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Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power - Jon Meacham A remarkable achievement. Meacham takes a man who's life and writings seem apparently full of contradiction (at once an advocate of states rights and a violent opponent to the secessionist tendencies of the Federalist north for example) into something that hangs together and makes sense. The most celebrated and oft quoted for justification speeches and writings of Jefferson are herein put within a context that has previously escaped the notice of most Jefferson biographers, namely, the lingering fear on Jefferson's part that the American experiment might fail and that the states would again fall under the dominion of the British or other monarchists. In short, Jefferson said and did what needed to be done as a patriot who loved his creation, the United States. To keep people together he preached unity and centralization of political power for mutual defense. To prevent the rise of Federalists (embodied by Hamilton), he urged protest and opposition to blanket grabs for power like the Alien and Sedition Acts and the expansion of the federal judiciary. On it's face, a man who is used to justify programs and policies on the left and right in modern America would seem to lack any sort of ideological purity, but that's not necessarily the case. In any event, Meacham's Jefferson is a man of practicality above politics to the extent that he was willing to use "Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends." He detested and mistrusted power, unless it was in his own hands and America is lucky to have had a man of such high principle and reason in its infancy and during its most vulnerable formative years.

Meacham succeeds quite wonderfully in making sense of our loftiest political thinker. Washington was the means by which America achieved its independence, but you can really argue that the entire experiment and its workings are Jefferson's entirely (and maybe Madison's as well). James Parton once said, "If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right." Meacham succeeds insofar as reading his life of Jefferson lends infinite weight and credibility to that statement. His treatment is fair and well-rounded and the conundrums of Jefferson's life - his detestation of slavery and his ownership of hundreds for example - aren't shied away from or overly rationalized. Weaknesses and embarrassing episodes serve to humanize the enigmatic revolutionary. I think the most interesting thing I learned about him, and most human, was that he loved praise. He wanted to be right and for people to think him so, and correspondingly hated criticism and public censure. A man concerned about his reputation, he sought not to manipulate public sentiment in shady ways, but in real ways - winning people over to his point-of-view through reason and the soundness of his cause rather than politics. This was astonishing to me considering how lofty an idealist he appears to be in quotation and in public statements like the Declaration of Independence. The man of committed principle felt extremely uncomfortable with confrontational situations and avoided them at all cost. While some might argue that this amounted to cowardice and some hang-usp about the thoughts and feelings of others, what it often did was win people over who thought they couldn't stand him based on his political views. Almost universally, his political enemies walked away from him with a sense of personal-liking or at least respect when Jefferson invited them to dinner to defuse tensions. He did so because of his desire to be well-thought-of. The result was a degree of overarching amicability in spite of the thunderous partisanship of the 1790s. Modern politicians should take note.

Also enjoyable were the frequent literary exchanges outlined by Meacham between Jefferson and the eminent thinkers and politicians of the age. In particular, Jefferson's relationship with John Adams and James Madison shed useful lights on the thought processes behind a man who's actions are familiar to us. More than that, it was insightful and warm to see the friendship between men who are celebrated individuals who's achievements are usually presented chiefly independently, like "Jefferson was bought the Louisiana Territory," without any context that references the haggling of people like Monroe and the advice of men like Jefferson or the opposition of Federalists. I also enjoyed the analysis of Jefferson's experiences in Paris during the onset of the French Revolution and his reactions to it when he returned home and it turned more violent. Placing the history of both revolutions side by side, indeed, intimately entwined, was something new for me as a reader, and I enjoyed it immensely. As independent topics, they're among my favorites, together they paint a comprehensive picture of a seminal era.

Meacham stays away from politicization and some of his best chapters, the beginning and latter ones, trace Jefferson's influence across modern party lines in a brilliant way of showing how pervasively Jeffersonian the nation remains. The argument that Jefferson wanted power to make it his America and succeeded is pretty inarguable. The book is well-researched, annotated and includes and contextualizes the wider scholarship of Jeffersonian history, which is wide indeed. Meacham's approach is scholarly, yet readable - approachable for historians and non-historians alike. He doesn't allow himself to get caught up in tangents and side stories unless they serve to illustrate key points and it keeps the narrative trim and focused - a difficult task when one's subject is such a prolific writer and about whom so much was written by contemporaries. It contrasts strongly with Goodwin's [b:Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln|2199|Team of Rivals The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln|Doris Kearns Goodwin|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347278868s/2199.jpg|2861004], an alternative approach that is mired in meticulous detail down to descriptions of the way Lincoln walked on particular days of his life. Both approaches have merits and both books are scholarly and readable. Meacham's wins for directness and for focusing on themes to contextualize those contradictory moments of Jefferson's life to present a uniform vision of a meaningful life with generous helpings of Jefferson's own words and thoughts liberally sprinkled throughout.