It’s very difficult to write a biography of a political giant like Thomas Jefferson without writing as much about one’s own times as about the world of the title subject. How else can we understand the past, if not in terms of the present, and of our hopes for the future?
So assessments of Jefferson have changed with the times, even on the short scale of a few decades, or even just a few years. For Reaganites, Jefferson was a small-government hero. For social activists, his conflicted attitudes and behaviour regarding slavery diminished his other accomplishments. For Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson is a model of pragmatism informed by idealism. He is just the kind of politician that his country seems so to lack today.
Meacham’s key theme, and the source of his book’s title, is his portrayal of Jefferson as a man who was always willing to accept an incremental victory, a politician who played the “long game,” who would rather move one step toward his goal than stand so firm on principle that he made no progress at all. Near the beginning, Meacham writes:
Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.
And, later on:
Viewed in terms of philosophy, the contradictions between Jefferson the nationalist and Jefferson the nullifier seem irreconcilable. Viewed in terms of personality and of politics, though, Jefferson was acting in character. He was always in favor of whatever means would improve the chances of his cause of the hour. … He was not intellectually consistent, but a consistent theme did run through his politics and his statecraft: He would do what it took, within reason, to arrange the world as he wanted it to be.
This view of Jefferson as a master of realpolitik threatens to topple him from the monumental caricature by which most of us have been “educated” about him, but Meacham’s unfailing admiration for his subject doesn’t make such dethroning easy.
Throughout his book, Meacham defends Jefferson, man and politician, taking on one by one the standard criticisms of his policies — and his life. Yes, Jefferson sometimes made what many view to be very bad decisions (his second-term embargo of British trade is the best-known example). Yes, the small-government idealist was not above using, even extending, executive power when he felt it was necessary to achieve his ends. Yes, the great champion of liberty was a lifelong slave owner who never publicly acknowledged his children with Sally Hemings, his late wife’s half-caste half-sister.
Through it all, Meacham is understanding, accommodating, accepting. His Jefferson is flawed, but he is never venal, never mean-spirited, never thoughtless.
It would be hard fully to assess Thomas Jefferson from just this one source. As other reviewers have pointed out, much of the real nitty-gritty is missing. Complex issues are glossed over so that more time can be spent on Meacham’s sole task: presenting Jefferson as a Renaissance Man, a scholar and philosopher, an aristocratic farmer whose ideals drove him to play the political game for a lifetime, and to play it better than anyone else.
For the casual, non-professional reader, like me, the recurring message of The Art of Power is that principles are advanced only by the practical application of the tools of politics. Consultation and debate, persuasion and compromise, these are the apparent contradictions that move policy and politics forward.
And in today’s political climate, these are the skills that are most glaringly absent. In the end, Meacham urges us to solve our current problems by asking, in many places and in many ways:
“What would Jefferson do?”