Feature

Book of the week: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

“Few are better suited” to the task of rehabilitating Thomas Jefferson’s reputation than Jon Meacham.

(Random House, $35)

“Few are better suited” to the task of rehabilitating Thomas Jefferson’s reputation than Jon Meacham, said Jill Abramson in The New York Times. The former Newsweek editor and sometime biographer is thoroughly a creature of the Establishment, so his Jefferson is inevitably less a slave-holding hypocrite than a figure of heroic dimensions who overcame “all-too-human” flaws to achieve great things for his republic through pragmatic compromise. Thomas Jefferson “guides us through the entire life, but without much color or drama.” We get a “tough-minded account” of Jefferson’s thin rationalizations for holding slaves but “only a few walk-on scenes” from Sally Hemings, the slave mistress who bore him several children. But Meacham was wise to focus on how his subject wielded power. “What could be more reassuring in 2012 than a biography that explains how in turbulent, divided times a great president actually managed to govern?”

It’s a fool’s errand to celebrate Jefferson’s record in office, said Eric Herschthal in TheAtlantic.com. “If anything, it’s Jefferson’s idealism as a Founding Father that’s worth glorifying—his words about equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.” As governor of Virginia, Jefferson fled the capital when war arrived. As the nation’s first secretary of state, he secretly plotted against opponents. As America’s third president, he “deeply embedded partisanship into politics” by purging John Adams’s appointees, then fumbled the slavery issue so badly while doubling the size of the country that he almost single-handedly laid the ground for the devastation of civil war.

Whatever his flaws, Jefferson remains “the most important political figure in our history,” said David Holahan in CSMonitor.com. Besides articulating our founding ideals, he stabilized the fledgling nation’s finances, avoided a second war with Britain, and established that federal power could be transferred from one party to another without tearing the nation apart. Meacham values those achievements, but just as importantly, “he captures who Jefferson was, not just as a statesman but as a man.” Among the Virginian’s endearing quirks were his habit of plunging his feet in ice water every morning and his tendency to always be singing. By the time Meacham describes the 83-year-old Jefferson dying 50 years to the day after the Declaration’s signing, “the reader is likely to feel as if he is losing a dear friend.”

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