Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Book Review: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
by Jon Meacham

Thomas Jefferson was given many gifts: wealth, in the form of plantations and slaves, vast natural talents, education, health, powerful family connections, a capacity for hard work, a nose for the main chance and the political savvy to take it. Of all our great men, we know most and least of Jefferson. Great volumes treat pieces or summarize. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power is a portrait of Jefferson, the political theorist and working politician who, by intent, became a world historical figure.

Jefferson’s father, Peter, was a renowned frontiersman in the early 1700s. He was given great tracts of land for surveying the Virginia-North Carolina border, a feat when one imagines surveying a straight line several hundred miles long through the wild forest mountains and swamps. And that’s the delight of this Jefferson biography. The characters and the scenes come to life. One can imagine Jefferson sitting by the sunny window of his corner office in the White House, his pet mockingbird, Dick, perched on his shoulder singing, his red roses and geraniums in pots on the sill, humming along as he worked through the federal correspondence twelve hours a day (he read and corrected all federal paperwork).

Even more wondrously, Jon Meacham, the author, brings Jefferson’s voice back to life. One can hear Jefferson’s amusement and the subtle ironies and wit of his voice, see the lift of an eyebrow and his warmth as we read his passages, framed by Meacham’s writing. The influence of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman on Jefferson’s writing is unmistakable. He carried the book with him always.

Peter Jefferson died when young Tom was fourteen. At sixteen Tom, already proficient in Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish, went to William and Mary College in Williamsburg, studied eight hours from dawn, ran a couple of miles, raced horses (he always kept fine horses) and went to the Governors palace for evenings of music, wine, and conversation. A teen, he was already at the center of power, an intimate of the acting royal governor, Francis Fauquir, the colony’s leading attorney, George Wyeth and his cousin, Payton Randolf, Speaker of Virginia’s House of Burgesses.

By his mid-twenties Jefferson, a young lawyer, was a member of the Burgesses, and already patriarch of an extended clan which included his own young family, his widowed sister’s family, and his father-in-law’s enslaved concubine’s family, the Hemings. All of this he risked, in 1774, with his first state paper, his Summary View of the Rights of British America, a brilliant declaration of human rights, treasonous to the British. In 1776 he was young (32), rich, famous, and admired as he entered the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and wrote his immortal Declaration.

Jefferson’s political acumen failed him in the military disaster of the 1881 British invasion of Virginia, during the last days of his governorship of that state. Lessons learned from his failings paid handsome dividends for the US during his presidency, twenty years hence. Following the death of his beloved wife in 1883 (He and Patty wrote out passages from Tristram Shandy for each other, from memory, as she lay dying), he became the American minister in Paris and began his French adventure, A jewel of the Parisian salons, he built upon his international renown, had an affair of the heart (at least) with a beautiful Anglo-Italian matron, educated his daughters, discharged his ministerial duties, negotiated loans for the US, collected seeds of useful plants, helped LaFayette shape the Declaration of the Rights of Man and began his intimate relationship with Sally Hemings, his deceased wife’s fifteen-year-old half-sister.

In Meacham’s telling, we see one scene of their relationship, about which so little is yet known. Jefferson was set to return to the US. Sally was pregnant with his child and did not want to leave France, where she was free. She had learned French and she was not alone; Jefferson had brought her enslaved brother to France to be trained as a chef. And, so, began a political negotiation, wherein Jefferson, unusually, was at a disadvantage. She would return to the US, if he would free her children at age twenty-one, which he did. On returning to the US, Patsy Jefferson, Thomas’s daughter, barely older than Sally Hemings, married her cousin Thomas Mann Randolf. One suspects she felt displaced from her father’s affections by her enslaved half-aunt. Four of Sally Hemings’ and Thomas Jefferson’s children survived to become adults, and be freed.

As Jefferson moved in political circles within the Washington administration, as our first Secretary of State, he was often accused of hypocrisy. Jefferson never disagreed with anyone to their face. He judged it never did any good. If someone made ten points, he picked out the one he could agree with and left the others aside. His listeners often believed he had agreed with many of their other nine points, and were surprised to learn, from others, that he did not. (He also gave few speeches, believing they did little good for the speaker). But the larger hypocrisy, widely discussed, was for planters like Jefferson to be leading advocates for democratic rights, accusing others, who had no slaves, of championing hereditary rights and monarchy. How was it that a world famous champion for democracy and universal human rights continued to be a slave owner? Meacham’s book does not fully answer that question, but one is given fresh insights. Jefferson had extraordinary abilities of command and great talent. He did not need slaves and plantations to be rich. He was well aware of the evils of slavery, the danger slavery would create for the nation and said so, if not often, regularly. Given his strength of will, and his extraordinary capacity for self-awareness we must conclude that Jefferson was the man he wanted to be, a Virginia planter, a slave-owner and a powerful advocate for democracy and human rights, and he was not personally torn by the contradictions. Meacham’s portrait is that of a happy man who enjoyed political struggle and was good at it. His cause was a powerful, enduring democratic republic.

The continental (Atlantic to Pacific) power of the United States and its democratic institutions, and its ambivalence about African-American rights, are largely the result of Jefferson’s vision and his work shaping our political and governing structures. The lesson learned from his want of boldness during the British invasion of Virginia informed his bold purchase of the Louisiana Territory during the brief period when it was on offer from Napoleon, thus setting into motion the US westward expansion. He did not have authority to so fundamentally change the nature of the young nation, by doubling its size, and did not have time for permission, so he acted, bought the territory for 3 cents an acre and gained approval afterwards. The New England-based federalists were overwhelmed by the popularity of his actions. Capitalizing on this diplomatic and political victory he sent his personal secretary, Meriweather Lewis, and his friend William Clark, Virginians, west to lay claim to the Pacific northwest for our young country. Jefferson’s political victory and that of his party were complete. .And by the end of his presidency his party controlled three fourths of congress and discussion of returning to British monarchical forms was ended. He had formed what is now the oldest political party in the world and his direct political successors included three two-term presidents (Madison, Monroe and Jackson) and presidents Van Buren and Polk.

Our popular image of Jefferson is that of a mild-mannered courteous man, architect, gardener, statesman. But Meacham shows us other aspects of his personality. He was an avid outdoorsman, who loved hunting, He always carried a gun and could kill game at 30 yards with his pistol. He always fished and would go fishing with Washington and his friend Madison. He rode for hours every day and famously disdained the cold and wet. His even temper was, in part, enabled by his complete command of his household. He was a patriarch with exacting standards and was always obeyed by slaves, servants, laborers, daughters and grandchildren. He was known to wipe the flanks of his horses with a white handkerchief and, if they were not perfectly clean, the horses were sent back to the stables. The portrait we see in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is that of a happy man, not at all oppressed by his ideals, a robust, witty man who knew how to please himself and command others, who lived a grand life of his making.

(Audio versions of this title are also available from the library in formats including CD and Downloadable. Edward Herrmann, the Emmy Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated actor, is the reader and his treatment is both vibrant and engaging. Should you choose either of the audio formats, be sure to check out the print edition as well. The historic illustrations and the documentation are not to be missed.)

Submitted by David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

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