This fine biography by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Jon Meacham draws a vivid picture of Jefferson. Mr. Meacham clearly admires Jefferson, but as the subtitle “The Art of Power” shows, he was not blind to his weaknesses. Jefferson was charming, yet he knew how to manipulate situations to stay in control. He was never satisfied unless in control and was exceptionally good at gaining it. His compensating trait was that he genuinely liked people and beyond control he really wished no harm.
Many consider him the most intelligent President we have ever had, and that could likely be the case. He was brilliant, a voracious reader, a student, a thinker, and had a naturally inquiring mind. Despite wanting to be liked by people, he was ever true to himself. Give him a chance at personal contact and he could disarm most critics, except, of course, Alexander Hamilton. As you read you will discover a man you can’t help but like despite his bewildering moral inconsistencies.
Jefferson was the most articulate spokesman of the liberties that were the battle cry of the Founders. His writing of the Declaration of Independence was epic, though he wrote little else besides personal letters the rest of his days. He was in Paris when the Constitution was drafted, yet his influence was there in the person of his protegee, James Madison.
He served in Washington’s administration, but that was often difficult as he ever battled Hamilton. The parties of Federalist (Hamilton) and Republican (Jefferson) developed in spite of Washington’s disdain of them. Washington sided more often with the Federalists as that matched his thinking. He still respected Jefferson and always listened to what he had to say. I was saddened to see that though Jefferson respected Washington in many ways, he did not love him and was rather happy when he retired. Maybe that control thing blinded him.
After Adams term and the straining of that friendship, Jefferson finally got the control he wished in his two terms as President. He actually kicked off the Virginia Dynasty where his protegees followed him for the longest run in American politics (24 years). His term in office was a success. The Louisiana Purchase was a masterstroke.
Despite these successes, there was his lifelong approval of slavery. I fully understand that he was a product of his times and surroundings (Virginia), but for someone to so clearly see the value of liberty and freedom how did he justify it in his time? Perhaps he knew it wouldn’t last, but that it wouldn’t go away in his lifetime, so he just enjoyed things as they were. Washington was at least haunted by it while we find nothing to prove it upset Jefferson.
Then there is Sally Hemmings. Meacham is convinced that Jefferson fathered children with this slave. It was complicated in that she was actually his deceased wife’s half sister. It seems his father-in-law was a bad boy too. They say she looked a lot like her sister, whom Jefferson adored. Her death was one of the dark spots of his life. There has been long debate about this with many saying Jefferson is innocent. DNA tests prove that a Jefferson got into the Hemmings family, but there is no way to prove it was Thomas Jefferson. My own thoughts are that it is likely true. Human nature being what it is, and having the power a master has over a slave, it was bound to happen in many cases in a setting of slavery. If it is true, that Jefferson would allow his own children to be slaves in his lifetime would have to be the darkest stain on his life.
The Meacham volume is good reading and truly brings Jefferson alive. It is a winner.
Find all articles in the series here.