REVIEW: When the United States of America was just a gleam in our founding fathers’ eyes, the country faced some fascinating dichotomies, including human equality versus inhumane captivity and popular will versus monarchal rule. These battles and several others play out in intimate detail in Jon Meacham’s excellent “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.”
Reading about the birth of the United States can be uplifting as well as scary. And while Jon Meacham’s “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” never really frightens you, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author handles the inspirational part very nicely. And the educational, heartening and enriching parts, too.
One of the most fascinating things about the book has to do with how the grand principles that shape our lives today were all topics of intense debate back then: freedom versus slavery; rule of law versus despotic edict; universal suffrage versus patriarchal voting; egalitarianism versus inequity; and so on.
All well and good, yet how many of these problems are still lingering with us?
Slavery is gone from the U.S., but racism was built into our founding documents — notably, the enumeration clause of the Constitution, which apportioned representatives by population and specified that “other persons,” i.e. slaves, counted as three-fifths of a whole person. We may have moved past that legislatively but we’re still haunted by racism in many parts of our nation — it took the slack-jawed yokels in Mississippi 148 years to ratify the Constitution’s 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. (“It was jest a gol’ dang clerical error, y’all. Move along, nuthin’ to see heah.”)
Women have voting rights now but the patriarchal structure of society in the eighteenth century meant that women’s suffrage was cast aside. This is not to overlook the pervasiveness of patriarchy in the nineteenth and early twentieth century; and let’s face it, until Hillary is elected in 2016, there will always be a big question mark about America’s ability to welcome everyone to the club.
A Separate Equality
On the subject of race, there was a stark contradiction within Thomas Jefferson. On the one hand, he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, with its resoundingly powerful precept that “all men are created equal.” On the other hand, that wonderful viewpoint was kinda-sorta undercut by the inconvenient truth that he possessed slaves.
In fact, he was somewhat more than a mere slave owner; parts of the book deal with Jefferson’s conjugal relations with some of his slaves, Sally Hemings most prominently. There is even a section on the recent DNA evidence proving what formerly were mere allegations or speculations.
For what it’s worth, on a number of occasions Jefferson argued for the abolition of slavery, addressing the problem as a question of humanity, as a political practice, and as a matter of law, but he was continually defeated in these efforts. It would be decades before advances were made in this area, and longer still for women’s suffrage. In light of this, one might conclude that the modern Republican Party is simply reflecting our founders in their promotion of racism and misogyny, two current GOP core principles.
Like today’s important battles for individual rights, corporate tax fairness, environmental action, financial regulation, voting rights, consumer protection, public safety, and gun responsibility, our forefathers had big issues in front of them. Then, as now, the path of decency was under constant attack. Then, as now, the regressive forces kept chipping away at the Declaration’s shining guidelines. Despite this, Jefferson believed that the general movement of the nation would always be toward the light. He not only believed this, he dedicated his life to it.
Jefferson was continually aligned against greed, obstruction, and prevarication (the “g,” “o,” and “p” of one of our so-called great political parties) and he walked a tightrope in his dealings with partisan and regional factions in the new nation — a nation which demanded of him more than ordinary individuals might have been expected to give. “Jefferson understood a timeless truth: that politics is kaleidoscopic, constantly shifting, and the morning’s foe may well be the afternoon’s friend.”
America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromises. 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. Jefferson’s story resonates not least because he embodies an eternal drama: the struggle of the leadership of the nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world.
In that paragraph and in many others, Meacham deftly bridges the gap between our modern era (none too progressive, unfortunately) and the late seventeen hundreds and early eighteen hundreds (often quite forward-thinking in theory, if not always in practice).
Getting right to the marrow of Jefferson, Meacham writes:
More than any of the other early presidents — more than Washington, more than Adams — Jefferson believed in the possibilities of humanity. 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. Broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power.
At various points throughout the book, Meacham takes brief moments to ruminate on what might be called the grand historical perspective, as in this observation about Jefferson’s political influence:
And so began the Age of Jefferson, a political achievement without parallel in American life. George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton are sometimes depicted as wiser, more practical men than the philosophical master of Monticello. Judged by the raw standard of the winning and the keeping of power, however, Thomas Jefferson was the most successful political figure of the first half century of the American republic. For thirty-six of the forty years between 1800 and 1840, either Jefferson or a self-described adherent of his served as president of the United States: James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren. (John Quincy Adams, a one-term president, was the single exception.) This unofficial and little-noted Jeffersonian dynasty is unmatched in American history.
Throughout the book, Meacham’s use of language is a lovely link between the flowery bravura of bygone writing and today’s slam-bang get-to-the-point approach. Here is one example, a brief description of Jefferson’s habits of social intercourse. I love how the facts are laid out with judicious economy, followed by a 17-word sentence displaying delicious elegance:
He hated arguing face-to-face, preferring to smooth out the rough edges of conversation, leading some people to believe Jefferson agreed with them when, in fact, he was seeking to avoid conflict. He paid a price for this obsession with congeniality among those who mistook his reticence for duplicity.
Since that passage appears in the Prologue, it allows you to be on the lookout for this Jeffersonian conversational trait and its consequences. (It is also interesting that the same trait was exhibited by our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, although FDR was apparently much more Machiavellian about it.)
Keeping you Moving
Frequently, Meacham will construct the final words of a chapter to gently mimic the “ooh what’s coming next?!” effect of old-fashioned romantic literature. Consider these chapter endings:
“And he was about to become a central leader and defining voice of a revolutionary nation in armed rebellion against the world’s greatest empire.” Without bombast, Meacham easily stirs the blood.
“Most leaders can only hope to shape their nation for a brief time. In the middle of 1803, a report from Paris would give Jefferson the power to transform his for all time.” A little ominous but nicely exciting. (I hope you love it as much as I do when a writer can make history lively.)
“He was the kind of man other men thought well of and believed they could trust — unless, as one of his best friends was to discover, a beautiful young wife was in the picture.” Now I ask you, who among us would not want to flip the page and dive into the next part of the tale?
The sorry state of the media is nothing new to this country. The reporting of Jefferson’s day was problematic. Perhaps even as problematic as the deceit of todays Faux News channel. Yet the free press is something Jefferson steadfastly supported. He is, after all, the author of “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
But there is a caveat to that statement: the populace must be enlightened. The public must know what’s going on with their government. “If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.”
While today’s corporations and their GOP apologists have become those feared wolves, in Jefferson’s time the danger was from monarchists and Federalists (who displayed many traits of today’s Republican Party in their desire to subvert the basic ideals of the country).
The best of a bad lot, capitalism is our chosen process, but greedwhores continually make a mockery of our egalitarian goals (yes, Mitt, we’re pointing at your soulless carcass). Jefferson had many battles in helping shape the U.S. but one of his greatest foes was Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson, Meacham writes…
…hated the financial speculation that would result from the Hamiltonian vision of commerce. “It is much to be wished that every discouragement should be thrown in the way of men who undertake to trade without capital,” Jefferson said. “The consumers pay for it in the end, and the debts contracted, and bankruptcies occasioned by such commercial adventurers, bring burden and disgrace on our country.”
Which makes one wonder when the Republicans will be brought to account over this? Note: I speak of today’s Republicans — in the book, the good guys are Jeffersonian Republicans, who seem to be the precursor of today’s Democratic Party, and the bad guys are the Federalists, who appear to stand in as the evil forebears of today’s perfidious Republican Party. (If this name game has you confused, you aren’t alone; sometimes I think that things like this are deliberate and I look to see if that creep Frank Luntz is somehow involved.)
In any case, Jefferson’s views of the Federalists match the way sane people view today’s GOP:
Even more bluntly and vividly, Jefferson referred to the Federalists as madmen: “Their leaders are a hospital of incurables, and as such entitled to be protected and taken care of as other insane persons are.”
A man for the ages! Wisdom that still resonates two centuries later.
The Fading of the Light
There is much to praise in this lovely book, although a distinctly acrid taste is injected into the proceedings near the end with some disgusting treacle about Ronald Reagan commemorating Jefferson. Meacham commits the incredible sin of soiling part of the memory of Thomas Jefferson by quoting a politician who is the intellectual equivalent of a broken sewer pipe.
Even such a disturbing miscalculation cannot blot out the excellence of the writing and the elegiac power of the final pages, in which we are made to feel the shifting, swirling, fading light of Jefferson’s life while his ideas and hopes simultaneously grow more omniscient.
Had he been only a philosopher he would not have endured as he does. Had he been only a legislator, or only a diplomat, or only an inventor, or only an author, or only an educator, or even only a president he would not have endured as he does.
He endures because we can see in him all the varied and wondrous possibilities of the human experience — the thirst for knowledge, the capacity to create, the love of family and of friends, the hunger for accomplishment, the applause of the world, the marshaling of power, the bending of others to one’s own vision. His genius lay in his versatility; his larger political legacy in his leadership of thought and of men.
The final scene of Jefferson’s life is quiet, elegiac, powerful, and sad; at the same time it is ultimately uplifting. Despite the one horrifying lapse, this is good reading; the result of good writing.
“Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham; Random House, ISBN: 978-1-4000-6766-4, 800 pages, $35.00.
This article is Copr. © 2013 by John Scott G, and originally published on eNewsChannels.com – all commercial and reprint rights reserved. Disclosure: the author of this unbiased review was not paid or provided any consideration by the publisher, agency or author of the book reviewed.