Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
by Jon Meacham

Meacham is a strong writer, with a great grasp of the time and the man. But as an addition to the bulging shelves on Jefferson this book falls short. Two problems loom. First, when tackling a figure as well studied as Jefferson you need an angle, and this book promises that theme is Jefferson’s grappling with ‘The Art of Power’. This is an important and often under covered area (he is claimed so often as a philosopher or man of enlightenment than the politician he spent so much of his life being), so I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, the author gets distracted. Too often this book reads as if just another biography. Key moments of political struggle, such as how he sought and won office (Virginia and President) are covered in mere paragraphs. Certainly elections were nothing like the behemoths of our current day, but in a book about power, the actual seeking of it seems to go missing. Instead we get discussions of seeking ‘control’, a fact all men and women like, and one unsurprisingly for a favoured aristocratic son.

The other fault is that Jefferson is too often portrayed as always wise, always right, always aware. Slavery aside it’s hard to find areas where Meacham faults his subject. Jefferson is a hard figure to criticise, but at least a balance can be struck by recognising that his achievements were not always glistening gold.

If you like Jefferson, I strongly recommend Kevin J. Hayes ‘The Road to Monticello’. Magnificently written literary biography that focuses on what meant most to Jefferson: his books. And through those, details what influenced his mind and how he sought and thought about the world. Meacham does list it in his biography, but could have drawn on it more.
(Christopher Hitchens short text is also well worth your time).

Still, this is a well written and engaging text. It has a great theme and a great subject, but I half suspect the sheer scope of Jefferson and the American Revolution intimidated the author. We can hardly blame him.

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