Thomas Jefferson:The Art of Power
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". . .many issues Jefferson confronted still linger today. . ."
This voluminous biography of a president who served more than two centuries ago reads like a gripping novel. Pulitzer-Prize author Jon Meacham offers new insight into Thomas Jefferson’s humanistic, controlling and sometimes-flawed character as he effectively wielded political power, even sacrificing his personal life to create a democratic country free of monarchy.
Born into wealth and opportunity, he attended College of William and Mary where he was introduced to “thinkers of the Enlightenment,” and became obsessed with politics. After serving in the colonial House of Burgesses, Jefferson radically sought a break from Great Britain. In 1774 he released his first state paper known as “Jefferson’s Bill of Rights,” and later led a committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. He believed revolution was “the shrewdest economic choice.”
His political experience with fierce political tactics that make today’s congressional maneuvers seem tame in comparison seasoned him for his tenure as the country’s third president. The tension in the book focuses on his constant struggles to compromise, exert power and accept defeat, all exceedingly difficult for the “genius” Jefferson.
Meacham’s engaging narrative is mostly based on Jefferson’s abundance of correspondence, though what is missing are letters exchanged between him and his mother and to his wife which he destroyed. But we also learn from the surviving missives how he manipulated media to change public opinion, preferring the written word because he was not an eloquent speaker.
There’s also much about Jefferson’s personal life, including his passion for gardening and architecture, and severe migraine headaches that intensified when his wife died. Though he promised never to re-marry, he developed a 30-year relationship with Sally Hemings, his wife’s half-sister and black slave, a scandal that evoked jokes and editorials, all simply ignored by Jefferson.
Most striking is that many issues Jefferson confronted still linger today: Bank corruption, trade, the drastic consequences when a middle class is ignored by the powerful, and even pirates. Though he labored to “obliterate the traces of party and consolidate the nation,” partisan wars continued, forcing him to accept “the world as it was,” that as long as you have two parties, political strife would be the rule, not the exception, in American life.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla