Thomas Jefferson has not lacked for biographers and editors, or fans and detractors. Even though Jefferson meticulously saved his papers, he was singularly unlucky in his first editors.
The published papers of the founding fathers served as the bedrock for the first accounts of American nation-building, starting with John Marshall’s “Life of George Washington” in 1803. Whereas an admiring grandson of his great rival, John Adams, saw Adams’s papers into press, Jefferson’s initial editor tampered with his manuscripts, omitted important items and studded the nine volumes with conspicuous inaccuracies. A man who hated contention, Jefferson has remained a controversial figure from the time he left the presidency.
Forty years later Paul Leicester Ford brought out a fuller, more professional edition of Jefferson’s papers, but Ford, a crusty Northern conservative, lacked the political imagination to grasp that Jefferson’s presidency might actually have had merit. Writing when Jefferson’s reputation was at its post-Civil War nadir, Ford retailed every nasty thing that had ever been said about Jefferson, telling readers that his subject had been charged with “contradictions and instability,” with “hypocrisy, opportunism, and even lack of any political principles,” to the embarrassment of “his most devoted adherents.”
Not counting himself a devoted adherent, Ford struggled to account for Jefferson’s success, finally conceding that the people in some subtle way had understood him and realized that his controlling aim was neither national independence nor state sovereignty, but rather to secure for them “the ever enduring privilege of personal freedom.”
Jefferson’s luck turned when the publishing family of the New York Times and Princeton University underwrote an edition of his voluminous collections of letters, reports, speeches and legislative notes. With former Princeton librarian Julian Boyd at the helm, this edition set the standard for all subsequent editions of presidential papers.
With tens of thousands of items and pamphlet-length notes that became the hallmark of Boyd’s editorship, progress was slow. The first volume appeared in 1950, and now, three editors and 62 years later, the series has finally reached Jefferson’s presidency.
In the half-century between the Ford and Boyd volumes, Jefferson’s reputation recovered much of its luster. With the Democratic Party eager to claim him as a founder, Congress in 1943 established the Jefferson Bicentennial Commission and celebrated his 200th birthday by breaking ground on a Jefferson Memorial in the capital. The democratic ideals Jefferson articulated became the goals behind America’s war effort.
Since then, biographies of Jefferson have abounded. Those biographers born north of the Mason-Dixon line, particularly in Massachusetts, have leavened the loaf of praise, showing less tolerance for the slaveholder who provocatively yoked equality and liberty in the Declaration of Independence. Jon Meacham, a newcomer to the group, hails from the border state of Tennessee, which may account for his appreciative treatment of Jefferson’s life. Meacham, who has written best-selling biographies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”
In “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” Meacham, despite his subtitle, accomplishes something more impressive than dissecting Jefferson’s political skills by explaining his greatness, a different task from chronicling a life, though he does that too — and handsomely. Even though I know quite a lot about Jefferson, I was repeatedly surprised by the fresh information Meacham brings to his work. Surely there is not a significant detail out there, in any pertinent archive, that he has missed.
Because Jefferson was at the center of American public life between 1776 and 1826, readers of Meacham’s biography are deftly taken through every important event in that critical half-century. A master at setting up a scene, he knows just which anecdotes, quotes or observations will convey the raw emotions that swirled through the tension-packed years in which the newly independent American states established themselves as a nation respected by its allies and its enemies alike.
While Meacham adroitly weaves together his narrative, we learn how the summoning of the Estates-General in France led to revolution. Although he covers Jefferson’s life comprehensively, he doesn’t dwell on the more problematic Jeffersonian initiatives such as the treason trial of Aaron Burr or the Embargo of 1807.
Any author who elects to focus on what made Jefferson a great historical figure has to deal with the disfiguring features in his life: his status as a slaveholder and the likelihood that he sired children by his slave Sally Hemings. Meacham treads lightly on both issues. He accepts slavery as an existing but deplorable institution, much as an enlightened slaveholder might have.
As for Hemings, a 1998 DNA test proved that a male in Jefferson’s family was the father of her last child, Eston, born in 1808. Another son, Madison Hemings, in old age told an interviewer that his mother had said that Jefferson was the father of all her children, including one conceived in Paris when Jefferson was minister to France.
Meacham no doubt weighed the controversy swirling around both pieces of evidence and decided to go with Madison’s story, making it a part of his. When Jefferson’s daughter Polly died, he commented that now Patsy was his last child by his late wife, a subtle reminder that there were other progeny.
Not given to psychologizing, Meacham takes us into the overarching motivations and predictable reactions of Jefferson by closely analyzing his pattern of behavior. Thrust into the role of slave-master and man of the family at age 14 when his father died, Jefferson brooked no opposition from his subordinates, but among his political colleagues, he used hospitality to grease the way to his goals. His aversion to contention became a powerful political tactic. Meacham shows how Jefferson’s wedding of an unrelenting drive to achieve his republican goals with a pragmatic response to the possibilities of the moment worked for him again and again.
What remains mysterious is how Jefferson acquired the reforming principles that guided his career. What was the source of his faith in ordinary men? Many of his contemporaries believed in liberty and self-government. Yet they found his convictions about the masses’ capacity to take care of themselves so bizarre that they had to call Jefferson a hypocrite. The mystery deepens when you consider that the most conservative electorate in the United States — the planters of Virginia — repeatedly elected to high office this cerebral, provocative statesman for the people.
The Art of Power
By Jon Meacham
Random House. 759 pp. $35