It has been the Year of the Biography for me; I’ve had a new obsession every few months. The main book I’ve read in the past month has been Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and it was time well spent. Since many people, from Jon Stewart to Clyde Edgerton, have reviewed this book already, I’ll just chat about the elements that were most meaningful to me.
I have read quite a few biographies and stories of our third president, including many children’s works, since you can never exhaust the richness of his life. Authors tend to choose one aspect of his life to highlight, usually his political life from the writing of the Declaration of Independence to the presidency. Lately, of course, the emphasis has been on his relationship with Sally Hemings and their children, even in kids’ books like last year’s fictional Jefferson’s Sons, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.
Although his biography is all-encompassing, Meacham chose to focus on Jefferson’s skillful use of power throughout his life, and I’d say that his approach is quite balanced. Jefferson practiced an intimate art of persuasion. As a philosopher, he had deeply-held beliefs, but as a politician, he was always willing to compromise in order to achieve his highest goal. Jefferson was brilliant with people, and, being a Southerner, he was a natural with graceful hospitality. No matter who his conversational partner might be, he made sure to know his tastes and interests, and always seemed conversant on every topic. Although he had political enemies, once they met him, it was difficult for them to dislike him. After all, when your host is as passionately interested in French sculpture, military maneuvers, or the latest techniques in agriculture as you are, it’s hard to believe that he’s not on your side. As president, Jefferson governed from the center more than some of his political allies would have liked, but he managed to strengthen the office of the presidency at the same time.
Jefferson’s greatest fear throughout his political life was that the northern states would succeed in turning the United States into a monarchy, or at least a hereditary presidency. I was surprised to find that the New England states, led by Massachusetts, were perpetually threatening to secede. We only think of secession by the southern states at the time of the Civil War or Texas today, but this tension between the Tories and the Republicans was a powerful force until after the War of 1812 and is the source of the famous feud between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
On a more personal note, Jefferson loved women. You can interpret that in any negative or positive way you like, and you’d probably be right. Although there is only one mention of his mother in all of his papers, he was very close to his sister, Jane, and kept up a lively correspondence with her until her early death. He also had true friendships with his daughters, especially Patsy, who kept house for him at Monticello. Many ladies were charmed when Jefferson came to call on their husbands, and, while they waited in the parlor, he schmoozed skillfully on all topics dear to women. Before he was married, he doggedly tried to seduce one friend’s wife. When I say “tried to seduce,” I don’t mean that he made a pass at her. He spent years trying to convince this woman to sleep with him. Nice friend, eh?
Thomas and Patsy (Martha) Jefferson’s marriage was a true love match. They had several children together, most of whom died in childhood, although their daughters Patsy and Polly lived longer than the others. When his wife died, Jefferson mourned so violently that his entire household went on suicide watch. On her deathbed, Patsy made Thomas promise never to remarry, since she did not want her children to have the horrid experiences with stepmothers that she had had. Thomas kept this promise, and I’m sure it had nothing to do with his desire to commit suicide. However, this problem was solved for him by a lifelong relationship with a woman he could never marry: his wife’s half-sister, Sally Hemings. From the time Sally accompanied his daughter Polly to France to join him on his diplomatic mission there, Jefferson began a romantic relationship with this fourteen-year-old slave girl.
So much could be said about Jefferson’s hypocritical and confusing actions toward slavery, the moral issue of his time. Early in his political career, he introduced two bills proposing to end the slave trade. Not slavery, mind you, but the industry that had grown up around kidnapping people from Africa and selling them in North America. Both bills met with resounding defeats, as powerful men from the north and the south made a great deal of money in the slave trade. Rather than trying again when he gained more power, Jefferson gave up. Since he had worked so hard to be popular enough to establish and secure a republican form of government in the US, he was not willing to risk the loss of power that could come from unpopular legislation. He did not free his own slaves upon his death—not even Sally. Two of their children, who had mostly white ancestors, were able to wander away from the plantation when they were twenty-one and “pass” as white. The other two were freed later. His other slaves were sold to pay his enormous debts. Nothing can excuse this tragic failure.
Jefferson amassed debts because he loved to live large. He sent art and wine home to Monticello when he lived in France. He fed anyone and everyone who turned up at his door, and as he grew older, that became a daily crowd. He tore down his first attempt at architecture and completely remade Monticello, filling the large house with art and artifacts from around the world and throughout the ages. I must say that I would have liked Jefferson. He was a flawed man, but so are we all. He was brilliant, sociable, and generous, and he enjoyed every minute of his life until the very end. He was an avid reader, and as a librarian, I must add that he donated his personal library to the federal government, and his contribution formed the foundation of the Library of Congress. He collected specimens from the Lewis and Clark expedition, which he enthusiastically sponsored while he was president. He was also a dedicated farmer and gardener, and experimented with new varieties of plants, from flowers to corn.
I can highly recommend Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson to those who want to know more about this towering figure, about the early years of our nation, and about the skillful use of power. Do not be daunted by its size, as the last third of the book is actually references and notes. Then get ready for a field trip. I hear Monticello is lovely in the spring.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are entirely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. I read an advance reader copy, provided by the publisher, Random House.