Every so often, someone tosses around the expression, “we live in interesting times.” It usually happens at a dinner party as someone comments on the latest trend piece in the New York Times. Generally, people nod and concur and think, indeed, we are the most interesting people living in the most interesting times.
You know who really lived in interesting times? Thomas Jefferson. And Jon Meacham’s new biography of the nation’s third president, subtitled, “The Art of Power,” shows without a doubt that Thomas Jefferson lived in far more interesting times than we ever did or will.
What’s so remarkable about Jefferson is that he didn’t just live during the most turbulent and consequential period of American history, he shaped it, through his own pen and his own values, and most of all, through his own power.
Meacham’s book isn’t academic history—true historians would demand far more detail and studious research on specific aspects of Jefferson’s life. But with more than 200 pages of notes and reference material, the book demonstrates a level of scholarship that should be respected. Meacham’s skill as an author is that he can distill history into a form that is easily consumed by readers that don’t possess a doctoral degree. He writes Jefferson with the perspective of a contemporary observer, bringing 21st century observations to an 18th century life. That ability makes the book that much more entertaining—not only are we devouring the life of Thomas Jefferson, we are in our own minds making comparisons to today’s politicians and leaders. Let me get to the point: I loved this book.
The organization of the book is as if it was designed by Steve Jobs. It just makes perfect sense as a reader. While it is mostly chronological, Meacham groups together pieces of Jefferson’s life in a way that is simple and artful. Chapters are bite-sized, about 10-20 pages a piece, and nearly all begin with Jefferson’s own words, bringing home the fact that Jefferson was a prolific and brilliant writer on the subjects of the day.
One of Meacham’s overarching themes is that Jefferson “would do what it took, within reason, to arrange the world as he wanted it to be.” Perhaps the most obvious example is how he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Other examples range from his design of Monticello to his purchase of the Louisiana territory. Meacham also points out, wisely, that Jefferson would often betray his own bedrock principles in order to get what he wanted, noting he was not always “intellectually consistent.” Indeed, as president, Jefferson exercises far more power than he would have accepted from a Federalist leader. Meacham says, “He was always in favor of whatever means would improve the chances of his cause of the hour.”
We glimpse the personality of Jefferson too. We learn that he “feared failure and disapproval” and that “he longed to be great.” We also see that he “lived vibrantly,” falling in and out of love, especially while overseas. (Perhaps Jefferson is the inspiration for every other American romantic that drifted off to Paris for a new adventure.) Meacham pointedly addresses Jefferson’s hypocrisies and failings, most notably his decades-long affair with his slave, Sally Hemmings. Some reviews have been critical of Meacham for not focusing more on this issue; I disagreed and thought it was appropriately detailed.
Jefferson was as gossipy as any of today’s Congressional aides. Repeatedly, he writes friends begging for the latest political scuttlebutt from Richmond, Paris or Washington. One gathers he would have had an active Twitter account. He had an insatiable appetite for knowledge and was always curious. Madison was his muse, trading political gossip and advice through the years. This book made me want to read more about Madison and Monroe rather than more about Washington and Adams.
No political leaders today, with the exception of maybe the Clintons, have the same level of stamina and drive that Jefferson did. Even in retirement, post-Presidency, Jefferson decided to create the University of Virginia, now ranked as one of the best schools in the nation. Had he just written the Declaration of Independence, he would have been an important figure. Yet he went on to be the first Secretary of State, the second Vice President and the third President.
Near the end of the book, Meacham notes that Jefferson, above all, was an optimist and that he “believed in the future.” It’s noteworthy that in a book that celebrates one of our founding fathers, Meacham chooses to conclude with Jefferson’s own words that caution us against doing just that. Jefferson wrote critically in 1816, “They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.”
It is easy to look at this book and say that our own elected officials pale in comparison to Washington and Adams and Jefferson. But as Jefferson noted, too often we look back on our founding fathers and imagine an ideal rather than a reality. Truth be told, Jefferson had enormous flaws, flaws that would likely be disqualifying in today’s politics. Will history be as kind to today’s leaders? It’s doubtful. We tear them down too quickly and leave a trail of tweets and snark that will color the history that is yet to be written. It’s a shame.
Jefferson was human and far from flawless. His life and accomplishments are unequalled. Meacham chooses a Woodrow Wilson quote to top the epilogue:
“Jefferson’s principles are sources of light because they are not made up of pur reason, but spring out of aspiration, impulse, vision, sympathy. They burn with the fervor of the heart.”
This is the best kind of biography; it is complete, accessible and full of detail. It illuminates a person from another generation and shows us how he might have once been perceived. Most importantly, it puts the individual in today’s context, giving us a connection point with a historical figure.
A spectacular book about a remarkable individual.
Thanks for reading.