Thomas Jefferson: On the Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson, on the art of power

On the whole, Meacham’s approach is very well done, a remarkably equitable account of a man who tends to bring out the fanatic in both his admirers and his detractors. It’s nice to have an attempt at a sober view of Jefferson, the politician. Meacham’s is the first biography I’ve read of the man that really makes an honest attempt to look at what the man did, not just what he said. And Meacham is more concerned with the actual results of Jefferson’s actions than with the apparent conflict between the man’s idealism and his day to day actions.

As a result, the case he makes for Jefferson as a pragmatic and even savvy politician is a strong one. But it hangs on a couple premises–most notably that Jefferson had a distrust of the British that bordered on paranoia. So most of Jefferson’s political decisions–especially the controversial ones–are viewed through this lens. The result is that sometimes, what Meacham attempts to present as an explanation (Jefferson’s implacable enmity towards Hamilton, for example) ends up sounding more like an excuse.

Still, even with that kind of caveat in mind, I found the book a rewarding read. And I have a much better sense of Jefferson, the leader, than I have found in other books more centered on his philosophical and idealistic stances.

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