Last year I decided that in addition to my regular array of fiction, I would begin a project to read biographies of each American president. THOMAS JEFFERSON: THE ART OF POWER represents the third book in that project for me, and I believe that reading about George Washington and John Adams — two presidents with personalities and character traits that differed wildly from Jefferson — made an impact in how I read about Jefferson and how I responded to Jon Meacham’s analysis of Jefferson’s strengths and weaknesses.
After reading the book’s opening pages I feared that I had misunderstood what the book was — that instead of reading a biography that told Jefferson’s life story, I’d found an extended essay describing Jefferson’s balance of idealism and pragmatism.
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.
Eventually, Meacham does go into a well-researched, detailed description of Jefferson’s life. It’s a description that praises Jefferson for his intelligence and political abilities, and while I appreciated Jefferson’s intellect and writing ability, the examples of him working from the shadows, asking friends to criticize or campaign on his behalf, all so he could deny involvement, grew wearying, especially after reading about Washington — who seemed above such pettiness — and Adams, who was at times the target of Jefferson’s shadow campaigning.
Meacham doesn’t hide from the Sally Hemings scandal, which I appreciated, even if his introduction of the topic borders on comedy:
In this tempestuous time, Jefferson apparently began a sexual relationship with his late wife’s enslaved half sister.
In all, this was an interesting read, with plenty of nuggets of information I hadn’t known. I think I can respect Jefferson’s accomplishments — the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase — without ever ranking him among my favorite presidents, but I’m glad I took the time to learn more about him and this period of history. This biography certainly helped me do both, with a wealth of detail that kept me interested throughout.