Book Reveiw Thomas Jefferson:The Art of Power by Ron Meacham

31 10 2012

Lately I’ve been feeling like I’ve been stalking Thomas Jefferson all over Virginia and the east coast.   And up until recently I haven’t had any real affinity for him.  Oh I’ve lived in Virginia for 15 years, and known that he is much loved in the state.  So many things are named for him, and every historical site that can claim him, does.   As much as I have loved American History, up until this year, the Revolution and Founding Fathers were hardly my favorite subjects.  Once I started teaching it in school though, I couldn’t get enough of it.  I have devoured book after book – both for me and for my kids – on the events and men of the Revolutionary War.  It seemed everywhere I turned, I ran into Jefferson.  But, I didn’t have a very good opinion of him.  Having read revolutionary bios by Ron Chernow and David McCullough(of Washington, Hamilton and Adams), I felt like the sage of Monticello was overrated.  Sure he did lots of things, but his duplicity really bothered me.  I hated to see him undermining Adams, Hamilton and even Washington.

Then something happened.  We visited Monticello.  Somewhere on that mountaintop, I saw another side of Jefferson.  In his private rooms, his books, his paintings and busts, and his love for the things that were beautiful.  My next step was to read a Jefferson biography.  I read Thomas Jefferson by R. B. Bertstein, which is a very basic bio on him – hit most of the major points that I had read about in other books.  I also dove into Madison and Jefferson by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg.  But before I was able to get to Paris (Jefferson’s trip there as a minister), I acquired an advanced readers copy of the upcoming book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Ron Meachum.  I immediately started reading it to try and fill in the gaps in my Jefferson knowledge.   What I loved about this book…well I’ll let you read what I wrote in a review on it:

I can imagine no task so daunting as to try and write a book on Thomas Jefferson.  Jon Meacham brings us a wonderfully written biography of our third president focusing on his most prominent characteristic – his ability to maneuver and have his own way, and do it in a way that is not overtly confrontational.  Perhaps the outcomes end up creating conflict, but certainly the ways and means are less so – especially when Jefferson is directly involved himself.

The author’s self -stated goal of this work is to present to us the truly human Jefferson – to set up the circumstance that governed his world, and molded this thought process.  From there he proceeds to show us all the places in Jefferson’s life where this imperfect man succeeded and failed – from his ambitious studies in science and philosophy to his love of women, from his definitions of human rights to his owning of slaves.  The author works precisely to this purpose starting us out in the Virginia colony of the 18th century.

Meacham shares many of the events that molded and shaped a young Jefferson, from the people to the laws of his own colony.  As the future President starts his walk into history, we began to see how he learns to develop this artful and graceful ability to manipulate his world.  And for anyone who’s read anything on Jefferson, even as a secondary character in someone else’s bio, we take a familiar stroll through the Revolution, the death of his wife, and his return to service in France, and onward through his life story with our eye turned to every tactical move and every subversive manipulation.

We learn many things of Jefferson.  His hatred and fear of the British Crown and anything in America that might look like it or anyone who might support it (Hamilton, Adams, even Washington.)  We see him balk at the Executive Powers that Hamilton purports during Washington’s administration, and then not only embrace it, but move beyond that in his own term.   We fall in love with his charm, his love of things beautiful, the way he treats people in his every day world.

While it would be impossible to tell the whole of Thomas Jefferson’s story in one volume, this book does an excellent job of presenting the essence of his character and the major events of his life

I enjoyed the book. Learned new things about and developed a greater appreciation for Thomas Jefferson.  Recommend to all who love American History.

And then, I dived back into Madison and Jefferson, to again discover more about the Master of Monticello, and how his protege was almost a handler Jefferson.  Jefferson’s impulsive nature and creativity often sent him in directions that the more calculating Madison would never have gone.  This book also talked a lot about what it meant for these men to be Virginians, hatred of the British Crown and fear of inciting slave rebellions were at the forefront of their concerns.  Their lives truly paradoxes for the freedom they stood for.

So I’ve come full circle on things.  While I’ve reconciled Jefferson’s place in history and in my head, I’m certain I will indeed run into him a time or two more, in places and in books.

Note:  I was provided a complementary copy of Thomas Jefferson:The Art of Power by the publisher.  All other books mentioned were purchased or library copies.  All opinions expressed are my own.

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19 01 2013
Release Date of Books I’ve Reviewed « Shelly's Journal

[…] Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meachum […]

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