, but I wanted to make an exception for this book because I knew my dad would want to read it. Fortunately, the line wasn't too bad and I was able to get him a personalized ARC. He was pretty happy with the "gift" until I asked him a few months later for a review! Here are his thoughts:

In THOMAS JEFFERSON, THE ART OF POWER, author Jon Meacham explores Jefferson in his roles as philosopher, politician and forward-thinking leader. Meacham presents some familiar portrayals of Jefferson: the man of contradictions, the third president, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the slave owner, the builder of Monticello and the founder of the University of Virginia. This is not new material and is not what makes this novel so interesting. What makes this 500 page book worth reading is the picture Meacham paints as to how Jefferson wielded his power to accomplish his visions.

Most of us have been presented a picture of Jefferson as a brilliant thinker, writer and philosopher. What Meacham reveals is a man who also was a brilliant politician. He shows Jefferson as a man who opposed George Washington while acting as Secretary of State, criticized John Adams while serving as his Vice-President and strongly objected to Alexander Hamilton’s plans for the federal treasury. Jefferson was chosen as the third president of the United States but only after a tie with Aaron Burr was broken by the House of Representatives. In all these events, Jefferson played politics with the best of them to influence the outcome of the issues. Many of these situations remind one of the political battles we see in Washington today.

Despite Jefferson’s philosophy of being opposed to a strong federal government at the expense of state rights, he didn’t always reflect that view in his presidential actions. Two strong examples are the Louisiana Purchase and the naval attack on the Barbary pirates. In each case Jefferson utilized powers that were considered beyond his authority as president in order to move his vision for the country forward. This ability to think forward and at the same time be politically savvy is what separates Jefferson from others.

Meacham also shows the human side of Jefferson as he shares examples of his dedication to his wife, children and grandchildren; his time in Paris during the French revolution; his entertainment practices at the White House; his life after his fifty years of public service and his reconciliation with John Adams who died the same day as Jefferson on the fiftieth anniversary of the nations independence.

Although I felt that Meacham tended to show Jefferson in a most favorable light, he does address some of Jefferson’s failures. Jefferson’s time as governor of Virginia is not presented as a highlight of his political career. Meacham addresses Jefferson’s relationship with slave Sally Hemings as the unquestionable father of at least six of her children. Jefferson’s record on the slave issue is also reported in a negative light. Although Jefferson appeared to oppose slavery he not only held slaves himself but neglected to push the issue on the public stage. I do think Meacham left Jefferson off the hook a little on the slave issue by stating Jefferson knew he couldn’t get a consensus on the issue so he didn’t pursue it.

It’s obvious that Jon Meacham did a great amount of research in writing this novel. Meacham’s style brings Jefferson to life. It is well written and I feel it’s the equivalent of his Pulitzer Prize novel about Andrew Jackson, American Lion. An interesting and helpful feature of the book is the inclusion of a Cast of Characters chapter that gives brief biographies of all the significant characters.

I recommend THOMAS JEFFERSON, THE ART OF POWER to anyone who wants to learn more about the beginning of our country and one of its great founding fathers.

Thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his fantastic review.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have this on tape and can't wait to listen, although it sounds like it isn't all that objective!

Beth F said...

I can't wait to get to this. I've read a few biographies of Jefferson, and I find him to be such a complex person.

bermudaonion said...

It's only in the last few years that I've realized politicians were as bad back then as they are now and that kind of breaks my heart. I have a feeling this book is too academic for me.

Serena said...

This is on my to read list. I wonder if there is enough here about the American Revolution to qualify for the War Through the Generations 2013 challenge?