The art of power

A new look at Thomas Jefferson

Created date

March 26th, 2013
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

When Thomas Jefferson came into the world, April 13, 1743, his parents couldn’t have imagined the man he would become. He was a philosopher, inventor, statesman, and revolutionary.

Throughout his illustrious career, he served as the governor of Virginia, author of the Declaration of Independence, secretary of state, vice president, and president of the United States.

To be sure, Thomas Jefferson was a man of innumerable talents, foremost among them, his artful use of power.

In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, 2012), Jon Meacham bypasses the long line of writers who have added to the sea of existing books about the life of America’s third president. The result—a fresh and fascinating depiction of a founding father and cunning politician wrapped in one.

Therein lies the irony that was Thomas Jefferson; a walking contradiction who, as Meacham demonstrates, abhorred political parties (or “factions,” as he called them) and yet proved to be the most politically motivated of our founding fathers. Indeed, Jefferson was downright Machiavellian and possessed an uncanny knack for wielding great power without appearing to do so.

Not ready to rest on his laurels

After resigning as George Washington’s secretary of state in December 1793, Jefferson purportedly retired to a quiet life of reading at Monticello, all the while paying journalists to plant scandalous stories about his Federalist opponents. Though the election of 1800 was several years away, Jefferson wasted no time in sowing the seeds for a move to the White House, aspirations that he publicly disclaimed time and again.

Like Washington, Adams, and a host of their post-Revolutionary counterparts, Jefferson coped with an identity crisis. He straddled two worlds of thought—those of the classical philosopher who was above political squabbling and the democratic politician who thrived on it.

Under the new political system that he had helped create, the latter dominated, and Jefferson took to it like a fish to water. In this beautifully written book, Meacham gives us plenty of examples.

The Louisiana Purchase

The best one is Jefferson’s masterful acquisition of 500 million acres from Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. With the stroke of a pen, the sage Virginian’s Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States, while simultaneously expanding the presidency’s role in domestic and foreign affairs.

Still, in his treatment of Jefferson the man, Meacham sometimes comes off as a wide-eyed intern on his first day in the White House. His biography of the enlightened philosopher who loved liberty and prided himself on small government seems at odds with the slave-holding politician so adept at manipulating public opinion, not to mention the president bent on territorial expansion.

Even so, Meacham has given us a well-written, well-researched book that is a welcomed addition to the wealth of literature, which, collectively, attempts to illuminate one of the most complex characters in American history.