Jon Meacham‘s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is the fourth book of his I have read.
Meacham makes history easy to read for even the most casual fan of U.S. history. His management of theme through the issues of the day and the personality of the subject helps the reader see a broader picture of a man like Thomas Jefferson.
His approach to describing in overview the important events and critical issues; developments and solutions that evolved; giving the reader the essential insights without bogging down in a load of minutia. Meacham’s works are thoroughly footnoted, which helps the real history junkie decide where they might like to do more in-depth reading or research.
The American Revolution, and the birth of the country which followed is a favorite subject of mine. Of particular interest is the collection of men that came together in challenging times to take a dangerous stand against England; risking life and property for Liberty; then steering a course towards constitutional government that resulted in a Republic now over two centuries old.
These men were the wealthiest, most educated, and most successful in the American colonies. But …
These men were not perfect. They had their flaws. Yet they came together and created a politically complex national union out of disparate regions and competing interests in such a way that enabled growth; promoted its survival through the tests of time; and allowed it to emerge from the crucibles of several dramatic – even catastrophic – national and international crises as an even stronger nation.
Thomas Jefferson‘s contributions to the success of The Great American Experiment in the period between George Washington‘s inaugural as our first President and Jefferson own presidency (following John Adams) were – in my opinion – the most compelling .
Citizens with a casual appreciation for American history might believe that once the U.S. Constitution was ratified as the Law of the Land, the Forefathers simply finger-skimmed the honored document whenever a question of function or politics arose. But The Constitution was but a “blueprint” with many operational and philosophical issues undefined or at the very least open to all manner of nuance and interpretation.
Thomas Jefferson was one of those flawed individuals that rose to play a prominent role in taking that constitutional blueprint and – if I can stretch an analogy – installing the wiring and plumbing that allowed the Government to relate as best as possible to the People it would govern. It was a herculean task that required the input and at times the nastiest of opposition between Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans to negotiate a national vision from contending philosophies of governance.
Jefferson was a study in contradictions throughout his personal life and public service.
1. He was a man who passionately subscribed to the concept of Individual Liberty. He made several attempts early in his public career to advance the concept of slave emancipation in the Virginia colony. He provided insights for the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen via the Marquis de Lafayette, which became the central theme of the French Revolution; and he fought hard against John Adam’s Alien and Sedition Acts.
Yet he continued to own slaves; using one – Sally Hemings – as a concubine; and went so far as to maintain their offspring as slaves until they turned age 21 or until his death in 1826.
2. As a member of Washington’s first American government, serving as its first Secretary of State, Jefferson fought aggressively with fellow Democratic-Republican James Madison to counter the Federalist’s efforts (Led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams.) to create a strong national government with a singularly powerful Chief Executive. Jefferson was fearful that such a strong centralized authority, with the prospects for close ties with Great Britain, would eventually whittle away at individual liberties.
However, when he served as President himself, he found a way to expand the powers of the presidency in order to take full advantage of a French proposal to effectively double the size of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase.
3. Jefferson was an accomplished author of A Summary View of the Rights of British America (a list of grievances against King George III), The Declaration of Independence, and as contributor to the French Constitution.
But he wrote only one published book in his life, Notes on the State of Virginia. And he was not much of a public speaker for such a renown politician and communicator!
Meacham’s primary theme emphasizes that in his quest for power, that he wanted for the good he felt he could accomplish, Jefferson was a practical politician. He had his ideologies, his strongly held positions. But Jefferson believed in “limited government” only to the extent that it was practicable. If he thought a more expansive government was the better option in the best interests of the country (e.g. Jefferson’s quick actions to accept and ratify the Louisiana Purchase), he held no qualms about pushing the National Government’s reach and authority.
In the end, both the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans enjoyed a mixed success influencing the path of The Grand Experiment. As bad as contentions grew in the early years of the Republic, it was clear both Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were advocating what they believed was best for The Country.
One can only hope the current crop in Washington, D.C. feels the same way for all the right reasons. They certainly give you reason to question their over-arching objectives
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams formed the opposing poles of American political thought from 1790 to 1809, when Jefferson left the presidency. They were close friends at one point, including Jefferson’s pleasant plutonic relationship with Abigail Adams; strong allies during the colonial confrontations with Britain; friends and co-commissioners to Europe (along with Ben Franklin) for the infant U.S.; and then nasty political opposites during those formative years of the constitutional republic.
They served as consecutive Presidents, then went to their separate corners of the country after leaving office. They eventually renewed their friendship years later with frequent letters. And on July 4, 1826 – coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the issuance of The Declaration of Independence – within hours of each other, first John Adams and then Thomas Jefferson shook lose their mortal coils and left the rest of the work on the grand experiment to later generations of Americans.
Other interesting aspects of Thomas Jefferson learned from Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power:
- Jefferson received his early inspiration for public life and politics at the age of 22, when he heard Patrick Henry give his treasonous Stamp Act speech in opposition to British taxation.
- Jefferson’s term as Governor of Virginia changed his view on the use of authority. His oft criticized indecisiveness and timidity during the British invasion of the colony in 1780 were also valuable lessons in leadership and government.
- Jefferson was derisively referred to as “the negro president” by opposing Federalists, who disliked the congressional advantage Virginia and the other southern states enjoyed due to the 3/5 clause on The Constitution.
- It took 36 ballots in the House of Representatives to finally confirm Thomas Jefferson as the 3rd U.S. President. (Electoral College ties, which go to the House of Representatives, were common early in the Republic.)
- Jefferson may have been the earliest President subject to an assassination plot (December 1804), although no overt attempt was actually made.
- He requested just three of his accomplishments be etched upon his gravestone: The Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Liberty, and Founder of the University of Virginia.
- Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s daughter when he summoned her to France during his ambassadorship there. By French law, as soon as she stepped foot in France Hemings was a free person. Jefferson convinced her to return with him to America (additional evidence of their relationship) by negotiating an agreement with her that ensured eventual freedom for their offspring.
- Philly Connection: Jefferson leased a house from Thomas Leiper, a merchant and politician, at 274 High Street in the east Germantown section of Philadelphia when he served in the then nation’s capital as Secretary of State under George Washington.
Interesting Jefferson quotes …
- Jefferson’s oft quoted words on fertilizing the Tree of Liberty was written in a letter to John Adams in comment on British criticism of U.S. instability in the wake of Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts, which erupted over early financial difficulties in the infant U.S.
” … what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
- Jefferson’s famous position on the separation of Church and State came from a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Ceaderbrook, Connecticut as they planned to celebrate religious liberty.
“Believing as you do that religion is a matter between Man and his God, that he owes account to no one for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions. I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
- Jefferson loved the use of guns for hunting and sport, and recognized their importance in defending Home and Homeland.
“I am a great friend to the manly and healthy exercise of the gun.”
- Finally, Jefferson felt that the U.S. Constitution was a worthy effort as imperfect as the brave men who declared independence in ’76. But he was much dismayed by the lack of a bill of rights in the original version. Still he saw hope for the good conscience of the American people.
“If they approve the proposed Convention in all its parts, I shall concur in it cheerfully, in the hopes that they will amend it whenever they find it work wrong.”