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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. 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 Drawing on archives in the United States, England, and France, as well as unpublished Jefferson presidential papers, Meacham presents Jefferson as the most successful political leader of the early republic, and perhaps in all of American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.


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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. 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.

30 review for Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

  1. 4 out of 5

    Elyse Walters

    In Jefferson's early days of life we learn that he was born into a reputable known family. Author Jon Meacham tells us that it was said that Jefferson studied 15 hours a day, rising at dawn and reading until 2 o'clock each morning. At twilight in Williamsburg he exercised by running to a stone a mile from town; at Shadwell, he rowed a small canoe of his own across the Rivanna River and climbed the mountain he was to call Monticello. For Jefferson laziness was a sin. Like his father, he believed i In Jefferson's early days of life we learn that he was born into a reputable known family. Author Jon Meacham tells us that it was said that Jefferson studied 15 hours a day, rising at dawn and reading until 2 o'clock each morning. At twilight in Williamsburg he exercised by running to a stone a mile from town; at Shadwell, he rowed a small canoe of his own across the Rivanna River and climbed the mountain he was to call Monticello. For Jefferson laziness was a sin. Like his father, he believed in the virtues of riding and of walking, holding that a vigorous body helped create a vigorous mind. "Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded". Jefferson was always asking questions. He was interested in all topics from literature, science, mechanics, architecture, mathematics, horticulture philosophy, music, politics, art, and 'women'. He shunned organized religion. He was also well versed in linguistics-- speaking several languages. Jefferson soon became known as a walking encyclopedia. There was juicy drama between he and women. At times I thought I was reading a fiction story. There were stories about his connections with woman - including rejections before marriage -to a slave - Sally Hemings - that he had a relationship with after his wife died and fathered one of her children. By age 31....the year was 1774....Jefferson was a husband to Martha Wayles, a father ( eventually they had six children), a planter, legislator, and thinker. He he moved to higher ranks of political skill. I'm still a 'newbie' when it comes to reading about our past presidents--certainly not even close to being a historian....so, I'm aware I don't come to these books with a depth of knowledge as others might -- but little by little I'm soaking in past U.S Political history. I might have to read these books religiously for another 10 years before I might be able to add my contextual thoughts to what I'm learning. -- I'm still learning the basics .....the highlights & achievements-( Lewis and Clark 'Voyage of Discovery', Louisiana Purchase, avoided a war with England, played a role in the revolution, etc.), his personal character - and personal history. I appreciate that Meacham's writing -- much like David McCullough --presents an enjoyable storytelling - easy flowing writing style. Jefferson was another early President --one of our founding fathers. He stood for ideals but settled the best of realities. He wasn't much of a speaker - but he could write .... Plus we get the story of how Jefferson ended up writing the Declaration of Independence. Informative-- I learned a lot about Jeffersons strengths and imperfections --read many quotes -- and most, I admired Jefferson's critical skills - his words - his writing and his analyzing issues of power. Whew.... a little spent .... but in a good way......( parts of this book were dry for me compared to the 'storytelling' of the last few Presidents I read lately, and I couldn't figure out if I just needed 'past-President-break'-- or if this 'was' a little less consistently engaging. Still had its juicy moments though ... and I've been working my tush off! My next political adventure-- ( I own the physical book- plus have a library audiobook )....will be: "Valiant Ambition"... George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the fate of the American revolution. Then... I hope to read "Mayflower", - also by Nathaniel Philbrick. ( a few fiction novels always on the burner)

  2. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    Seeking to continue my trek to better understand the birth of America and its Founding Fathers, I tackled Meacham's biography on Thomas Jefferson. Choosing to infuse literary breath into one of the key actors in much of the early creation of the state and its constitutional foundations, Meacham not only offers an over-arching narrative, but delves into the corners of Jefferson's life, allowing the reader to have a better and well-rounded approach to this key historical figure. While Meacham offe Seeking to continue my trek to better understand the birth of America and its Founding Fathers, I tackled Meacham's biography on Thomas Jefferson. Choosing to infuse literary breath into one of the key actors in much of the early creation of the state and its constitutional foundations, Meacham not only offers an over-arching narrative, but delves into the corners of Jefferson's life, allowing the reader to have a better and well-rounded approach to this key historical figure. While Meacham offers Jefferson's life through nine lenses, dividing his life into smaller and more digestible portions, three significant themes emerge as central arcs to better depict Jefferson's life. A synthesis of the text sees Jefferson as a committed man, a stalwart politician, and a sharp statesman. These themes emerge throughout the text, even with the firm chronological flow of Meacham's tome. A biography worthy of examination for the reader looking to better understand Jefferson and the rumours swirling around his earlier historical depictions. That Jefferson is a man committed to all he undertakes cannot be denied, based on Meacham's text. The biography moves forward to show that Jefferson, who came from a well established family, grew up with a strong thirst for knowledge. Jefferson always sought to open his mind to new ideas and to learn from whomever he could. He read and spoke as one would imagine a Greek thinker might have done 2 millennia earlier, always asking questions and building his ideas on those who influenced his life. From there, Jefferson became a man not only of knowledge, but one who dabbled in many areas: literature, politics, science, innovation, and even architecture. His passions extended outside of the esoteric, finding his greatest love in women. While Meacham hints at Jefferson's fondness for the opposite sex, there is little to deter the reader from feeling that Martha Wayles was the love of his young life. Their marriage, a decade long, was filled with passion and six children, though few survived. Jefferson took her death personally and used his depression to fuel his aforementioned passions. While rumours around his involvement with Sally Hemings, Meacham handles it with the greatest aplomb, addressing it not as a tabloid scandal but presenting its inevitable occurrence. Whether the Jefferson-Hemings interaction was based on an amorous connection or strictly a power relationship cannot be definitively known, though Meacham does mention reports of the strong physical resemblance of Hemings' children to Jefferson and how his time on his estate matched with the pregnancies. This did not mar Jefferson's life or the high regard in which he was seen. His personal life and interests were strongly supported by Meacham throughout the tome, including his final years at the Monticello estate, where a detailed architectural and design discussion ensues. Jefferson's connection to his personal beliefs are well-rooted in his final years, as he sought to better understand the emancipation movement and the American move towards the abolition of slavery. Meacham argues throughout the tome that Jefferson was a man like no other, with his own interests that fuelled his mind to the bitter end. Born in Virginia at a time of strong political sentiment and eventual rebellious sentiments towards the British, it is no wonder that Jefferson found himself at the centre of the controversies in his political life. While he served in the House of Burgesses, where another Virginian named Washington made his mark, Jefferson began to hone his political skills and formulated his deeply-rooted beliefs. Meacham argues that Jefferson's passion with the written word acted to propel the revolutionary movement forward as he helped to create the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence and penned the final document himself. This authorship saw him gain much favour within the Colonies, but he became a hunted man by the British Red Coats. His political life resurrected itself after the War of Independence when he headed to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress, but soon crossed the Atlantic to work for the new America in Paris. Jefferson took that time to critique the constitutional document presented by the Congress and added his concerns. Jefferson saw the intricacies of the new America and sought to individualise it from the British influence so prominent in the Colonies. Jefferson's political side reared its head again after he accepted a position in Washington's Cabinet at Secretary of State, but became more powerful upon his departure from that body. As Jefferson saw himself as a Democratic Republican (not the oxymoronic phrase it would have today), he realised that there was a need to stand for an independent-minded form of government in America that did not promote a monarchy of some sort, as promoted by the Federalists. He battled the likes of John Adams on this point and, as Meacham illustrates, sought to ensure that the shackles of British oppression did not seep back in with the appearance of a crowned or hereditary monarch in the collective colonial unit. Meacham shows Jefferson's passion for political ideals throughout the narrative and promotes the importance of the first political schism and party politics in 1796. Meacham depicts Jefferson's political knowledge on numerous occasions throughout the tome, leaving no doubt about his political importance in early America. The image of strong statesman seems a foregone conclusion when examining Jefferson's political acumen, though the terms differ greatly. In his time as Secretary of State, Jefferson sought to work effectively with the European allies that helped secure a colonial victory, while also mending fences with the British. Jefferson utilised some of his time in the position to build strong ties and promote the new America, while also ensuring that this new state did not fall prey to those wishing to strike on a weakened and somewhat scattered colonial collective. Meacham shows that Jefferson's ideas became his ideals, from which he would not stray. This left him no choice but to leave the role when the Federalists rooted their monarch-centric views within Washington's Cabinet and Jefferson found himself at odds with the likes of John Adams. However, he hoped to push his republican ideas from the outside and eventually in the vice-presidential role, which clashed thoroughly with the aforementioned Adams. It was this that fuelled the great election of 1800, pitting Federalists against the Republican ideals on which Jefferson stumped so heavily. This is also the election that required a deadlock breaking in the House of Representatives, as Meacham depicts both in the preface and with more detail within the tome, where discussion of bribery and promises begat the final sway needed to secure victory. Meacham illustrates that Jefferson sought to push a hands-off approach to the state by positing that there need be time for Americans to find their niche. Jefferson scaled back the military and navy as well, feeling that the revolutionary times were past. Meacham discusses the great embargo with Britain, after a naval clash, and how the president sought to keep war off the table, no matter the public outcry for its use. All this pales in Meacham's great argument surrounding the height of Jefferson's statesman role; the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon. While this might seem a little awkward, discussing land as the highlight of a presidential career, Meacham presents it in such a way as to show how Jefferson used the new constitution to develop its Living Tree doctrine (even though the phrase had not yet been coined in Britain). The treaty for obtaining the land had to be ratified in the Senate, but Jefferson went ahead and made the arrangements. This constitutional see-saw battle helped hone the precedent of executive decision-making and legislative agreement. It happens all the time with multinational treaties and was, as the history buff will remember, the downfall of Wilson's League of Nations. Meacham utilises this example to show how Jefferson could run an effective state, while not dictating his preconceived notions to ensure success. Perhaps it was this that helped solidify the republican movement and helps Meacham argue the position so effectively. It is quite difficult not to play a comparison game when the reader has delved into numerous biographies about actors whose lives intertwined. Having read McCullough's John Adams and Chernow's Washington, the comparisons rise unsteadily to the surface. Length is the first and greatest discrepancy here. Applause to Meacham for succinctly laying out the life and times of Jefferson, while highlighting many important aspects. While Meacham admits he had not sought to write a life and times of the third president, such was the final project, which skims over many of the areas that were of greatest importance. I would have hoped for more time on the Continental Congress and creation of the constitutional documents, for these were areas of greatest importance to Jefferson in years to come. I would also have loved a further fleshing out of the personal life of Jefferson during his 'down years' and not brief linkages. Had I not read the other two biographies, I would likely not be making these comments, but I cannot unread what I had put in front of me and, like life in general, I bring these experiences to the forefront as I delve deeper in my understanding of the political and historical actors who shaped the world. That being said, Meacham is a wonderful wordsmith and weaves a wonderful tale from start to finish. A plethora of sources and first-hand accounts pepper the text and bring the story to life in ways that few could do with such ease. One additional theme from the biography comes from its epilogue and author's note. Meacham argues that while Jefferson's views were his own, he could garner much support from those around him, both at the time and in the decades (centuries) to come. Washington and Adams had the greatest respect for the man, as did the likes of Lincoln, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan. Jefferson's views could appeal to those across the political spectrum, for they were rooted not in strict ideology, but in nation building and sovereignty. While America had its share of ups and downs, these political giants all turned to Jefferson's Declaration and subsequent republican sentiments to shape the country in the 21st century. For this, his legacy parallels Washington, though for different reasons. Kudos, Mr. Meacham for this wonderful biographical piece. Thomas Jefferson came to life in this depiction and for that you deserve the greatest of praise. I look forward to examining more of your work at a future time. Like/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at: http://pecheyponderings.wordpress.com/

  3. 4 out of 5

    David Beeson

    Looking around the gathered Nobel Prize winners he had invited to a White House dinner, John F. Kennedy declared, ‘I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’ That quotation, included by Jon Meacham in his enthralling biography of Jefferson, gives a measure of the man, and the man fully deserves such a biography. Not that it’s a simple ha Looking around the gathered Nobel Prize winners he had invited to a White House dinner, John F. Kennedy declared, ‘I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’ That quotation, included by Jon Meacham in his enthralling biography of Jefferson, gives a measure of the man, and the man fully deserves such a biography. Not that it’s a simple hagiography: Meacham paints his subject in the round, not glossing over the difficult moments in his life story, such as the 1781 moment when, as governor of Virginia, his retreat before the British troops of the bloodthirsty Banastre Tarleton led to serious criticism of his performance, which would never be entirely expunged. But Meacham goes further. He shows that as well as being a philosopher and a man of principle, capable of drafting the inspiring sentiments of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was also a practical politician perfectly prepared to act in ways that some might regard as contrary to those principles, when concrete circumstance demanded it of him. I entirely sympathise with his denunciation of the Alien and Sedition Acts of his predecessor as president, and rival, John Adams; I equally admire him for having the courage to take decisions on his own responsibility to defend his nation against British hostility and to extend its territory through the Louisiana purchase, although by doing so he increased the power of the executive presidency far beyond anything Adams had attempted. The ability to adhere to key principles, and to uphold them sincerely, while at the same time reaching the compromises needed for the real exercise of political authority, is a talent few have attained and which the world would do well to rediscover today. Jefferson had it in spades. Of course, at times this brilliantly skillful duality can look perilously like self-contradiction or even hypocrisy. Nowhere is that clearer than in the matter of slavery and, more particularly, the longstanding relationship Jefferson maintained with one particular slave, Sally Hemings, with whom he had several children. Like Washington or Patrick Henry (‘give me liberty or give me death’), Jefferson could perfectly well see that slavery was shameful and his new nation would at some stage need to lance that boil; he could equally well see the contradiction between that sense of horror and his continuing to own slaves and, in Hemings’s case, to maintain a sexual relationship with one of them – a sexual relationship with someone over whom he had power of ownership. Meacham does not skirt around these matters but simply states the facts, points to Jefferson’s silence on the Hemings issue, and talks about the hints at justification that came from his pen: slavery was simply not an issue that could be tackled at that time, or not for a bearable political cost – though the political cost that would in the end be borne, in a bitter civil war and the first assassination of a president, was arguably vastly higher for having been delayed. In passing, it’s worth noting that John Dickinson, fellow revolutionary and member of the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania, hung behind Jefferson in willingness to break decisively from Britain, but far outpaced him in this other, harder field when he freed his slaves – Jefferson only ever freed the Hemings and then only on his death. What emerges from Meacham’s work is therefore a complete picture of a man, a man of towering intellect and courage, which the clear presentation of his failings highlights all the more strongly in contrast. And Meacham presents all this in the most readable of prose (or, in my case listenable, since I chose an audio edition). Both the subject matter and the way the story is told mean that anyone who likes biography and is interested in the man or his times, has to put Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power, at the top of their must-read list.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience. Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the oth I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience. Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the other side of the man, the side that so many have admired. In fact, I played the audiobook recording of this book on a family trip down to Virginia, on our way to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, thinking that Meacham’s biography would whet our thirst for Jefferson history. The effect was the opposite. All of us came away with a strong distaste for Jefferson, as well as dissatisfaction for Meacham’s apologetic treatment of the man. But before getting into differing opinions of Jefferson—of which there are endless—I shall talk about the writing, of which there may be more agreement. To do justice to Jefferson the man would require a great deal of psychological subtly. Jefferson was reserved, withdrawn, even sphinx-like, a man full of contradictions. In the hands of an acute writer, Jefferson would make for a fascinating character-study. Yet Meacham is almost wholly uninterested in psychology. Jefferson is painted more vividly in his cameos in the Hamilton and Adams biographies than he is here. To my mind, Jefferson was a man whom one could never take at face value, yet Meacham is often content to do just that. To pick just one example, in the exchange between Jefferson and Abigail Adams on the scurrilous writings of James Callender, Meacham is content to repeat Jefferson’s bland and disingenuous excuses of his support for Callender’s vilifications of John Adam’s character (that he bailed Callender out of jail merely because they held similar political views). Such instances are repeated throughout the book, with Meacham accepting as honest what I often read as intentionally misleading or simply duplicitous. In any case, even if Jefferson is put to one side, no other personage in this book comes alive, as do so many in the above-named biographies. John Adams—a raging personality of epic proportion—is hardly more exciting than the taciturn George Washington. I was particularly disappointed at the lack of attention paid to Jefferson’s close and important relationship with James Madison, who is absent far too often in these pages, and who leaves hardly any impression whatever. Meacham also lacks interest in drama. Good biographies can pull you into the historical moment, and make you feel how contingent the outcome of important events was on the quirks of personality or even simple chance. Yet in this book everything is a fait accompli. Difficult and arduous accomplishments, moments of danger and discord, are all summarized and narrated with a kind of mellow assurance that these events were destined to come to pass. The result is a book that is emotionally flat. I would have excused these faults if Meacham had dug deep into the historical background or the political issues. But these, too, are given only a superficial treatment. Not nearly enough context is given, for example, for the reader to understand exactly why the Declaration of Independence was such a revolutionary document at that time. The same can be said for the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty. Instead, Meacham prefers to resort to strings of vague, Latinate adjectives and to draw grand-sounding conclusions. This is his habitual mode. The following passage, from the Prologue, gives a taste of this tone: In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma. This tendency often leads him to substitute clichés for insight: America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromise. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end. To me, this is neither good prose nor does it provide any valuable information. You could say all of the same things about virtually any nation or political leader. And in any case I do not think it is even true. Were all of Jefferson’s goals “noble”? Is compromise “inevitable”? Is the “war” between the “ideal and the real” actually similar to the conflict between “the intellectual” and “the visceral”? What does this even mean? This passage is hardly even valid as a platitude. This leads me to what is my core criticism of the book: Jon Meacham’s understanding of Jefferson. Meacham’s central point is that Jefferson was a man of high ideals, but someone who was willing to compromise on his ideals in order to be an effective politician. This is the “Art of Power.” Thus, all of Jefferson’s pronouncements of principle are taken at face value, and all of his actions that do not align with his stated valued are excused as shrewd maneuvering. Yet there is a difference between compromising on one’s vision and doing just the opposite. Consider Jefferson’s presidency. After having spent the last twelve years whipping up fears of overbearing federal power, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase and instituted a trade embargo—two huge expansions of federal power. Meacham would have us see these moves as capitulations to circumstances. But I think Jefferson’s tendency to flout the dictates of his own pen are too numerous to excuse. To pick another example, although he often styled himself above politicking and libel, Jefferson frequently employed others to write attacks on his enemies (as in the case of James Callender). Here is another example. After stoking fear of a national army, and after his strong advocacy of the separation of the legislative and executive powers, once in office Jefferson himself asked a senator to introduce a bill approving military force—a direct contradiction of his stated principles on both counts. Characteristically, Jefferson also requested that the senator burn his note to him, so as not to appear to be meddling in the legislature. This is what Meacham has to say on the subject: “His adversaries might see such maneuvers as hypocritical and underhanded, but in Jefferson’s mind he was doing the right thing the right way. To seize power grandly would threaten the democratic ethos of the country—an ethos he thought essential.” As an apology for Jefferson’s actions, this makes little sense to me. First, it hardly matters whether Jefferson thought he was doing the right thing in his mind. We all are. Second, to consider the mere ethos of democracy important while seizing power is certainly not democratic in any meaningful sense. This is typical of the whole book: where Meacham sees a flexible and enlightened politician, I see a person totally unwilling to live by the principles that he professes. This is, of course, most flagrantly true in the case of slavery—an area in which Jefferson is inexcusable. To do Meacham credit, he does not attempt to justify Jefferson’s life of slaveholding. Nevertheless, I think he paid far too little attention to Jefferson’s domestic situation, which was totally dominated by slaves: as workers, servants, a sexual partner, and even his own children. I see the issue of slavery as the most telling fact of Jefferson’s psychology, showcasing his ability to compartmentalize his thoughts. None of his actions were self-consistent. He wrote that slavery was evil and must end one day. But he did nothing to end it. At the same time, he thought that blacks could never co-exist with whites, all while having a life built upon the backs of slaves, living in constant contact with them. If he really believed that slaves were genetically inferior, as he wrote, how could he have had children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves? Could he really believe that his own children with Hemings were naturally inferior? And if he did not, how could he totally relegate these children, his own blood, to a subservient or an invisible role in his life? These questions leave me with a rather disturbing image. Meacham, however, sees Jefferson as a flawed hero—whose vision of artful politics has much to teach us. Jefferson did likely leave the world better than he found it. And, believe me, I find many aspects of Jefferson extremely admirable. In many ways I aspire to Jefferson’s wide interests and his intellectual greatness. But I think that any honest reckoning of the man will have to deal with these darker shades of his character. The vision of politics that Meacham offers, where high principles exist mostly as rhetoric or ethos, is not for me.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Diane

    This is a marvelous biography of Thomas Jefferson, who is arguably America's most complicated Founding Father. Jefferson is famous for many reasons, but he is often summed up by this contradiction: He wrote "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence, and yet he owned slaves. (As Jon Meacham noted, it seems Jefferson meant only white, land-owning men were created equal.) A few years ago I had the chance to visit Monticello, Jefferson's home in Virginia, and I've been interested This is a marvelous biography of Thomas Jefferson, who is arguably America's most complicated Founding Father. Jefferson is famous for many reasons, but he is often summed up by this contradiction: He wrote "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence, and yet he owned slaves. (As Jon Meacham noted, it seems Jefferson meant only white, land-owning men were created equal.) A few years ago I had the chance to visit Monticello, Jefferson's home in Virginia, and I've been interested in reading a detailed biography about him ever since. I listened to this book on audio, which was read beautifully by the late, great Edward Hermann. I've listened to several audiobooks by Hermann, and he's just a fantastic reader. I loved this book on Jefferson, and was fascinated by the stories it told. It's also a great complement to David McCullough's biography of John Adams. Highly recommended for fans of history. Personal Note: The thing I like about reading history is how comforting it is, because it provides context as to how we got where we are today. Unless you've been living off the grid for two years, you know we live in trying political times, both in America and around the world. But these history books show that there have ALWAYS been trying times. America's democracy has ALWAYS been messy and complicated. Our politics have been ugly and contentious since this country was founded. I'm not excusing the behavior of any current leaders — but as Meacham writes (somewhat comfortingly) in his new book, The Soul of America, is as a country, we've come through dark times before and we can do it again if we follow our better angels. I'm not religious, but I'll say Amen to that.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Swaroop

    "lives in the hearts and minds..." a #mustread for all, and specifically recommended to all the politicians of today... Thomas Jefferson - a charming, graceful, visionary hero and most of all a human being who gave his best in spite of having all the regular flaws, in this imperfect world... a man who loved light... Jon Meacham gives us a well-written and researched biography of this great man, who never gave up and kept going... It is, however, required to be pointed out that the book does not go "lives in the hearts and minds..." a #mustread for all, and specifically recommended to all the politicians of today... Thomas Jefferson - a charming, graceful, visionary hero and most of all a human being who gave his best in spite of having all the regular flaws, in this imperfect world... a man who loved light... Jon Meacham gives us a well-written and researched biography of this great man, who never gave up and kept going... It is, however, required to be pointed out that the book does not go much in depth into the life of Thomas Jefferson. **** "never trouble another for what you can do yourself!" "never spend your money before you have it" "never buy what you do not want because it is cheap" "pride costs us more than thirst, hunger and cold" "we never repent of having eaten too little" "take things always by their smooth handle" "when angry count until 10, before you speak, if very angry a 100"

  7. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Burton

    It took me a long time to begin to like Jon Meacham's portrait of Thomas Jefferson in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. As I finished it, however, I found myself a reluctant admirer, appreciative of Meacham's style and of the biography, not to mention of the man. Meacham is the author of two previous books on American presidents, winning the Pulitzer prize for his look at Andrew Jackson American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. With The Art of Power he delves into the life of one of the It took me a long time to begin to like Jon Meacham's portrait of Thomas Jefferson in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. As I finished it, however, I found myself a reluctant admirer, appreciative of Meacham's style and of the biography, not to mention of the man. Meacham is the author of two previous books on American presidents, winning the Pulitzer prize for his look at Andrew Jackson American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. With The Art of Power he delves into the life of one of the most beloved of founding fathers. As he notes in the closing pages of the epilogue, Jefferson has been evoked by more recent American presidents and political figures on both sides of the spectrum, proving to be "an inspiration for radically different understandings of government and culture." This seems to me, and Meacham endorses the idea, to be due to Jefferson's versatility in his lifetime. Rather than a idealogue bound to one philosophy, Jefferson was a pragmatic politician, and while he believed in the principles of freedom he espoused in the words he penned in the declaration, the means he chose to approach and uphold those principles changed depending on his position. As they say, where you stand depends on where you sit and examples from Jefferson's life are plentiful. As a member of the opposition party and vice president during the Adams Administration, Jefferson vigorously opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts as a blot on the liberty and freedom promised by the Bill of Rights. And yet, as President, he did not fully wipe out the effects of those First Amendment inhibiting laws. He allowed those punished under the law to be set free, but did not immediately return the fines that had been levied from them. During this same time as vice president, Jefferson wrote the Kentucky resolution (James Madison wrote the Virginia resolution of the same time) in which he argued, through the proxy of the Kentucky legislature, that the Alien and Sedition were unconstitutional and that the states held the right, and the duty, to declare any acts of Congress that were not authorized by the constitution unconstitutional. It was a divisive argument from the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, says Meacham, coming from the "voice of the man who believed secession fatal to America instead of the man who wrote about the primacy of states' rights." Later, as president, Jefferson--the man who had trumpeted the rights of states over the act of the national legislature--acted with executive authority outside of the bounds then available to him, sending military expeditions against the Barbary states and accomplishing the Louisiana Purchase, all without Congressional approval. [...]Jefferson was to Washington and Adams what Dwight Eisenhower was to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman: a president who reformed but essentially ratified an existing course of government. Jefferson wasn't so interested in doggedly following the rules and norms of his ideology as he was in, for lack of a better way to put it, finding what worked and finding a way to do it. For man whose life was a study in contrasts (or hypocrisy, depending on your view), pragmatism was necessary. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, yet his earliest memory was of a slave handing him down on pillow to ride in a carriage and he never freed the slaves that he owned, even in death. He trumpeted states' rights, but expanded the scope of the federal government when the opportunity was his. He loved his family dearly, but had no qualms pursuing the married woman of another man and possibly destroying hers. Indeed, this comes to the thesis of Meacham's book, less a biography than a portrait: "Jefferson hungered for greatness," and he welded power--usually through written word--to obtain it. A benevolent welder of what power he held, Jefferson's overriding description is that of a Renaissance man with boundless interests and whose overriding concern was the "fate of democratic republicanism in America," for to his end he worried about the return of monarchical government, an influence that Meacham found as influential on Jefferson's thinking as the Cold War was on American Presidents from Truman to George H.W. Bush. The short-comings of Meacham's biography are few, and he does not seem interested in hiding them. Setting out to restore Jefferson's image, somewhat tarnished in recent years by revelations of his sexual relationship with Sally Hemings and acclaimed biographies of Jefferson's rivals (Hamilton, Adams, and Washington, especially) in recent years, Meacham writes with more than a little hero worship, arguing that while there have been many great presidents, none would be as interesting to spend time with as Jefferson, whose career touched on far wider a range than did his contemporary political rivals, or even of other politicians since. Indeed, he is persuasive, and it's a fascinating picture that is difficult to dismiss. Yes, Jefferson is a slave owner, a pragmatic politician, and an occasional philanderer. But he is also a man who at his heart believed in the justice and goodness of man and who to his last day would welcome the friendship of any man who would accept his hand in fellowship. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is an excellent read, and Jon Meacham has written a fascinating and shining portrait of our third president and the lifetime he spent learning to weld, and then using, power.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Kimber

    So after having 3 months to ponder what I really want to read after libraries reopen, I chose a curriculum highlighting one of my passions which is American history. I love this book for its objectivity. Meacham does not rip Jefferson to shreds for his sins. I could clearly see and be awestruck by what a great American Jefferson was and how indispensable his contribution to the country is. Jefferson held the vision of what nation America was to become. A list of his accomplishments: *writer of t So after having 3 months to ponder what I really want to read after libraries reopen, I chose a curriculum highlighting one of my passions which is American history. I love this book for its objectivity. Meacham does not rip Jefferson to shreds for his sins. I could clearly see and be awestruck by what a great American Jefferson was and how indispensable his contribution to the country is. Jefferson held the vision of what nation America was to become. A list of his accomplishments: *writer of the Declaration of Independence *writer of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom *writer of Notes on the State of Virginia, which included the radical ideas of the separation of church and state, constitutional government and individual liberty *U. S. Secretary of State under Washington *Vice President under Adams *two term President *established the military academy at West Point *Acquired the Louisiana Purchase, further protecting the country from possible European invasion *appointed Lewis and Clark's expedition out west *ended the importation of slaves *created the first secular educational institution in America, the University of Virginia, and designed it to center around a library not a church *after fire destroyed the Library of Congress, he donated his personal library of over 6,000 books to replace it

  9. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    I wanted to devour this book the way I had with bios of the other Founding Fathers, but this one was more of a slog than I anticipated. Meacham does a good job connecting all the big historical touchstones of Jefferson's remarkable life: writing the Declaration of Independence (check); serving as an ambassador to France (check); serving in Washington's cabinet (check); winning election as the third president of the U.S., negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, and founding the University of Virginia I wanted to devour this book the way I had with bios of the other Founding Fathers, but this one was more of a slog than I anticipated. Meacham does a good job connecting all the big historical touchstones of Jefferson's remarkable life: writing the Declaration of Independence (check); serving as an ambassador to France (check); serving in Washington's cabinet (check); winning election as the third president of the U.S., negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, and founding the University of Virginia in his later years(check, check and check). But what's missing is the literary sweep and human drama behind these events, things that David McCullough and Joseph Ellis brought to their subjects with exceptional skills(Adams and Washington, respectively). The Lewis and Clark expedition is barely a footnote here, perhaps because the author knew Stephen Ambrose had already told Jefferson's role in that adventure about as well as any writer could. We don't get a whole lot of new insight into Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings for that matter. To be fair, the book does pick up some narrative steam when Jefferson finally reaches the White House, but that is so far into the book that it's hard to justify the rest of the story's plodding pace. A big disappointment for me.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    “Jefferson speaks to us now because he spoke so powerfully and evocatively to us then.” I have now read three presidential biographies written by Jon Meacham. I have liked all, to some degree. They are solid books. I’m glad I read them. They are not brilliant, but they are dependable. THOMAS JEFFERSON THE ART OF POWER is a strong single volume biography of Jefferson’s very prolific life. It is mostly surface level, but a single volume about this dude would have to be. Meacham does get a little pre “Jefferson speaks to us now because he spoke so powerfully and evocatively to us then.” I have now read three presidential biographies written by Jon Meacham. I have liked all, to some degree. They are solid books. I’m glad I read them. They are not brilliant, but they are dependable. THOMAS JEFFERSON THE ART OF POWER is a strong single volume biography of Jefferson’s very prolific life. It is mostly surface level, but a single volume about this dude would have to be. Meacham does get a little precious when he keeps reminding the reader that Jefferson was a “white man”. Thanks for the clue Jon. Is that a flaw? Why not focus on his time in history and how he was a product of (and in some other ways) an exception to it (as are most of us) and leave it at that. The press was vicious in the early days of our democracy (some things never change) and Jefferson was abused by it, and also utilized it on opponents. One thing he said in his second inaugural address is the difference between the founders of America, and the current generation. Check this out, “The abuses of an institution, so important to freedom and science are deeply to be regretted…the marketplace should decide. Censorship should be in the hands of the people.” Meaning, everything is a go, no speech regulated by government, etc. In a capitalistic society if something does not sell (by pleasing an audience) it will go away. And that’s the end of it. It’s a lesson for now. There is so much value and wisdom in the writings and lives of our Founding Fathers. Meacham also demonstrates in this book another great lesson to be learned from early American leaders. Despite political differences, at some point you have to put aside rancor. Jefferson hated, and was hated by, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and lots of others. But in then end, a bust of Hamilton was in the entrance hall of Monticello (placed there by Jefferson) and Adams and Jefferson had a long and friendly correspondence later in life. In a letter to Jefferson Dr. Benjamin Rush (a founder who deserves more attention) wrote to Jefferson (in an attempt to reconcile Jefferson and Adams) “Many are the evils of a political life, but none so great as the dissolution of friendships, and the implacable hatreds which too often take their place.” One thing that THOMAS JEFFERSON THE ART OF POWER does very well is make clear how much the Founding Fathers believed wholeheartedly in the values they espoused. Jefferson was a thorn in the side of President Washington (for a myriad of reasons). Looking back now we can pass judgment on those reasons; some were valid, some not, but these men where doing something unheard of, and for 40 or so years the American experiment was one misstep away from dissolving. These men fought each other viscously, stood up for the things that concerned them, but always with a greater goal in mind. That goal being that it was not about them, but the bigger picture. That trait is one thing most of them seemed to share. And it worked! This text’s Epilogue is a nice summation of the influence of Jefferson and of his ability to wield power effectively. Historically Jefferson has appealed to presidents of vastly different beliefs, from Wilson to Reagan. It speaks to the depth of his thought and writings that political opposites pull value and truth from his life and work. Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant, hypocritical, forward thinking, stubborn, well read, generous (I could go on) man. He was much more than either current political extreme would like to brand him. Jon Meacham has done a nice job of keeping Jefferson in his time and acknowledging his powerful place and influence in history.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Rincey

    PSA: Edward Hermann narrates the audiobook (as well as a lot of other audiobooks) and it is a delightful way to consume this biography.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Shelly♥

    I loved this book. Really delves into the psyche of Thomas Jefferson, chipping to the core on the things that make him tick. Meacham spends a lot of time in Virginia laying the groundwork for Jefferson's character - how he loved control but hated conflict. And then he builds the bridge to the presidency - detailing his struggles with the executive powers that Hamilton put upon the presidency during Washington's terms and then how he embraced these very powers in his own Presidency. We get to kno I loved this book. Really delves into the psyche of Thomas Jefferson, chipping to the core on the things that make him tick. Meacham spends a lot of time in Virginia laying the groundwork for Jefferson's character - how he loved control but hated conflict. And then he builds the bridge to the presidency - detailing his struggles with the executive powers that Hamilton put upon the presidency during Washington's terms and then how he embraced these very powers in his own Presidency. We get to know the persona of Jefferson - his love of good food, fine wine and the company of others. His charm and casualness invited his enemies to even enjoy dinner with him and call him cordial. Meacham also tip-toes through the waters of Sally Hemmings and her family. Speaks of Jefferson's faults and foibles (slavery and debt.) He recounts most of the major Jefferson sticking points: Callendar, Hamilton, Maria Cosway, Adams friendship. It's all there, along with other little tidbits of Jefferson lore. Agree that we really needed a readable one volume Jefferson bio to stand along those of Adams and Washington and Hamilton. This may very well be it. Received an ARC from the publisher. All opinions expressed are my own.

  13. 4 out of 5

    David Eppenstein

    I have read several biographies either about TJ or where he was a significant character. In all of these works I have been searching for the source of his publicly perceived greatness. In this book I feel I have come a bit closer to understanding it but I, as yet, cannot accept it. Why, of all the Founders, does TJ merit monumental recognition alongside Washington in our nation's capital? Reading this book I have added to my knowledge of this man. Yes, he was truly intelligent, creative, and tal I have read several biographies either about TJ or where he was a significant character. In all of these works I have been searching for the source of his publicly perceived greatness. In this book I feel I have come a bit closer to understanding it but I, as yet, cannot accept it. Why, of all the Founders, does TJ merit monumental recognition alongside Washington in our nation's capital? Reading this book I have added to my knowledge of this man. Yes, he was truly intelligent, creative, and talented but so were many others. This book informs me that this icon was a simply a self-centered, self-indulgent, patrician control freak waving the banner of populism. His contributions to the Revolution were minor compared to those of others. His greatest presidential accomplishment was the Louisiana Purchase but this feat was just good luck. Where is his political greatness? Granted, monarchy was the Red Menace and England the Evil Empire of TJ's day but he saw or accused anybody that disagreed with him to be a monarchist. Adams, a monarchist? Adams was his friend and he stabbed this friend in the back to advance his interests. TJ was a deceitful snake with no stomach or courage to confront his critics or opponents. Yes, he had many talents but do his talents excuse his lack of character? This was an exceptionally well researched and written book but I come away from it still believing TJ was our first sleazy president.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jay

    A good, very readable "popular" biography of Thomas Jefferson that focuses on Jefferson's use of power and influence to achieve his desired ends throughout his life. Despite pointing out (yet somewhat glossing over) some of Jefferson's flaws, Meacham's biography is nevertheless a little too hagiographic for me to rate it higher than 3 stars. I enjoyed reading the book, and even gained some new insight into Jefferson, but still came away from it feeling as though Meacham missed the mark a little. A good, very readable "popular" biography of Thomas Jefferson that focuses on Jefferson's use of power and influence to achieve his desired ends throughout his life. Despite pointing out (yet somewhat glossing over) some of Jefferson's flaws, Meacham's biography is nevertheless a little too hagiographic for me to rate it higher than 3 stars. I enjoyed reading the book, and even gained some new insight into Jefferson, but still came away from it feeling as though Meacham missed the mark a little. I have been a lifelong admirer of Thomas Jefferson, so much so that my dream since childhood was to attend Mr. Jefferson's University. While still a Jefferson admirer - my library is full of Jeffersonian memorabilia, the bloom has somewhat gone off the rose over the years as I have continued to reassess the man in light of more recent scholarship, as well as in viewing the political turmoil of his time through the lens of the political turmoil of the last 20 years. Meacham's book sets out to sort of "rehabilitate" Jefferson after a couple of decades of multiple critically acclaimed books on Jefferson's political adversaries that have, inevitably, painted Jefferson in less than heroic terms. Meacham accomplishes his goal to some extent, but only at the cost of playing down many of Jefferson's major foibles. An example would be in those instances in which Meacham makes statements along the lines of some might consider Jefferson a hypocrite, but ... Or that some might consider Jefferson to have been paranoid about the alleged Federalist scheme to return the United States to monarchy, but ... Well, yes, some might. Because, when viewed objectively, Jefferson WAS a hypocrite with respect to a good number of issues and Jefferson WAS paranoid in viewing his opponents in the worst light possible. That doesn't mean that Jefferson wasn't heroic or that he doesn't deserve to continue to be admired. He was, and he does, and Meacham's book is a good reminder of that. But a more critical treatment of Jefferson's use of the same power for his own ends - power that was often, as admitted by both Jefferson and Meacham, extra-constitutional and perhaps even unconstitutional - that Jefferson condemned when used by others, would have provided a more honest and balanced portrayal. Meacham's title - The Art of Power - gives away what he is really interested in. This book is a portrait of Jefferson for the political class. For the folks who LOVE power and the exercise thereof. For those who view principle and constitutional limits as unfortunate and unwanted impediments to "getting things done". For those who view "making the deal" as the height of political achievement. This is a portrait of Jefferson for the pundits on Meet the Press and Morning Joe. This is a portrait of Jefferson for those who can view the policies and exercises of power of a president from one party as tyrannical and anti-civil liberties, and view the exact same polices and exercises of power - only magnified - when put into practice by a president from the opposing party, as the "art" of getting things done. There is much to admire about Jefferson. For my tastes, however, Meacham appears to admire many of the wrong things and minimizes many of the less savory aspects of Jefferson's character.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    http://bestpresidentialbios.com/2013/... “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” is author Jon Meacham’s fifth and most recent book, having been published in late 2012. Meacham received the Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, and has also written about Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as well as the civil rights movement and the influence of religion in American politics. “The Art of Power” is by a significant margin the most popular and widely-read Jefferson biography av http://bestpresidentialbios.com/2013/... “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” is author Jon Meacham’s fifth and most recent book, having been published in late 2012. Meacham received the Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, and has also written about Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as well as the civil rights movement and the influence of religion in American politics. “The Art of Power” is by a significant margin the most popular and widely-read Jefferson biography available today. Well-written and fast paced, Meacham’s accounting of Jefferson’s life is both entertaining and enjoyable, and requires little patience or fortitude on the part of the reader. With about five hundred pages of text, Meacham’s work seems to occupy a desirable space for modern biographies – it is comprehensive enough to cover the most salient aspects of its subject’s life, but is not so lengthy that it requires an exorbitant commitment of time or attention. In contrast to the exhaustive accounts of Jefferson’s life authored by Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson, Meacham’s narrative almost seems to sprint through the eight decades of our third president’s life. Where Malone spends nearly twelve hundred pages describing Jefferson’s terms as president, Meacham sets aside slightly fewer than one hundred. But that is part of the delight of this biography: in relatively few pages it manages to capture the essence of Jefferson, describing his core principles and philosophies, outlining his primary accomplishments and failures, and highlighting the contradictions he offers posterity. But following my five week journey through Dumas Malone’s series on Jefferson, I am reminded that brevity comes at a price. Important nuances in Jefferson’s decision-making and complex threads within his life must be ignored in order to maintain the book’s brisk pace. Key moments in Jefferson’s presidency and the early life of our nation (such as the Embargo of 1807 and the Burr conspiracy) are only afforded minimal attention. But happily, such a pace provides the book no opportunity to find itself bogged down in unnecessary detail or to pursue trivial tangents. What Meacham accomplishes brilliantly, in my view, is efficiently summarizing and synthesizing the various (and often contradictory) aspects of Jefferson’s personality and offering his own view of why Jefferson acted – as a patriarch, as a scientist, as a politician and as a friend – as he did. Though I found many of the author’s conclusions less grand and sweeping than they were presumably intended to be, Meacham’s perspective on Jefferson was nonetheless insightful and cogently argued. “The Art of Power” has been criticized by some for portraying Jefferson in too flattering a light. I did not detect this fault, and Meacham seems to harbor no greater sympathy for Jefferson than most biographers do with their subjects. Although Meacham does seem to admire Jefferson, his affection is not without qualification. Others have pointed out that although Meacham seems to have been quite diligent in his preparation for writing this book (the endnotes and bibliography alone consume over two hundred pages), it contains little that is truly new or revealing. Only Meacham’s central thesis – that Jefferson was successful because he was simultaneously a philosopher and a politician, an idealist and a tactical strategist – seems to add a new dimension to a president who has been so thoroughly explored and described. Finally, I admit to disappointment in Meacham’s treatment of the possible (perhaps even likely) relationship between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Rather than describing the controversy which has pervaded this issue for over two hundred years, Meacham treats the topic as fully resolved. Only in the extensive endnotes does the reader find a multi-page note admitting to, and describing, the controversy. In most ways, however, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” lived up to the hype which has surrounded the book since its publication. I found it easy, entertaining and enjoyable to read. It required relatively little from me, but offered disproportionately greater rewards. As a serious student of Jefferson, this would not be my first (or even second) stop on the lengthy journey to understanding Jefferson. However, as an efficient, wonderfully descriptive and generally comprehensive introduction to Thomas Jefferson, I am unaware of better biography. Overall Rating: 4½ stars

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sean

    Since Thanksgiving is tomorrow, I'll quote Jefferson's #6 Decalogue of Canons for Observations in Practical Life (other 9 are on page 487): "We never repent of having eaten too little." Kudos to Jon Meacham for daring to take on such a well-know man. So many competing biographies already exist. Meacham quotes biographer James Parton in 1874: "If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right." This unbiased book sheds light on the truth to this statement. Meach Since Thanksgiving is tomorrow, I'll quote Jefferson's #6 Decalogue of Canons for Observations in Practical Life (other 9 are on page 487): "We never repent of having eaten too little." Kudos to Jon Meacham for daring to take on such a well-know man. So many competing biographies already exist. Meacham quotes biographer James Parton in 1874: "If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right." This unbiased book sheds light on the truth to this statement. Meacham's 9-page epilogue is worth reading a couple of times. It contains: "It is difficult to imagine having a glass of wine with George Washington at Mount Vernon and talking of many things; it seems the most natural thing in the world to imagine doing so with Thomas Jefferson at Monticello". This book truly made me want to meet this man in person. This is as close as I can come, I suppose. "We sense his greatness because we know that perfection in politics is not possible but that Jefferson passed the fundamental test of leadership: Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and dreams deferred he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the arena of public life." Outstanding audio-book (read by a favorite reader: Edward Herrmann). The first half establishes Thomas Jefferson as someone you truly want to be president. I posted a status note during this section about how when the NYTimes Book Review asks me who I want for dinner, I would say Thomas Jefferson. He was unassuming in demeanor, and could talk intelligently on a profound number of subjects. The next 30% of the book is the presidency. Author Jon Meacham paints a very fair portrait of President Jefferson and his compromising nature regarding all the politics of the day. This was my least favorite section of the book, since I am not a fan of the politics of politics. President Jefferson became criticized by the extremes on both the Republican and Federalist parties, as he gravitated in his second term toward decisions that aimed to help the greater common good of everyone. The final 20% talks of Jefferson at his 11,000 sq ft "Olympus" called Monticello. I have seen the Jefferson Library in Washington DC, preserved in the Library of Congress. This is VERY impressive. (Its right behind - east - of the Capitol). I loved hearing about his founding of the University of Virginia. What leaders today show this respect to education? The writing by Jon Meacham constantly sounds objective. I do not hear judgements by the author. I believe this is the mark of a great historical writer.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Alkire

    Readable enough biography. I thought it was a pretty decent account of Jefferson’s life. It could have used more about his time as a lawyer, but other than that, pretty solid. My problems with this book are two. First, the footnote strings drove me nuts. I don’t really see the need for citing every sentence and certainly not footnote strings. It was distracting. It also made the author look as though he didn’t really have any original thoughts about his research material. Probably not fair, but Readable enough biography. I thought it was a pretty decent account of Jefferson’s life. It could have used more about his time as a lawyer, but other than that, pretty solid. My problems with this book are two. First, the footnote strings drove me nuts. I don’t really see the need for citing every sentence and certainly not footnote strings. It was distracting. It also made the author look as though he didn’t really have any original thoughts about his research material. Probably not fair, but that’s how it seemed. Second, the author kept saying Jefferson was a practical pol. I didn’t see that in the material cited and it’s not something his contemporaries seemed to think. In fact, it seemed Jefferson’s political career wasn’t notable except when he got the chance to show off his political philosophy skills. I also think the author skated over much about Jefferson’s life and work which was negative, in both contemporary and modern eyes. Thus, it’s not the most balanced view of Jefferson. Still, readable enough with that caveat in mind. I just don’t get why modern politicos always seem to want to cite the Framers as authorities on how to handle modern problems. Even less balanced biographies like this one show that the Framers handled problems day by day just as we do. They were careful to be self-serving in their letters so we know what they were thinking or wanted us to think about their decisions, but they probably wouldn’t expect us to follow their decisions and thought processes blindly. In that sense, present day America is far more like Rome than the Framers ever envisioned and they had a better grasp generally of ancient Rome than we do today.

  18. 4 out of 5

    John Gilbert

    It only took me three years to read this magnificent biography of one of the founders of the USA. An interesting and complex man, this book is one of the best biographies I have ever read. By the end, I felt a greater understanding of the man, his successes and failings. In writing the Declaration of Independence, he opens with 'All men are created equal', of course eliminating all women, any slave or man who did not own property. Himself a slave owner and the father of at least four children wi It only took me three years to read this magnificent biography of one of the founders of the USA. An interesting and complex man, this book is one of the best biographies I have ever read. By the end, I felt a greater understanding of the man, his successes and failings. In writing the Declaration of Independence, he opens with 'All men are created equal', of course eliminating all women, any slave or man who did not own property. Himself a slave owner and the father of at least four children with one his slaves, he understood the evil of slavery, yet felt powerless to do anything about it. The political battles of the early republic were sometimes bitter and reminicent of todays battles between Democrats and Republicans. Jefferson was a Republican (very different from today's party) along with Monroe and Madison, against the Federalists (Adams and Hamilton) where the dirty tricks and differences of opinion of the founding fathers, is well presented here by Mr Meacham. Sometimes a slog, but well worth the effort. Not to be read all at once, but recommended of anyone with interest in one of America's greatest presidents.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Darwin8u

    With this biography, Meacham appears to continue to float in that narrative sphere between popular journalist-historians (Alter, Woolfe) and popular academic-historians (Ellis, Kearns Goodwin, Morris). His writing most closely resembles (in many, many ways) Walter Isaacson and David McCullough. They write similar types of biographies and seem to inhabit a similar clumped intellectual range. That said, while Meacham's style will never perfectly thrill academic historians, this biography is interes With this biography, Meacham appears to continue to float in that narrative sphere between popular journalist-historians (Alter, Woolfe) and popular academic-historians (Ellis, Kearns Goodwin, Morris). His writing most closely resembles (in many, many ways) Walter Isaacson and David McCullough. They write similar types of biographies and seem to inhabit a similar clumped intellectual range. That said, while Meacham's style will never perfectly thrill academic historians, this biography is interesting and paced-well and shouldn't trouble too many presidential history buffs. Meacham has never had a real boat-tipping agenda with his biographies. He certainly wants to make Jefferson's life, times and experiences (told largely through secondary sources, anecdotes and at times brilliant story-telling) relevant to our current political and social setting. He did this wonderfully with FDR and Jackson and has continued his record with this excellent bio of Jefferson.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    Rather stunned by all the glowing reviews of this book. It struck me that Meacham told, much more than showed, the story of Jefferson. I found myself wishing for more detail at every turn (Ben Franklin lent the word "self-evident" to the Declaration? ... would sure love to know more about that discussion; Jefferson lost his horse and got dysentery on his way to report to the House of Burgesses? ... what must that have been like in the 1700s?) Perhaps I just couldn't get into the mood of the book Rather stunned by all the glowing reviews of this book. It struck me that Meacham told, much more than showed, the story of Jefferson. I found myself wishing for more detail at every turn (Ben Franklin lent the word "self-evident" to the Declaration? ... would sure love to know more about that discussion; Jefferson lost his horse and got dysentery on his way to report to the House of Burgesses? ... what must that have been like in the 1700s?) Perhaps I just couldn't get into the mood of the book, which sometimes happens. I'm moving onto Ellis' American Sphinx to see if I like that better.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Cheri

    It's rare when this happens. I just finished the prologue to this book. This eary in the book, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was reading something GREAT. Oh, I'm going to enjoy this book!!! It's rare when this happens. I just finished the prologue to this book. This eary in the book, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was reading something GREAT. Oh, I'm going to enjoy this book!!!

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jay Connor

    The greatest problem with a pragmatic philosopher is that in coming ages people from all perspectives can claim ownership to your ideas and ideals. Jefferson is just such a chameleon whose actions often betray his language. Be wary of the ideologue who self-servingly quotes this founding father -- for likely his pearls of phrase on equality or gun rights or states rights are often more costumed in reality. All of this is not to take much away from Jefferson's greatness only to diminish from those The greatest problem with a pragmatic philosopher is that in coming ages people from all perspectives can claim ownership to your ideas and ideals. Jefferson is just such a chameleon whose actions often betray his language. Be wary of the ideologue who self-servingly quotes this founding father -- for likely his pearls of phrase on equality or gun rights or states rights are often more costumed in reality. All of this is not to take much away from Jefferson's greatness only to diminish from those who have used him in the succeeding centuries to prove one point or another. The value of excellent history, as Meacham has presented to us here, is to understand context as well as extent of permissible extrapolation for our times. This deep understanding of context as a primary animator of history is perhaps best seen in Joseph Ellis' "Revolutionary Summer" which I reviewed several months ago. The above notwithstanding, Jefferson is a man of great words. I was particularly reminded of the beauty and relevance of his first inaugural address -- after a very divisive election ultimately decided in the House, he sought to assure and lead the whole: "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

  23. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    Excellent book. Meacham sees Jefferson not only as the idealist and philosopher who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but as a man who learned from experience and compromised throughout his political career. In fact, at the beginning of his Presidency, the Federalists were frightened that the country fail because real democracy was too dangerous and at the end of his Presidency some of the Republicans were angry that he'd compromised with the Federalists to the extend that he compromised th Excellent book. Meacham sees Jefferson not only as the idealist and philosopher who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but as a man who learned from experience and compromised throughout his political career. In fact, at the beginning of his Presidency, the Federalists were frightened that the country fail because real democracy was too dangerous and at the end of his Presidency some of the Republicans were angry that he'd compromised with the Federalists to the extend that he compromised the who idea of democracy. Interestingly, there was talk of secession at both points, and in both instances the North was seen as leaving the union, perhaps to form a country with British possessions in North America (Canada) and to have a more "royalist" government, maybe even go back to British rule. One of Jefferson's greatest fears was that the new United States would give up the democratic ideal and have a "president for life" or even a younger son of the British king as its king. His relationship with John Adams was also interesting. The two were close when they were both abroad as diplomats but politics separated them as Adams became the head of the Federalist Party and Jefferson of the Republicans. Only in old age did they reconcile (as a result of a push by Abigail Adams) and carry on a correspondence after Jefferson had retired. Then, they both died on the 4th of July of 1826, Jefferson have struggled to stay alive until July 4th. Interesting to me that I've always liked Jefferson and felt closer to his main ideas but never read very much about him. Lately though I've read biographies of Adams, Hamilton (Jefferson's Nemesis) and Washington so have understand the Federalist POV much better, but reading this book reminded me that Jefferson, IMHO, is the closest to the way I think. The book was interesting on the Jefferson controversy (slavery--he didn't free his slaves at death as did Washington, Sally Hemmings--Jefferson promised his wife not to remarry/sleeping with a slave, who was in fact a half sister of his wife, was not unusual at the time). I was also reminded that it was Jefferson who commissioned the Voyage of Discovery of Lewis and Clark and who made the purchase of the Louisiana Territory on his own without consulting Congress (thought he at first wanted a constitutional amendment to allow it). It would probably not have happened had he not acted quickly. Those two acts set the scene for American expansion into the west and were therefore far-seeing and critical decisions.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    Obviously with all biographies, how you frame your topic directs the course of the work. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power clearly lays out its "frame" in the title. This biography looks at Jefferson's attachment to power, both politically and personally. I found the idea rather intriguing. Unfortunately, the author spends more time harping on Jefferson's supposed affair with Sally Hemings than on the way Jefferson accumulated power. Therein lies my frustration with the book. As a biography, it Obviously with all biographies, how you frame your topic directs the course of the work. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power clearly lays out its "frame" in the title. This biography looks at Jefferson's attachment to power, both politically and personally. I found the idea rather intriguing. Unfortunately, the author spends more time harping on Jefferson's supposed affair with Sally Hemings than on the way Jefferson accumulated power. Therein lies my frustration with the book. As a biography, it certainly does a good job trying to capture its subject. I understand why people praise it. But as an analysis of Jefferson's "art of power," I found it woefully lacking. It gives more details to his love affairs than his pursuit of power. We're told he likes power. We're shown how he gathered his extended family around him all his life. And finally, history obviously proves Jefferson sought power, as he worked his way into the presidency. But how did he do it? How did he manipulate the media and win friends to his side? Going on this book I'd say...well, he was nice? Instead of in-depth analysis, we get stupid contradictions like, "How could Jefferson author the Declaration of Independence and also keep slaves?" Instead of analyzing the way he developed a political party around him, we're repeatedly reminded that he wanted to send all African Americans back to Africa. Power is definitely a theme throughout the book, but not explored nearly enough for my tastes. To be fair, I recognize that much of my dislike of this book comes from the fact that I feel the themes the author highlights are the usual things that get beaten to death where Jefferson is concerned: his debt, Sally Hemings, bypassing his original need for a constitutional amendment to enact the Louisiana purchase, playacting as a 'regular ole Joe' when president. But I acknowledge that possibly it was the popularity of this book that made these things ubiquitous with our third president, not the author recycling common knowledge.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Michael O'Brien

    Enjoyed this book greatly. Very readable, and does an even-handed job of telling the story of Jefferson's life while showing his brilliance as well as his flaws. The author does discuss the controversy of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings --- where he is alleged to have fathered children with her. He makes a convincing case for this having happened based upon circumstantial evidence; however, it is worth noting that other scholars on this controversy have provided other explanations, g Enjoyed this book greatly. Very readable, and does an even-handed job of telling the story of Jefferson's life while showing his brilliance as well as his flaws. The author does discuss the controversy of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings --- where he is alleged to have fathered children with her. He makes a convincing case for this having happened based upon circumstantial evidence; however, it is worth noting that other scholars on this controversy have provided other explanations, given the available evidence, but Meacham does not offer alternative explanations in this book. However to Meacham's credit, he refrains from turning this into a tabloid-like muck-raking expose'. He tells the story based upon the facts, and does so in a compelling way. So I would recommend this book to anyone desiring to learn the life story of one of America's greatest Founding Fathers.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jill Hutchinson

    I don't usually read Presidential biographies but this one had a little different approach which made it worthwhile.. Rather than probing Jefferson's personal life in-depth, the author provided us a word picture on those aspects of his personality and style which gave him the ability to help shape and govern the new and rather amorphous place called the United States of America. I also found his "supporting cast" in the government quite fascinating. Meacham shows us that Jefferson was rather an I don't usually read Presidential biographies but this one had a little different approach which made it worthwhile.. Rather than probing Jefferson's personal life in-depth, the author provided us a word picture on those aspects of his personality and style which gave him the ability to help shape and govern the new and rather amorphous place called the United States of America. I also found his "supporting cast" in the government quite fascinating. Meacham shows us that Jefferson was rather an enigma and not always a paragon of idealism. Overall, it was an interesting approach to the man and his time.

  27. 5 out of 5

    David

    I continue my trek through presidential biographies. I felt that Lin-Manuel Miranda treated John Adams with unnecessary harshness, but he pretty much got Jefferson right. Lin-Manuel Miranda cast Jefferson as the antagonist for much of the second arc of Hamilton. Jefferson is the Founding Father who's most fallen out of favor, not only being a slave-owner (like Washington), but actually fathering children with his slave mistress (a sin Washington was, so far as is known, never guilty of). Jon Meach I continue my trek through presidential biographies. I felt that Lin-Manuel Miranda treated John Adams with unnecessary harshness, but he pretty much got Jefferson right. Lin-Manuel Miranda cast Jefferson as the antagonist for much of the second arc of Hamilton. Jefferson is the Founding Father who's most fallen out of favor, not only being a slave-owner (like Washington), but actually fathering children with his slave mistress (a sin Washington was, so far as is known, never guilty of). Jon Meacham's biography of Jefferson is extremely sympathetic, but I came away from it feeling like Jefferson, for all his ideals, was not a man who stood on principles. He had heavier feet of clay than Washington. Where John Adams was quarrelsome and acerbic but honest, Thomas Jefferson was suave, diplomatic, conflict-averse, and duplicitous. Meacham goes out of his way to portray Jefferson as a "man of his time." And yet, often his words sound like apologetics for a man who was, frankly, a hypocrite. “Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.” Unlike his fellow Virginian Washington, who never left North America, Jefferson spent time in France and England. He didn't fight in the Revolutionary War; he was cajoling the French for aid. He would be a lifelong Francophile and mistrustful of Britain, one of his many defining conflicts with Alexander Hamilton. Their real conflict, however, as colorfully portrayed in Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical, was Hamilton's Federalism vs. Jefferson's Democratic Republicanism. Hamilton wanted a strong national government, a central bank, the power to tax, a standing army. Jefferson opposed all of these things. (Until he took office.) Washington tried to stay impartial, but he was a Federalist at heart, so Jefferson lost. As Washington's Secretary of State, Jefferson grew increasingly frustrated and disenchanted with the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Secretary of the Treasury. He eventually resigned and went back to Monticello, but not for long. In 1800, he ran for President against John Adams... and lost. But under the rules of the time, that meant he became Vice President... under his opponent. John Adams was a Federalist, like Washington. He tried to maintain relations with Jefferson (they had been friends since the time they spent together as American ambassadors in Europe), but they disagreed over too much politically, and Jefferson ended up being shut out completely during Adams' administration, never consulted or asked to contribute anything. John Adams was not a very popular president, so when Jefferson ran against him again in 1804, he won. And thus began the reign of Jefferson. “He dreamed big but understood that dreams become reality only when their champions are strong enough and wily enough to bend history to their purposes.” During Jefferson's presidency, the United States would expand tremendously in size, and the power of the Presidency would likewise expand. Jefferson opposed a strong federal government until he was in charge. He was ever-fearful of an imperial president, until he became President. The Federalists feared that Jefferson would sweep away everything they had built in the past eight years. Instead, for all his proto-libertarian Republicanism, Jefferson did very little to undo the work of his predecessors, and instead, expanded federal power. Meacham describes this as Jefferson being canny and pragmatic, realizing that idealism had to give way to realism. But really, it was Jefferson doing what Jefferson did: backing away from his principles when they were inconvenient. The Louisiana Purchase was of questionable Constitutionality. Jefferson himself wasn't sure whether he had the authority to make the purchase without Congress's approval. But he went ahead and did it. In retrospect, of course, we know it was one of his greatest accomplishments, not merely because it increased the size of the U.S., but because it was a great bargain with France, with whom the U.S. had fought a "quasi-war." In one stroke, Jefferson enlarged the country and removed a potential adversary from our shores. But it was very clearly against his Republican principles, and he'd have been outraged had Washington or Adams presumed to expand their power so greatly without Congressional say-so. This is evident again and again in Meacham's biography. Jefferson had high ideals, which he was always willing to abandon in favor of pragmatism. More than once, there is an episode of Jefferson being two-faced to friends or allies, which he considered merely being diplomatic, or avoiding unnecessary conflict, but he was in fact just being a weasel who didn't like confrontation. And nowhere was this more evident than in his lifelong relationship with slavery. Jefferson always understood slavery to be evil. He said so repeatedly. He made a halfhearted attempt to suggest it should be abolished in the Bill of Rights. He was firmly rebuffed, and never made any attempt to end slavery again. He continued to insist that slavery could not endure, but he also said that whites and blacks could not coexist; he saw the eventual solution as repatriating all slaves back to Africa. He owned slaves, and wrestled with the cognitive dissonance of being a slave owner whose entire fortune was dependent on slaves while claiming to be against slavery. This was a square George Washington was never really able to circle either, but Washington at least freed his slaves after his death — Jefferson had children with them. This is one of many artistic renderings one can find of Sally Hemings, but the truth is, we don't really know what she looked like. She was half-white — in fact, she was actually the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson's late wife, Martha. She was described as fair-skinned, and generally assumed to have been quite pretty. It's probably fair to assume she could have passed for white; several of her children apparently did after she and Jefferson died. But she spent her entire life a slave. If there is one thing that can be said in Jefferson's defense, it's that so far as we know, he didn't start banging Sally while his wife was alive. Jefferson never remarried (his dying wife had made him promise not to, probably because she didn't want her daughters to suffer under an evil stepmother as she had). But they were definitely having relations when she came to France to be his daughter's nanny. She was sixteen. She actually negotiated privileges with Jefferson while in France; she could have sued for emancipation, as slavery was illegal in France. She agreed to go back to Virginia with him, in exchange for "exceptional liberties," and the promise that their children would be freed when they turned 21. Thus began a debate that has roiled Jefferson historians for centuries. What sort of "relationship" did they have? In the modern era, it's impossible to regard a slave/slave owner relationship as being truly consensual. But what motivated Sally to go back to Virginia with Jefferson to become a slave again, where she would eventually have at least six children with him? (Jefferson did keep his word and free those who lived to adulthood.) Did she genuinely love him, or was she just making the best bargain she could in her situation? We really don't know. We don't have any writings by Hemings or even second-hand accounts. Jefferson himself refused to ever comment on the matter. Everything is supposition and extrapolation, and until DNA tests were done on their descendants in the 1990s, there were even historians who claimed that there was no proof they really did have a relationship. Despite the fact that not only was it evidently an open secret at the time, but it blew up into a public scandal during Jefferson's presidency. It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself. The boy is ten or twelve years of age. His mother went to France in the same vessel with Mr. Jefferson and his two daughters. The delicacy of this arrangement must strike every person of common sensibility. What a sublime pattern for an American ambassador to place before the eyes of two young ladies! It was a hit piece by a former friend named James Callendar that brought the matter out into the public. It severely damaged Jefferson's already-strained friendship with John and Abigail Adams. Yet Sally remained at Monticello until she died, nine years after Jefferson did. He didn't even free her in his will. Perhaps it's not fair that this one thing should overshadow Jefferson's legacy. He did so much, from writing most of the Declaration of Independence to putting the United States on a path to becoming a major power, founding the University of Virginia, and setting down many of the principles patriots quote to this day as the quintessence of American liberty. He was an intellectual, keenly interested in books and science, and his writings were extensive. That he was intelligent, interesting, and likeable is not in doubt. After he left the White House, he resumed writing to his old friend and political foe, John Adams, for many years. The two of them would die, hours apart. Jefferson forced himself to live until July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, through sheer force of will. And yet, I found Meacham's defenses and apologetics for Jefferson strained. This book was a good history of Jefferson's political career and description of his political philosophy. As Meacham tells us, it's not meant to be a complete biography of his life and times and so does not go too deeply into his childhood and early history. Thus we get a good sense of Jefferson the politician, and how and why he came to think a certain way, but outside of politics, not much of a sense of Jefferson the man. Because of this, but also because of Meacham's clear adoration of his subject, I found it a good narrative about the third president, but not quite up to the standard set by Ron Chernow's biography of George Washington or David McCullough's biography of John Adams, both of which are thorough, even-handed, and excellent biographies.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

    Choppy and not as in-depth as it could be, but, in all, this was a great book. Meacham is effective in the limited goals he sets for himself in this new biography of Jefferson. He persuasively argues that Jefferson's fear of monarchists was not simple paranoia or demagoguery. Jefferson was right to fear concentrations of power in "monocrats" -- be they advocates of kings, those seeking to elevate Washington to dictator, or the powerful national banking interests that Hamilton promoted. Jefferson Choppy and not as in-depth as it could be, but, in all, this was a great book. Meacham is effective in the limited goals he sets for himself in this new biography of Jefferson. He persuasively argues that Jefferson's fear of monarchists was not simple paranoia or demagoguery. Jefferson was right to fear concentrations of power in "monocrats" -- be they advocates of kings, those seeking to elevate Washington to dictator, or the powerful national banking interests that Hamilton promoted. Jefferson's ability to advocate and then to demonstrate the responsibility of egalitarian rule was his great contribution to American democracy. Jefferson, of course, was a man full of contradictory and paradoxical beliefs. He was a Democratic-Republican, but acted like a Federalist in office. He pretended to hate politics, but was a remarkably shrewd, even devious politician. He expanded government power while fearing such expansion at the same time. He violated the Constitution more than any other president. He viewed slavery as an evil but owned slaves himself (one of whom, Sally Hemings, he almost certainly exploited sexually). He was not a particularly religious man, but considered the freedom of religion clause int he Constitution one of his signal accomplishments. In short, he was the most devious man not named Ben Franklin. Despite Meacham's theme of a politician who mastered the art of power to successfully reconcile philosophy with practicality. Meacham treads lightly on Jefferson's philosophy (one of very few omissions in his lengthy bibliography, tellingly, is Jean Yarborough's study of Jefferson's political and moral philosophy). This is a shame because his portrait of a Jefferson that does not fit the libertarian mold is provocative and interesting. Meacham's Jefferson is less antipathetic to large government, federal and executive power and commerce than is commonly understood today, but Meacham does little to explore further Jefferson's thinking on these and other matters, nor does he attempt any explanation of why the Jefferson of common perception does not fit Meacham's own reading, which would have been very interesting to me. His is a Jefferson more of action than thought. Meacham also tries to deal with Jefferson and slavery. It's a topic that demanded attention, given the light touch traditionally taken and the mass of new scholarship on the subject. Jefferson's views were, unsurprisingly, complex. He made several early attempts to abolish it, but by midlife he chose the pragmatic route and no longer pursued the issue. He didn't think that white folks and black folks could live together, but kept one of his slaves as a concubine. Meacham is leery of validating Jefferson and Sally Hemings's relationship. He thinks Hemings forced Jefferson to promise to free their children in return for returning from France with him (French law at the time would have allowed her to stay). Interestingly, if this deal was made, Jefferson kept it despite its unenforceability once they returned to Virginia. The same man who wanted language in the Declaration of Independence attacking slavery and saw as a "fireball in the night" that threatened the country, there is no examination why Jefferson not only kept up his own massive coterie of slaves he also cut back on his comments and observations on why slavery should end. Instead Meacham offers up that Jefferson was comfortable with the essential contradiction of the man devoted to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" who not only kept slaves but did not free them at his death-as did others,like George Washington. In all, this was pretty good.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ralph Strong

    great book

  30. 4 out of 5

    Scott Sigler

    Holy cats was this an interesting read. The language alone made it quite compelling, as American English has changed drastically from the early 1800s. I was hitting the dictionary like Rocky hitting a side of beef. As for the content itself, he was a complex guy immersed in multiple complex situations. From the historical-to-modern perspective, it was fascinating to see how little has changed when it comes America's internecine party politics. The presidential election of 1800 had elements of bac Holy cats was this an interesting read. The language alone made it quite compelling, as American English has changed drastically from the early 1800s. I was hitting the dictionary like Rocky hitting a side of beef. As for the content itself, he was a complex guy immersed in multiple complex situations. From the historical-to-modern perspective, it was fascinating to see how little has changed when it comes America's internecine party politics. The presidential election of 1800 had elements of backstabbing, yellow journalism, party-owned media outlets and character assassinations that — aside from the language used — seemed nearly identical to the election of 2020.

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