Thursday, December 14, 2017
Books

Review: Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Thomas Jefferson has not lacked for biographers or editors, nor 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 his 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, but Ford, a crusty Northern conservative, lacked the political imagination to grasp that Jefferson's presidency might actually have had merit. 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.

In the half century between the Ford and Boyd volumes, Jefferson's reputation had recovered much of its former 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 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 bestselling 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 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.

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 becomes 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.

Comments
Uber Eats is delivering 'free' chicken McNuggets across Tampa Bay

Uber Eats is delivering 'free' chicken McNuggets across Tampa Bay

You'll still have to pay the delivery fee, but the 10-piece McNuggets are free.
Published: 12/13/17
What to watch this week: New season of ‘The Librarians,’ Gwen Stefani’s Christmas special

What to watch this week: New season of ‘The Librarians,’ Gwen Stefani’s Christmas special

MondaySEASON FINALE: The Gifted, 9 p.m., Fox: The team at Mutant HQ is divided on what to do next after Jace is forced to hand over something valuable to Dr. Campbell.Disney's Fairytale Weddings: Holiday Magic, 8 p.m., Freeform: A behind-the-scenes l...
Published: 12/11/17
This week’s pop culture winners and losers: Tonya Harding edition

This week’s pop culture winners and losers: Tonya Harding edition

WINNERS: Tonya Harding The once disgraced Olympic figure skater is no longer on thin ice in the pop culture world. Harding joined Margot Robbie, who is playing her in the upcoming film I, Tonya, on the red carpet this week. While Harding pleaded g...
Published: 12/08/17

Book events: Victorian Christmas Event, Cheryl Hollon launch party

Book TalkCheryl Hollon (Etched in Tears) will appear at a launch party for the new book in her Webb’s Glass Shop Mystery series at 2 p.m. Dec. 10 at Books at Park Place, 10468 Roosevelt Blvd. N, St. Petersburg.William Valentine (Cuban Charade) will s...
Published: 12/07/17
Mahaffey Theater cancels Garrison Keillor performance after sexual misconduct allegations

Mahaffey Theater cancels Garrison Keillor performance after sexual misconduct allegations

The Mahaffey Theater has canceled an upcoming performance by Garrison Keillor in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct against the former host of A Prairie Home Companion.Keillor was to perform in St. Petersburg on Feb. 5, but the show's promo...
Published: 12/06/17
Review: History’s ‘Knightfall’ will please fans of epic history, popular culture

Review: History’s ‘Knightfall’ will please fans of epic history, popular culture

Sometimes a Templar Knight dies in your field and you have to return his master sword to the temple in Paris, because God's kingdom depends on it.All that happens to Parsifal (Bobby Shofield) in the first episode of History's new period drama Knightf...
Published: 12/06/17
For gift books this holiday season, think classic

For gift books this holiday season, think classic

The gift book is a holiday tradition, but what’s significant enough to merit a space on your recipient’s coffee table? Classics. Look for a book that captures people, places or things we see as enduring, indispensable, iconic: unforgettable photograp...
Published: 12/06/17
36 period dramas you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu

36 period dramas you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu

If you've loved period dramas for any length of time, you probably feel like you've seen them all. Not that there's a shortage of shows dramatizing any and everything from the 1600s to the '60s. But sometimes you've seen all Masterpiece and BBC curr...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/06/17
What pop culture from 2017 made you most hopeful for 2018 and beyond?

What pop culture from 2017 made you most hopeful for 2018 and beyond?

Can we all just agree that 2017 has been a toilet fire of epic proportions?Seriously, between all the strife and discord and tragedy and loss, it feels like 2017 was engineered in a lab to feel like a kick in the shins from the moment you woke up in ...
Published: 12/05/17
5 holiday treats to try at Busch Gardens Christmas Town

5 holiday treats to try at Busch Gardens Christmas Town

The Tampa theme park boasts the title of roller coaster king in Florida, but it can also say it has one of the prettiest displays of Christmas lights in Tampa Bay.Busch Gardens runs its annual Christmas Town festivities select nights through Dec. 31,...
Published: 12/05/17