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Thomas Jefferson

Biographer Jon Meacham captures Thomas Jefferson as a person, not just a historical figure.

By David Holahan / November 13, 2012

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power By Jon Meacham Random House 800 pp.

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A popular biography of such a well-trod subject as Thomas Jefferson – contained in a single, not overly long, volume – will leave things out. And in this case, the author makes no pretense to new scholarship. But the approach has advantages if well executed. Jon Meacham pulls it off neatly in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, focusing on what matters, on the overriding issues and events as well as telling trivia. He captures who Jefferson was, not just as a statesman but as a man.

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By the end of the book, as the 83-year-old Founding Father struggles to survive until the Fourth of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of his masterful Declaration, the reader is likely to feel as if he is losing a dear friend. Jefferson just makes it, dying on that fateful day. I warn you, there may be tears.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning author honored for a similar treatment of Andrew Jackson, Meacham proclaims his subject “the most successful political figure” of his time. He might have gone further, tagging him as the most important political figure in our history. Beyond his contributions to the Revolution and to America before his defeat of President John Adams in the election of 1800, President Jefferson showed masterfully that the other party could take over and run the country for two terms – change some things, keep others the same – without the world going to rack and ruin. In brave new democratic experiments, the first such transfer of power is always the trickiest.

It was a time of unusual partisanship. George Washington was appalled by it. Today’s squabbles are halcyon by comparison: editors were jailed along with a Congressman for speaking their minds; Jefferson’s Vice President was under indictment for murdering Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist opponent, in a duel; and secession (Northern) was openly contemplated.

Jefferson’s Republicans, ancestors of today’s Democratic Party, believed that the Federalists secretly favored the return of British rule or monarchy in some form. Hamilton and his fellow travelers charged Jefferson with fomenting a “Mobocracy.”

Yet Jefferson ruled and America survived; indeed, it thrived. He did it with reason and the written word (he was a poor orator), and harvested votes with his charm rather than arm-twisting. Sworn political enemies almost always came away from encounters with this accomplished, affable man with at least grudging respect.

From 1801 to 1809 America would double in size, stay out of a war with Britain, become more fiscally and militarily sound, and get to know its continent better thanks to Lewis and Clark as well as to its leader’s inquisitive nature. It was hard to argue with those outcomes, and most Americans didn’t. They elected Jefferson and Jeffersonians for decades to come: Madison, Monroe, and Jackson.

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