The complex life and the politics of the third President of the United States in a dramatic period in history are brought to the fore in Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. After nearly twenty years in which Jefferson’s reputation has taken a hit through both scientific revelations and new biographies of his fellow Founders, the pragmatic philosopher who still yearned to daydream comes into better light 200 years after his time in office.
Meacham approached his book as a pure biography of Jefferson not a history of the times, which meant that only events that directly affected Jefferson or his immediately family were focused upon. Thus while Jefferson’s own story began in 1743, Meacham sets the stage with a family history that was also a history of colonial Virginia both politically and culturally. Throughout the next 500 pages, Meacham follows Jefferson in and out of Virginia with stops in Philadelphia, Paris, New York, and finally Washington D.C., but through everything a special focus was on how he developed his political acumen to achieve the vision he had for the United States in the world.
Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings is discussed throughout the book when important moments in both their lives cross. While Hemings is not the focus of the book, the ‘relationship’ is interwoven by Meacham into Jefferson’s complicated thoughts on slavery that is more thoroughly detailed towards the end of the book and is some of the best analysis in the book. Yet, the focus on Jefferson’s political skill in comparison to his contemporaries and his time resulted in a fairly quick book to read (505 pages) that had extensive notes that could have added more to the body of the book and given the book more depth is the basic drawback of the book.
Over the last decade, a new round of biographies of the Founding Fathers has brought praise and more attention to the actual human beings we think of when we hear their names. Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is a fascinating read of a man whose words and actions are both celebrated and controversial.