The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Writing: 5 Coverage: 5

An insightful and well-written biography about one of the Founding Fathers and the author of our Declaration of Independence. Jefferson didn’t fit the traditional view of a “hero.” He was an intellectual with refined tastes and while he played a huge role in the establishment of the new country, he played a small, and often maligned, role in the revolutionary war itself.

His politics focused unwaveringly on liberty — he felt that a personal liberty would create a sense of free inquiry that would help usher in “the reign of reason” and pave the way to a “war-free world of open markets.” He applied this focus on liberty and free inquiry to everything — including religion. We have him to thank in large part for the separation of church and state that formed part of the country’s foundation. While he professed a deep belief in God, he stood firm against the establishment of religion. He hoped that “subjecting religious sensibilities to free inquiry would transform faith from a source of contention into a force for good.”

When he finally became president, he said he would spend his presidential years “pursuing steadily my object of proving that a people, easy in their circumstances as ours are, are capable of conducting themselves under a government founded not in the fears and follies of man, but on reason… This is the object now nearest to my heart.” In his first presidential address — fresh from electoral machinations and utter hatred between his party (the republicans) and the federalists — he brought people together by pointing out that they were experiencing a difference of opinions, not of principle. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear this message a little more often today?

I started the book with a negative view of Jefferson (gleaned from reading the Hamilton and Adams biographies) and left with a far more positive view. While Jefferson was obviously a consummate politician, I didn’t really see the hunger for power that Meacham claimed, although Jefferson was an excellent wielder of power. He was raised to be a leader — on a large plantation if not of the whole country. He clearly would have preferred a life at home, engaging in his curiosities, and spending time with the family that he cherished. In his last years, he was able to indulge in the life of the mind that he craved. He created a university that was to be based on “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

It was hard to align this image of a man I grew to admire — one who fought for liberty, scientific enquiry, and religious tolerance, who believed in education for women, and who cared deeply for family and friends — with the man who kept slaves, and fathered children with his wife’s enslaved half-sister. Many have suggested that it was a different time with a different set of norms while others have pointed out that there was a strong abolitionist movement already and that a few of his local contemporaries had already freed their slaves. I liken it to meat eaters today — I can see a vegetarian future where the norm is horror at the thought of killing animals to eat their meat; but although we are exposed to that opinion today, the norm is still to eat meat, even if there is a part of us that thinks there is something “slightly unpleasant” about it. Regardless, I’m not willing to throw away the good that a person has done because they participated in a practice that I find abhorrent today.

Excellent book both for the fair coverage and the Pulitzer-worthy writing. Strongly recommended.