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Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

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In this magnificent biography, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston brings vividly to life an extraordinary man and his remarkable times. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power gives us Jefferson the politician and president, a great and complex human being forever engaged in the wars of his era. Philosophers think; politicians maneuver. In this magnificent biography, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston brings vividly to life an extraordinary man and his remarkable times. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power gives us Jefferson the politician and president, a great and complex human being forever engaged in the wars of his era. Philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power. Thomas Jefferson hated confrontation, and yet his understanding of power and of human nature enabled him to move men and to marshal ideas, to learn from his mistakes, and to prevail. Passionate about many things—women, his family, books, science, architecture, gardens, friends, Monticello, and Paris—Jefferson loved America most, and he strove over and over again, despite fierce opposition, to realize his vision: the creation, survival, and success of popular government in America. Jon Meacham lets us see Jefferson’s world as Jefferson himself saw it, and to appreciate how Jefferson found the means to endure and win in the face of rife partisan division, economic uncertainty, and external threat. Drawing on archives in the United States, England, and France, as well as unpublished Jefferson presidential papers, Meacham presents Jefferson as the most successful political leader of the early republic, and perhaps in all of American history. The father of the ideal of individual liberty, of the Louisiana Purchase, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and of the settling of the West, Jefferson recognized that the genius of humanity—and the genius of the new nation—lay in the possibility of progress, of discovering the undiscovered and seeking the unknown. From the writing of the Declaration of Independence to elegant dinners in Paris and in the President’s House; from political maneuverings in the boardinghouses and legislative halls of Philadelphia and New York to the infant capital on the Potomac; from his complicated life at Monticello, his breathtaking house and plantation in Virginia, to the creation of the University of Virginia, Jefferson was central to the age. Here too is the personal Jefferson, a man of appetite, sensuality, and passion. The Jefferson story resonates today not least because he led his nation through ferocious partisanship and cultural warfare amid economic change and external threats, and also because he embodies an eternal drama, the struggle of the leadership of a nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world.


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In this magnificent biography, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston brings vividly to life an extraordinary man and his remarkable times. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power gives us Jefferson the politician and president, a great and complex human being forever engaged in the wars of his era. Philosophers think; politicians maneuver. In this magnificent biography, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston brings vividly to life an extraordinary man and his remarkable times. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power gives us Jefferson the politician and president, a great and complex human being forever engaged in the wars of his era. Philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power. Thomas Jefferson hated confrontation, and yet his understanding of power and of human nature enabled him to move men and to marshal ideas, to learn from his mistakes, and to prevail. Passionate about many things—women, his family, books, science, architecture, gardens, friends, Monticello, and Paris—Jefferson loved America most, and he strove over and over again, despite fierce opposition, to realize his vision: the creation, survival, and success of popular government in America. Jon Meacham lets us see Jefferson’s world as Jefferson himself saw it, and to appreciate how Jefferson found the means to endure and win in the face of rife partisan division, economic uncertainty, and external threat. Drawing on archives in the United States, England, and France, as well as unpublished Jefferson presidential papers, Meacham presents Jefferson as the most successful political leader of the early republic, and perhaps in all of American history. The father of the ideal of individual liberty, of the Louisiana Purchase, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and of the settling of the West, Jefferson recognized that the genius of humanity—and the genius of the new nation—lay in the possibility of progress, of discovering the undiscovered and seeking the unknown. From the writing of the Declaration of Independence to elegant dinners in Paris and in the President’s House; from political maneuverings in the boardinghouses and legislative halls of Philadelphia and New York to the infant capital on the Potomac; from his complicated life at Monticello, his breathtaking house and plantation in Virginia, to the creation of the University of Virginia, Jefferson was central to the age. Here too is the personal Jefferson, a man of appetite, sensuality, and passion. The Jefferson story resonates today not least because he led his nation through ferocious partisanship and cultural warfare amid economic change and external threats, and also because he embodies an eternal drama, the struggle of the leadership of a nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world.

30 review for Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

  1. 4 out of 5

    Elyse (retired from reviewing/semi hiatus) Walters

    In Jefferson's early days of life we learn that he was born into a reputable known family. Author Jon Meacham tells us that it was said that Jefferson studied 15 hours a day, rising at dawn and reading until 2 o'clock each morning. At twilight in Williamsburg he exercised by running to a stone a mile from town; at Shadwell, he rowed a small canoe of his own across the Rivanna River and climbed the mountain he was to call Monticello. For Jefferson laziness was a sin. Like his father, he believed In Jefferson's early days of life we learn that he was born into a reputable known family. Author Jon Meacham tells us that it was said that Jefferson studied 15 hours a day, rising at dawn and reading until 2 o'clock each morning. At twilight in Williamsburg he exercised by running to a stone a mile from town; at Shadwell, he rowed a small canoe of his own across the Rivanna River and climbed the mountain he was to call Monticello. For Jefferson laziness was a sin. Like his father, he believed in the virtues of riding and of walking, holding that a vigorous body helped create a vigorous mind. "Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded". Jefferson was always asking questions. He was interested in all topics from literature, science, mechanics, architecture, mathematics, horticulture philosophy, music, politics, art, and 'women'. He shunned organized religion. He was also well versed in linguistics-- speaking several languages. Jefferson soon became known as a walking encyclopedia. There was juicy drama between he and women. At times I thought I was reading a fiction story. There were stories about his connections with woman - including rejections before marriage -to a slave - Sally Hemings - that he had a relationship with after his wife died and fathered one of her children. By age 31....the year was 1774....Jefferson was a husband to Martha Wayles, a father ( eventually they had six children), a planter, legislator, and thinker. He he moved to higher ranks of political skill. I'm still a 'newbie' when it comes to reading about our past presidents--certainly not even close to being a historian....so, I'm aware I don't come to these books with a depth of knowledge as others might -- but little by little I'm soaking in past U.S Political history. I might have to read these books religiously for another 10 years before I might be able to add my contextual thoughts to what I'm learning. -- I'm still learning the basics .....the highlights & achievements-( Lewis and Clark 'Voyage of Discovery', Louisiana Purchase, avoided a war with England, played a role in the revolution, etc.), his personal character - and personal history. I appreciate that Meacham's writing -- much like David McCullough --presents an enjoyable storytelling - easy flowing writing style. Jefferson was another early President --one of our founding fathers. He stood for ideals but settled the best of realities. He wasn't much of a speaker - but he could write .... Plus we get the story of how Jefferson ended up writing the Declaration of Independence. Informative-- I learned a lot about Jeffersons strengths and imperfections --read many quotes -- and most, I admired Jefferson's critical skills - his words - his writing and his analyzing issues of power. Whew.... a little spent .... but in a good way......( parts of this book were dry for me compared to the 'storytelling' of the last few Presidents I read lately, and I couldn't figure out if I just needed 'past-President-break'-- or if this 'was' a little less consistently engaging. Still had its juicy moments though ... and I've been working my tush off! My next political adventure-- ( I own the physical book- plus have a library audiobook )....will be: "Valiant Ambition"... George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the fate of the American revolution. Then... I hope to read "Mayflower", - also by Nathaniel Philbrick. ( a few fiction novels always on the burner)

  2. 5 out of 5

    David Beeson

    Looking around the gathered Nobel Prize winners he had invited to a White House dinner, John F. Kennedy declared, ‘I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’ That quotation, included by Jon Meacham in his enthralling biography of Jefferson, gives a measure of the man, and the man fully deserves such a biography. Not that it’s a simple Looking around the gathered Nobel Prize winners he had invited to a White House dinner, John F. Kennedy declared, ‘I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’ That quotation, included by Jon Meacham in his enthralling biography of Jefferson, gives a measure of the man, and the man fully deserves such a biography. Not that it’s a simple hagiography: Meacham paints his subject in the round, not glossing over the difficult moments in his life story, such as the 1781 moment when, as governor of Virginia, his retreat before the British troops of the bloodthirsty Banastre Tarleton led to serious criticism of his performance, which would never be entirely expunged. But Meacham goes further. He shows that as well as being a philosopher and a man of principle, capable of drafting the inspiring sentiments of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was also a practical politician perfectly prepared to act in ways that some might regard as contrary to those principles, when concrete circumstance demanded it of him. I entirely sympathise with his denunciation of the Alien and Sedition Acts of his predecessor as president, and rival, John Adams; I equally admire him for having the courage to take decisions on his own responsibility to defend his nation against British hostility and to extend its territory through the Louisiana purchase, although by doing so he increased the power of the executive presidency far beyond anything Adams had attempted. The ability to adhere to key principles, and to uphold them sincerely, while at the same time reaching the compromises needed for the real exercise of political authority, is a talent few have attained and which the world would do well to rediscover today. Jefferson had it in spades. Of course, at times this brilliantly skillful duality can look perilously like self-contradiction or even hypocrisy. Nowhere is that clearer than in the matter of slavery and, more particularly, the longstanding relationship Jefferson maintained with one particular slave, Sally Hemings, with whom he had several children. Like Washington or Patrick Henry (‘give me liberty or give me death’), Jefferson could perfectly well see that slavery was shameful and his new nation would at some stage need to lance that boil; he could equally well see the contradiction between that sense of horror and his continuing to own slaves and, in Hemings’s case, to maintain a sexual relationship with one of them – a sexual relationship with someone over whom he had power of ownership. Meacham does not skirt around these matters but simply states the facts, points to Jefferson’s silence on the Hemings issue, and talks about the hints at justification that came from his pen: slavery was simply not an issue that could be tackled at that time, or not for a bearable political cost – though the political cost that would in the end be borne, in a bitter civil war and the first assassination of a president, was arguably vastly higher for having been delayed. In passing, it’s worth noting that John Dickinson, fellow revolutionary and member of the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania, hung behind Jefferson in willingness to break decisively from Britain, but far outpaced him in this other, harder field when he freed his slaves – Jefferson only ever freed the Hemings and then only on his death. What emerges from Meacham’s work is therefore a complete picture of a man, a man of towering intellect and courage, which the clear presentation of his failings highlights all the more strongly in contrast. And Meacham presents all this in the most readable of prose (or, in my case listenable, since I chose an audio edition). Both the subject matter and the way the story is told mean that anyone who likes biography and is interested in the man or his times, has to put Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power, at the top of their must-read list.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Seeking to continue my trek to better understand the birth of America and its Founding Fathers, I tackled Meacham's biography on Thomas Jefferson. Choosing to infuse literary breath into one of the key actors in much of the early creation of the state and its constitutional foundations, Meacham not only offers an over-arching narrative, but delves into the corners of Jefferson's life, allowing the reader to have a better and well-rounded approach to this key historical figure. While Meacham Seeking to continue my trek to better understand the birth of America and its Founding Fathers, I tackled Meacham's biography on Thomas Jefferson. Choosing to infuse literary breath into one of the key actors in much of the early creation of the state and its constitutional foundations, Meacham not only offers an over-arching narrative, but delves into the corners of Jefferson's life, allowing the reader to have a better and well-rounded approach to this key historical figure. While Meacham offers Jefferson's life through nine lenses, dividing his life into smaller and more digestible portions, three significant themes emerge as central arcs to better depict Jefferson's life. A synthesis of the text sees Jefferson as a committed man, a stalwart politician, and a sharp statesman. These themes emerge throughout the text, even with the firm chronological flow of Meacham's tome. A biography worthy of examination for the reader looking to better understand Jefferson and the rumours swirling around his earlier historical depictions. That Jefferson is a man committed to all he undertakes cannot be denied, based on Meacham's text. The biography moves forward to show that Jefferson, who came from a well established family, grew up with a strong thirst for knowledge. Jefferson always sought to open his mind to new ideas and to learn from whomever he could. He read and spoke as one would imagine a Greek thinker might have done 2 millennia earlier, always asking questions and building his ideas on those who influenced his life. From there, Jefferson became a man not only of knowledge, but one who dabbled in many areas: literature, politics, science, innovation, and even architecture. His passions extended outside of the esoteric, finding his greatest love in women. While Meacham hints at Jefferson's fondness for the opposite sex, there is little to deter the reader from feeling that Martha Wayles was the love of his young life. Their marriage, a decade long, was filled with passion and six children, though few survived. Jefferson took her death personally and used his depression to fuel his aforementioned passions. While rumours around his involvement with Sally Hemings, Meacham handles it with the greatest aplomb, addressing it not as a tabloid scandal but presenting its inevitable occurrence. Whether the Jefferson-Hemings interaction was based on an amorous connection or strictly a power relationship cannot be definitively known, though Meacham does mention reports of the strong physical resemblance of Hemings' children to Jefferson and how his time on his estate matched with the pregnancies. This did not mar Jefferson's life or the high regard in which he was seen. His personal life and interests were strongly supported by Meacham throughout the tome, including his final years at the Monticello estate, where a detailed architectural and design discussion ensues. Jefferson's connection to his personal beliefs are well-rooted in his final years, as he sought to better understand the emancipation movement and the American move towards the abolition of slavery. Meacham argues throughout the tome that Jefferson was a man like no other, with his own interests that fuelled his mind to the bitter end. Born in Virginia at a time of strong political sentiment and eventual rebellious sentiments towards the British, it is no wonder that Jefferson found himself at the centre of the controversies in his political life. While he served in the House of Burgesses, where another Virginian named Washington made his mark, Jefferson began to hone his political skills and formulated his deeply-rooted beliefs. Meacham argues that Jefferson's passion with the written word acted to propel the revolutionary movement forward as he helped to create the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence and penned the final document himself. This authorship saw him gain much favour within the Colonies, but he became a hunted man by the British Red Coats. His political life resurrected itself after the War of Independence when he headed to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress, but soon crossed the Atlantic to work for the new America in Paris. Jefferson took that time to critique the constitutional document presented by the Congress and added his concerns. Jefferson saw the intricacies of the new America and sought to individualise it from the British influence so prominent in the Colonies. Jefferson's political side reared its head again after he accepted a position in Washington's Cabinet at Secretary of State, but became more powerful upon his departure from that body. As Jefferson saw himself as a Democratic Republican (not the oxymoronic phrase it would have today), he realised that there was a need to stand for an independent-minded form of government in America that did not promote a monarchy of some sort, as promoted by the Federalists. He battled the likes of John Adams on this point and, as Meacham illustrates, sought to ensure that the shackles of British oppression did not seep back in with the appearance of a crowned or hereditary monarch in the collective colonial unit. Meacham shows Jefferson's passion for political ideals throughout the narrative and promotes the importance of the first political schism and party politics in 1796. Meacham depicts Jefferson's political knowledge on numerous occasions throughout the tome, leaving no doubt about his political importance in early America. The image of strong statesman seems a foregone conclusion when examining Jefferson's political acumen, though the terms differ greatly. In his time as Secretary of State, Jefferson sought to work effectively with the European allies that helped secure a colonial victory, while also mending fences with the British. Jefferson utilised some of his time in the position to build strong ties and promote the new America, while also ensuring that this new state did not fall prey to those wishing to strike on a weakened and somewhat scattered colonial collective. Meacham shows that Jefferson's ideas became his ideals, from which he would not stray. This left him no choice but to leave the role when the Federalists rooted their monarch-centric views within Washington's Cabinet and Jefferson found himself at odds with the likes of John Adams. However, he hoped to push his republican ideas from the outside and eventually in the vice-presidential role, which clashed thoroughly with the aforementioned Adams. It was this that fuelled the great election of 1800, pitting Federalists against the Republican ideals on which Jefferson stumped so heavily. This is also the election that required a deadlock breaking in the House of Representatives, as Meacham depicts both in the preface and with more detail within the tome, where discussion of bribery and promises begat the final sway needed to secure victory. Meacham illustrates that Jefferson sought to push a hands-off approach to the state by positing that there need be time for Americans to find their niche. Jefferson scaled back the military and navy as well, feeling that the revolutionary times were past. Meacham discusses the great embargo with Britain, after a naval clash, and how the president sought to keep war off the table, no matter the public outcry for its use. All this pales in Meacham's great argument surrounding the height of Jefferson's statesman role; the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon. While this might seem a little awkward, discussing land as the highlight of a presidential career, Meacham presents it in such a way as to show how Jefferson used the new constitution to develop its Living Tree doctrine (even though the phrase had not yet been coined in Britain). The treaty for obtaining the land had to be ratified in the Senate, but Jefferson went ahead and made the arrangements. This constitutional see-saw battle helped hone the precedent of executive decision-making and legislative agreement. It happens all the time with multinational treaties and was, as the history buff will remember, the downfall of Wilson's League of Nations. Meacham utilises this example to show how Jefferson could run an effective state, while not dictating his preconceived notions to ensure success. Perhaps it was this that helped solidify the republican movement and helps Meacham argue the position so effectively. It is quite difficult not to play a comparison game when the reader has delved into numerous biographies about actors whose lives intertwined. Having read McCullough's John Adams and Chernow's Washington, the comparisons rise unsteadily to the surface. Length is the first and greatest discrepancy here. Applause to Meacham for succinctly laying out the life and times of Jefferson, while highlighting many important aspects. While Meacham admits he had not sought to write a life and times of the third president, such was the final project, which skims over many of the areas that were of greatest importance. I would have hoped for more time on the Continental Congress and creation of the constitutional documents, for these were areas of greatest importance to Jefferson in years to come. I would also have loved a further fleshing out of the personal life of Jefferson during his 'down years' and not brief linkages. Had I not read the other two biographies, I would likely not be making these comments, but I cannot unread what I had put in front of me and, like life in general, I bring these experiences to the forefront as I delve deeper in my understanding of the political and historical actors who shaped the world. That being said, Meacham is a wonderful wordsmith and weaves a wonderful tale from start to finish. A plethora of sources and first-hand accounts pepper the text and bring the story to life in ways that few could do with such ease. One additional theme from the biography comes from its epilogue and author's note. Meacham argues that while Jefferson's views were his own, he could garner much support from those around him, both at the time and in the decades (centuries) to come. Washington and Adams had the greatest respect for the man, as did the likes of Lincoln, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan. Jefferson's views could appeal to those across the political spectrum, for they were rooted not in strict ideology, but in nation building and sovereignty. While America had its share of ups and downs, these political giants all turned to Jefferson's Declaration and subsequent republican sentiments to shape the country in the 21st century. For this, his legacy parallels Washington, though for different reasons. Kudos, Mr. Meacham for this wonderful biographical piece. Thomas Jefferson came to life in this depiction and for that you deserve the greatest of praise. I look forward to examining more of your work at a future time. Like/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at: http://pecheyponderings.wordpress.com/

  4. 4 out of 5

    Diane

    This is a marvelous biography of Thomas Jefferson, who is arguably America's most complicated Founding Father. Jefferson is famous for many reasons, but he is often summed up by this contradiction: He wrote "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence, and yet he owned slaves. (As Jon Meacham noted, it seems Jefferson meant only white, land-owning men were created equal.) A few years ago I had the chance to visit Monticello, Jefferson's home in Virginia, and I've been interested This is a marvelous biography of Thomas Jefferson, who is arguably America's most complicated Founding Father. Jefferson is famous for many reasons, but he is often summed up by this contradiction: He wrote "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence, and yet he owned slaves. (As Jon Meacham noted, it seems Jefferson meant only white, land-owning men were created equal.) A few years ago I had the chance to visit Monticello, Jefferson's home in Virginia, and I've been interested in reading a detailed biography about him ever since. I listened to this book on audio, which was read beautifully by the late, great Edward Hermann. I've listened to several audiobooks by Hermann, and he's just a fantastic reader. I loved this book on Jefferson, and was fascinated by the stories it told. It's also a great complement to David McCullough's biography of John Adams. Highly recommended for fans of history. Personal Note: The thing I like about reading history is how comforting it is, because it provides context as to how we got where we are today. Unless you've been living off the grid for two years, you know we live in trying political times, both in America and around the world. But these history books show that there have ALWAYS been trying times. America's democracy has ALWAYS been messy and complicated. Our politics have been ugly and contentious since this country was founded. I'm not excusing the behavior of any current leaders — but as Meacham writes (somewhat comfortingly) in his new book, The Soul of America, is as a country, we've come through dark times before and we can do it again if we follow our better angels. I'm not religious, but I'll say Amen to that.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Daniel (Attack of the Books!) Burton

    It took me a long time to begin to like Jon Meacham's portrait of Thomas Jefferson in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. As I finished it, however, I found myself a reluctant admirer, appreciative of Meacham's style and of the biography, not to mention of the man. Meacham is the author of two previous books on American presidents, winning the Pulitzer prize for his look at Andrew Jackson American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. With The Art of Power he delves into the life of one of the It took me a long time to begin to like Jon Meacham's portrait of Thomas Jefferson in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. As I finished it, however, I found myself a reluctant admirer, appreciative of Meacham's style and of the biography, not to mention of the man. Meacham is the author of two previous books on American presidents, winning the Pulitzer prize for his look at Andrew Jackson American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. With The Art of Power he delves into the life of one of the most beloved of founding fathers. As he notes in the closing pages of the epilogue, Jefferson has been evoked by more recent American presidents and political figures on both sides of the spectrum, proving to be "an inspiration for radically different understandings of government and culture." This seems to me, and Meacham endorses the idea, to be due to Jefferson's versatility in his lifetime. Rather than a idealogue bound to one philosophy, Jefferson was a pragmatic politician, and while he believed in the principles of freedom he espoused in the words he penned in the declaration, the means he chose to approach and uphold those principles changed depending on his position. As they say, where you stand depends on where you sit and examples from Jefferson's life are plentiful. As a member of the opposition party and vice president during the Adams Administration, Jefferson vigorously opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts as a blot on the liberty and freedom promised by the Bill of Rights. And yet, as President, he did not fully wipe out the effects of those First Amendment inhibiting laws. He allowed those punished under the law to be set free, but did not immediately return the fines that had been levied from them. During this same time as vice president, Jefferson wrote the Kentucky resolution (James Madison wrote the Virginia resolution of the same time) in which he argued, through the proxy of the Kentucky legislature, that the Alien and Sedition were unconstitutional and that the states held the right, and the duty, to declare any acts of Congress that were not authorized by the constitution unconstitutional. It was a divisive argument from the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, says Meacham, coming from the "voice of the man who believed secession fatal to America instead of the man who wrote about the primacy of states' rights." Later, as president, Jefferson--the man who had trumpeted the rights of states over the act of the national legislature--acted with executive authority outside of the bounds then available to him, sending military expeditions against the Barbary states and accomplishing the Louisiana Purchase, all without Congressional approval. [...]Jefferson was to Washington and Adams what Dwight Eisenhower was to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman: a president who reformed but essentially ratified an existing course of government. Jefferson wasn't so interested in doggedly following the rules and norms of his ideology as he was in, for lack of a better way to put it, finding what worked and finding a way to do it. For man whose life was a study in contrasts (or hypocrisy, depending on your view), pragmatism was necessary. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, yet his earliest memory was of a slave handing him down on pillow to ride in a carriage and he never freed the slaves that he owned, even in death. He trumpeted states' rights, but expanded the scope of the federal government when the opportunity was his. He loved his family dearly, but had no qualms pursuing the married woman of another man and possibly destroying hers. Indeed, this comes to the thesis of Meacham's book, less a biography than a portrait: "Jefferson hungered for greatness," and he welded power--usually through written word--to obtain it. A benevolent welder of what power he held, Jefferson's overriding description is that of a Renaissance man with boundless interests and whose overriding concern was the "fate of democratic republicanism in America," for to his end he worried about the return of monarchical government, an influence that Meacham found as influential on Jefferson's thinking as the Cold War was on American Presidents from Truman to George H.W. Bush. The short-comings of Meacham's biography are few, and he does not seem interested in hiding them. Setting out to restore Jefferson's image, somewhat tarnished in recent years by revelations of his sexual relationship with Sally Hemings and acclaimed biographies of Jefferson's rivals (Hamilton, Adams, and Washington, especially) in recent years, Meacham writes with more than a little hero worship, arguing that while there have been many great presidents, none would be as interesting to spend time with as Jefferson, whose career touched on far wider a range than did his contemporary political rivals, or even of other politicians since. Indeed, he is persuasive, and it's a fascinating picture that is difficult to dismiss. Yes, Jefferson is a slave owner, a pragmatic politician, and an occasional philanderer. But he is also a man who at his heart believed in the justice and goodness of man and who to his last day would welcome the friendship of any man who would accept his hand in fellowship. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is an excellent read, and Jon Meacham has written a fascinating and shining portrait of our third president and the lifetime he spent learning to weld, and then using, power.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience. Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience. Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the other side of the man, the side that so many have admired. In fact, I played the audiobook recording of this book on a family trip down to Virginia, on our way to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, thinking that Meacham’s biography would whet our thirst for Jefferson history. The effect was the opposite. All of us came away with a strong distaste for Jefferson, as well as dissatisfaction for Meacham’s apologetic treatment of the man. But before getting into differing opinions of Jefferson—of which there are endless—I shall talk about the writing, of which there may be more agreement. To do justice to Jefferson the man would require a great deal of psychological subtly. Jefferson was reserved, withdrawn, even sphinx-like, a man full of contradictions. In the hands of an acute writer, Jefferson would make for a fascinating character-study. Yet Meacham is almost wholly uninterested in psychology. Jefferson is painted more vividly in his cameos in the Hamilton and Adams biographies than he is here. To my mind, Jefferson was a man whom one could never take at face value, yet Meacham is often content to do just that. To pick just one example, in the exchange between Jefferson and Abigail Adams on the scurrilous writings of James Callender, Meacham is content to repeat Jefferson’s bland and disingenuous excuses of his support for Callender’s vilifications of John Adam’s character (that he bailed Callender out of jail merely because they held similar political views). Such instances are repeated throughout the book, with Meacham accepting as honest what I often read as intentionally misleading or simply duplicitous. In any case, even if Jefferson is put to one side, no other personage in this book comes alive, as do so many in the above-named biographies. John Adams—a raging personality of epic proportion—is hardly more exciting than the taciturn George Washington. I was particularly disappointed at the lack of attention paid to Jefferson’s close and important relationship with James Madison, who is absent far too often in these pages, and who leaves hardly any impression whatever. Meacham also lacks interest in drama. Good biographies can pull you into the historical moment, and make you feel how contingent the outcome of important events was on the quirks of personality or even simple chance. Yet in this book everything is a fait accompli. Difficult and arduous accomplishments, moments of danger and discord, are all summarized and narrated with a kind of mellow assurance that these events were destined to come to pass. The result is a book that is emotionally flat. I would have excused these faults if Meacham had dug deep into the historical background or the political issues. But these, too, are given only a superficial treatment. Not nearly enough context is given, for example, for the reader to understand exactly why the Declaration of Independence was such a revolutionary document at that time. The same can be said for the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty. Instead, Meacham prefers to resort to strings of vague, Latinate adjectives and to draw grand-sounding conclusions. This is his habitual mode. The following passage, from the Prologue, gives a taste of this tone: In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma. This tendency often leads him to substitute clichés for insight: America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromise. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end. To me, this is neither good prose nor does it provide any valuable information. You could say all of the same things about virtually any nation or political leader. And in any case I do not think it is even true. Were all of Jefferson’s goals “noble”? Is compromise “inevitable”? Is the “war” between the “ideal and the real” actually similar to the conflict between “the intellectual” and “the visceral”? What does this even mean? This passage is hardly even valid as a platitude. This leads me to what is my core criticism of the book: Jon Meacham’s understanding of Jefferson. Meacham’s central point is that Jefferson was a man of high ideals, but someone who was willing to compromise on his ideals in order to be an effective politician. This is the “Art of Power.” Thus, all of Jefferson’s pronouncements of principle are taken at face value, and all of his actions that do not align with his stated valued are excused as shrewd maneuvering. Yet there is a difference between compromising on one’s vision and doing just the opposite. Consider Jefferson’s presidency. After having spent the last twelve years whipping up fears of overbearing federal power, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase and instituted a trade embargo—two huge expansions of federal power. Meacham would have us see these moves as capitulations to circumstances. But I think Jefferson’s tendency to flout the dictates of his own pen are too numerous to excuse. To pick another example, although he often styled himself above politicking and libel, Jefferson frequently employed others to write attacks on his enemies (as in the case of James Callender). Here is another example. After stoking fear of a national army, and after his strong advocacy of the separation of the legislative and executive powers, once in office Jefferson himself asked a senator to introduce a bill approving military force—a direct contradiction of his stated principles on both counts. Characteristically, Jefferson also requested that the senator burn his note to him, so as not to appear to be meddling in the legislature. This is what Meacham has to say on the subject: “His adversaries might see such maneuvers as hypocritical and underhanded, but in Jefferson’s mind he was doing the right thing the right way. To seize power grandly would threaten the democratic ethos of the country—an ethos he thought essential.” As an apology for Jefferson’s actions, this makes little sense to me. First, it hardly matters whether Jefferson thought he was doing the right thing in his mind. We all are. Second, to consider the mere ethos of democracy important while seizing power is certainly not democratic in any meaningful sense. This is typical of the whole book: where Meacham sees a flexible and enlightened politician, I see a person totally unwilling to live by the principles that he professes. This is, of course, most flagrantly true in the case of slavery—an area in which Jefferson is inexcusable. To do Meacham credit, he does not attempt to justify Jefferson’s life of slaveholding. Nevertheless, I think he paid far too little attention to Jefferson’s domestic situation, which was totally dominated by slaves: as workers, servants, a sexual partner, and even his own children. I see the issue of slavery as the most telling fact of Jefferson’s psychology, showcasing his ability to compartmentalize his thoughts. None of his actions were self-consistent. He wrote that slavery was evil and must end one day. But he did nothing to end it. At the same time, he thought that blacks could never co-exist with whites, all while having a life built upon the backs of slaves, living in constant contact with them. If he really believed that slaves were genetically inferior, as he wrote, how could he have had children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves? Could he really believe that his own children with Hemings were naturally inferior? And if he did not, how could he totally relegate these children, his own blood, to a subservient or an invisible role in his life? These questions leave me with a rather disturbing image. Meacham, however, sees Jefferson as a flawed hero—whose vision of artful politics has much to teach us. Jefferson did likely leave the world better than he found it. And, believe me, I find many aspects of Jefferson extremely admirable. In many ways I aspire to Jefferson’s wide interests and his intellectual greatness. But I think that any honest reckoning of the man will have to deal with these darker shades of his character. The vision of politics that Meacham offers, where high principles exist mostly as rhetoric or ethos, is not for me.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    I wanted to devour this book the way I had with bios of the other Founding Fathers, but this one was more of a slog than I anticipated. Meacham does a good job connecting all the big historical touchstones of Jefferson's remarkable life: writing the Declaration of Independence (check); serving as an ambassador to France (check); serving in Washington's cabinet (check); winning election as the third president of the U.S., negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, and founding the University of Virginia I wanted to devour this book the way I had with bios of the other Founding Fathers, but this one was more of a slog than I anticipated. Meacham does a good job connecting all the big historical touchstones of Jefferson's remarkable life: writing the Declaration of Independence (check); serving as an ambassador to France (check); serving in Washington's cabinet (check); winning election as the third president of the U.S., negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, and founding the University of Virginia in his later years(check, check and check). But what's missing is the literary sweep and human drama behind these events, things that David McCullough and Joseph Ellis brought to their subjects with exceptional skills(Adams and Washington, respectively). The Lewis and Clark expedition is barely a footnote here, perhaps because the author knew Stephen Ambrose had already told Jefferson's role in that adventure about as well as any writer could. We don't get a whole lot of new insight into Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings for that matter. To be fair, the book does pick up some narrative steam when Jefferson finally reaches the White House, but that is so far into the book that it's hard to justify the rest of the story's plodding pace. A big disappointment for me.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Shelly♥

    I loved this book. Really delves into the psyche of Thomas Jefferson, chipping to the core on the things that make him tick. Meacham spends a lot of time in Virginia laying the groundwork for Jefferson's character - how he loved control but hated conflict. And then he builds the bridge to the presidency - detailing his struggles with the executive powers that Hamilton put upon the presidency during Washington's terms and then how he embraced these very powers in his own Presidency. We get to I loved this book. Really delves into the psyche of Thomas Jefferson, chipping to the core on the things that make him tick. Meacham spends a lot of time in Virginia laying the groundwork for Jefferson's character - how he loved control but hated conflict. And then he builds the bridge to the presidency - detailing his struggles with the executive powers that Hamilton put upon the presidency during Washington's terms and then how he embraced these very powers in his own Presidency. We get to know the persona of Jefferson - his love of good food, fine wine and the company of others. His charm and casualness invited his enemies to even enjoy dinner with him and call him cordial. Meacham also tip-toes through the waters of Sally Hemmings and her family. Speaks of Jefferson's faults and foibles (slavery and debt.) He recounts most of the major Jefferson sticking points: Callendar, Hamilton, Maria Cosway, Adams friendship. It's all there, along with other little tidbits of Jefferson lore. Agree that we really needed a readable one volume Jefferson bio to stand along those of Adams and Washington and Hamilton. This may very well be it. Received an ARC from the publisher. All opinions expressed are my own.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Rincey

    PSA: Edward Hermann narrates the audiobook (as well as a lot of other audiobooks) and it is a delightful way to consume this biography.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sean

    Since Thanksgiving is tomorrow, I'll quote Jefferson's #6 Decalogue of Canons for Observations in Practical Life (other 9 are on page 487): "We never repent of having eaten too little." Kudos to Jon Meacham for daring to take on such a well-know man. So many competing biographies already exist. Meacham quotes biographer James Parton in 1874: "If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right." This unbiased book sheds light on the truth to this statement. Since Thanksgiving is tomorrow, I'll quote Jefferson's #6 Decalogue of Canons for Observations in Practical Life (other 9 are on page 487): "We never repent of having eaten too little." Kudos to Jon Meacham for daring to take on such a well-know man. So many competing biographies already exist. Meacham quotes biographer James Parton in 1874: "If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right." This unbiased book sheds light on the truth to this statement. Meacham's 9-page epilogue is worth reading a couple of times. It contains: "It is difficult to imagine having a glass of wine with George Washington at Mount Vernon and talking of many things; it seems the most natural thing in the world to imagine doing so with Thomas Jefferson at Monticello". This book truly made me want to meet this man in person. This is as close as I can come, I suppose. "We sense his greatness because we know that perfection in politics is not possible but that Jefferson passed the fundamental test of leadership: Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and dreams deferred he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the arena of public life." Outstanding audio-book (read by a favorite reader: Edward Herrmann). The first half establishes Thomas Jefferson as someone you truly want to be president. I posted a status note during this section about how when the NYTimes Book Review asks me who I want for dinner, I would say Thomas Jefferson. He was unassuming in demeanor, and could talk intelligently on a profound number of subjects. The next 30% of the book is the presidency. Author Jon Meacham paints a very fair portrait of President Jefferson and his compromising nature regarding all the politics of the day. This was my least favorite section of the book, since I am not a fan of the politics of politics. President Jefferson became criticized by the extremes on both the Republican and Federalist parties, as he gravitated in his second term toward decisions that aimed to help the greater common good of everyone. The final 20% talks of Jefferson at his 11,000 sq ft "Olympus" called Monticello. I have seen the Jefferson Library in Washington DC, preserved in the Library of Congress. This is VERY impressive. (Its right behind - east - of the Capitol). I loved hearing about his founding of the University of Virginia. What leaders today show this respect to education? The writing by Jon Meacham constantly sounds objective. I do not hear judgements by the author. I believe this is the mark of a great historical writer.

  11. 5 out of 5

    David Eppenstein

    I have read several biographies either about TJ or where he was a significant character. In all of these works I have been searching for the source of his publicly perceived greatness. In this book I feel I have come a bit closer to understanding it but I, as yet, cannot accept it. Why, of all the Founders, does TJ merit monumental recognition alongside Washington in our nation's capital? Reading this book I have added to my knowledge of this man. Yes, he was truly intelligent, creative, and I have read several biographies either about TJ or where he was a significant character. In all of these works I have been searching for the source of his publicly perceived greatness. In this book I feel I have come a bit closer to understanding it but I, as yet, cannot accept it. Why, of all the Founders, does TJ merit monumental recognition alongside Washington in our nation's capital? Reading this book I have added to my knowledge of this man. Yes, he was truly intelligent, creative, and talented but so were many others. This book informs me that this icon was a simply a self-centered, self-indulgent, patrician control freak waving the banner of populism. His contributions to the Revolution were minor compared to those of others. His greatest presidential accomplishment was the Louisiana Purchase but this feat was just good luck. Where is his political greatness? Granted, monarchy was the Red Menace and England the Evil Empire of TJ's day but he saw or accused anybody that disagreed with him to be a monarchist. Adams, a monarchist? Adams was his friend and he stabbed this friend in the back to advance his interests. TJ was a deceitful snake with no stomach or courage to confront his critics or opponents. Yes, he had many talents but do his talents excuse his lack of character? This was an exceptionally well researched and written book but I come away from it still believing TJ was our first sleazy president.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    http://bestpresidentialbios.com/2013/... “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” is author Jon Meacham’s fifth and most recent book, having been published in late 2012. Meacham received the Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, and has also written about Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as well as the civil rights movement and the influence of religion in American politics. “The Art of Power” is by a significant margin the most popular and widely-read Jefferson biography http://bestpresidentialbios.com/2013/... “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” is author Jon Meacham’s fifth and most recent book, having been published in late 2012. Meacham received the Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, and has also written about Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as well as the civil rights movement and the influence of religion in American politics. “The Art of Power” is by a significant margin the most popular and widely-read Jefferson biography available today. Well-written and fast paced, Meacham’s accounting of Jefferson’s life is both entertaining and enjoyable, and requires little patience or fortitude on the part of the reader. With about five hundred pages of text, Meacham’s work seems to occupy a desirable space for modern biographies – it is comprehensive enough to cover the most salient aspects of its subject’s life, but is not so lengthy that it requires an exorbitant commitment of time or attention. In contrast to the exhaustive accounts of Jefferson’s life authored by Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson, Meacham’s narrative almost seems to sprint through the eight decades of our third president’s life. Where Malone spends nearly twelve hundred pages describing Jefferson’s terms as president, Meacham sets aside slightly fewer than one hundred. But that is part of the delight of this biography: in relatively few pages it manages to capture the essence of Jefferson, describing his core principles and philosophies, outlining his primary accomplishments and failures, and highlighting the contradictions he offers posterity. But following my five week journey through Dumas Malone’s series on Jefferson, I am reminded that brevity comes at a price. Important nuances in Jefferson’s decision-making and complex threads within his life must be ignored in order to maintain the book’s brisk pace. Key moments in Jefferson’s presidency and the early life of our nation (such as the Embargo of 1807 and the Burr conspiracy) are only afforded minimal attention. But happily, such a pace provides the book no opportunity to find itself bogged down in unnecessary detail or to pursue trivial tangents. What Meacham accomplishes brilliantly, in my view, is efficiently summarizing and synthesizing the various (and often contradictory) aspects of Jefferson’s personality and offering his own view of why Jefferson acted – as a patriarch, as a scientist, as a politician and as a friend – as he did. Though I found many of the author’s conclusions less grand and sweeping than they were presumably intended to be, Meacham’s perspective on Jefferson was nonetheless insightful and cogently argued. “The Art of Power” has been criticized by some for portraying Jefferson in too flattering a light. I did not detect this fault, and Meacham seems to harbor no greater sympathy for Jefferson than most biographers do with their subjects. Although Meacham does seem to admire Jefferson, his affection is not without qualification. Others have pointed out that although Meacham seems to have been quite diligent in his preparation for writing this book (the endnotes and bibliography alone consume over two hundred pages), it contains little that is truly new or revealing. Only Meacham’s central thesis – that Jefferson was successful because he was simultaneously a philosopher and a politician, an idealist and a tactical strategist – seems to add a new dimension to a president who has been so thoroughly explored and described. Finally, I admit to disappointment in Meacham’s treatment of the possible (perhaps even likely) relationship between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Rather than describing the controversy which has pervaded this issue for over two hundred years, Meacham treats the topic as fully resolved. Only in the extensive endnotes does the reader find a multi-page note admitting to, and describing, the controversy. In most ways, however, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” lived up to the hype which has surrounded the book since its publication. I found it easy, entertaining and enjoyable to read. It required relatively little from me, but offered disproportionately greater rewards. As a serious student of Jefferson, this would not be my first (or even second) stop on the lengthy journey to understanding Jefferson. However, as an efficient, wonderfully descriptive and generally comprehensive introduction to Thomas Jefferson, I am unaware of better biography. Overall Rating: 4½ stars

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jay

    A good, very readable "popular" biography of Thomas Jefferson that focuses on Jefferson's use of power and influence to achieve his desired ends throughout his life. Despite pointing out (yet somewhat glossing over) some of Jefferson's flaws, Meacham's biography is nevertheless a little too hagiographic for me to rate it higher than 3 stars. I enjoyed reading the book, and even gained some new insight into Jefferson, but still came away from it feeling as though Meacham missed the mark a little. A good, very readable "popular" biography of Thomas Jefferson that focuses on Jefferson's use of power and influence to achieve his desired ends throughout his life. Despite pointing out (yet somewhat glossing over) some of Jefferson's flaws, Meacham's biography is nevertheless a little too hagiographic for me to rate it higher than 3 stars. I enjoyed reading the book, and even gained some new insight into Jefferson, but still came away from it feeling as though Meacham missed the mark a little. I have been a lifelong admirer of Thomas Jefferson, so much so that my dream since childhood was to attend Mr. Jefferson's University. While still a Jefferson admirer - my library is full of Jeffersonian memorabilia, the bloom has somewhat gone off the rose over the years as I have continued to reassess the man in light of more recent scholarship, as well as in viewing the political turmoil of his time through the lens of the political turmoil of the last 20 years. Meacham's book sets out to sort of "rehabilitate" Jefferson after a couple of decades of multiple critically acclaimed books on Jefferson's political adversaries that have, inevitably, painted Jefferson in less than heroic terms. Meacham accomplishes his goal to some extent, but only at the cost of playing down many of Jefferson's major foibles. An example would be in those instances in which Meacham makes statements along the lines of some might consider Jefferson a hypocrite, but ... Or that some might consider Jefferson to have been paranoid about the alleged Federalist scheme to return the United States to monarchy, but ... Well, yes, some might. Because, when viewed objectively, Jefferson WAS a hypocrite with respect to a good number of issues and Jefferson WAS paranoid in viewing his opponents in the worst light possible. That doesn't mean that Jefferson wasn't heroic or that he doesn't deserve to continue to be admired. He was, and he does, and Meacham's book is a good reminder of that. But a more critical treatment of Jefferson's use of the same power for his own ends - power that was often, as admitted by both Jefferson and Meacham, extra-constitutional and perhaps even unconstitutional - that Jefferson condemned when used by others, would have provided a more honest and balanced portrayal. Meacham's title - The Art of Power - gives away what he is really interested in. This book is a portrait of Jefferson for the political class. For the folks who LOVE power and the exercise thereof. For those who view principle and constitutional limits as unfortunate and unwanted impediments to "getting things done". For those who view "making the deal" as the height of political achievement. This is a portrait of Jefferson for the pundits on Meet the Press and Morning Joe. This is a portrait of Jefferson for those who can view the policies and exercises of power of a president from one party as tyrannical and anti-civil liberties, and view the exact same polices and exercises of power - only magnified - when put into practice by a president from the opposing party, as the "art" of getting things done. There is much to admire about Jefferson. For my tastes, however, Meacham appears to admire many of the wrong things and minimizes many of the less savory aspects of Jefferson's character.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Cheri

    It's rare when this happens. I just finished the prologue to this book. This eary in the book, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was reading something GREAT. Oh, I'm going to enjoy this book!!!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    Obviously with all biographies, how you frame your topic directs the course of the work. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power clearly lays out its "frame" in the title. This biography looks at Jefferson's attachment to power, both politically and personally. I found the idea rather intriguing. Unfortunately, the author spends more time harping on Jefferson's supposed affair with Sally Hemings than on the way Jefferson accumulated power. Therein lies my frustration with the book. As a biography, it Obviously with all biographies, how you frame your topic directs the course of the work. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power clearly lays out its "frame" in the title. This biography looks at Jefferson's attachment to power, both politically and personally. I found the idea rather intriguing. Unfortunately, the author spends more time harping on Jefferson's supposed affair with Sally Hemings than on the way Jefferson accumulated power. Therein lies my frustration with the book. As a biography, it certainly does a good job trying to capture its subject. I understand why people praise it. But as an analysis of Jefferson's "art of power," I found it woefully lacking. It gives more details to his love affairs than his pursuit of power. We're told he likes power. We're shown how he gathered his extended family around him all his life. And finally, history obviously proves Jefferson sought power, as he worked his way into the presidency. But how did he do it? How did he manipulate the media and win friends to his side? Going on this book I'd say...well, he was nice? Instead of in-depth analysis, we get stupid contradictions like, "How could Jefferson author the Declaration of Independence and also keep slaves?" Instead of analyzing the way he developed a political party around him, we're repeatedly reminded that he wanted to send all African Americans back to Africa. Power is definitely a theme throughout the book, but not explored nearly enough for my tastes. To be fair, I recognize that much of my dislike of this book comes from the fact that I feel the themes the author highlights are the usual things that get beaten to death where Jefferson is concerned: his debt, Sally Hemings, bypassing his original need for a constitutional amendment to enact the Louisiana purchase, playacting as a 'regular ole Joe' when president. But I acknowledge that possibly it was the popularity of this book that made these things ubiquitous with our third president, not the author recycling common knowledge.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    Excellent book. Meacham sees Jefferson not only as the idealist and philosopher who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but as a man who learned from experience and compromised throughout his political career. In fact, at the beginning of his Presidency, the Federalists were frightened that the country fail because real democracy was too dangerous and at the end of his Presidency some of the Republicans were angry that he'd compromised with the Federalists to the extend that he compromised Excellent book. Meacham sees Jefferson not only as the idealist and philosopher who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but as a man who learned from experience and compromised throughout his political career. In fact, at the beginning of his Presidency, the Federalists were frightened that the country fail because real democracy was too dangerous and at the end of his Presidency some of the Republicans were angry that he'd compromised with the Federalists to the extend that he compromised the who idea of democracy. Interestingly, there was talk of secession at both points, and in both instances the North was seen as leaving the union, perhaps to form a country with British possessions in North America (Canada) and to have a more "royalist" government, maybe even go back to British rule. One of Jefferson's greatest fears was that the new United States would give up the democratic ideal and have a "president for life" or even a younger son of the British king as its king. His relationship with John Adams was also interesting. The two were close when they were both abroad as diplomats but politics separated them as Adams became the head of the Federalist Party and Jefferson of the Republicans. Only in old age did they reconcile (as a result of a push by Abigail Adams) and carry on a correspondence after Jefferson had retired. Then, they both died on the 4th of July of 1826, Jefferson have struggled to stay alive until July 4th. Interesting to me that I've always liked Jefferson and felt closer to his main ideas but never read very much about him. Lately though I've read biographies of Adams, Hamilton (Jefferson's Nemesis) and Washington so have understand the Federalist POV much better, but reading this book reminded me that Jefferson, IMHO, is the closest to the way I think. The book was interesting on the Jefferson controversy (slavery--he didn't free his slaves at death as did Washington, Sally Hemmings--Jefferson promised his wife not to remarry/sleeping with a slave, who was in fact a half sister of his wife, was not unusual at the time). I was also reminded that it was Jefferson who commissioned the Voyage of Discovery of Lewis and Clark and who made the purchase of the Louisiana Territory on his own without consulting Congress (thought he at first wanted a constitutional amendment to allow it). It would probably not have happened had he not acted quickly. Those two acts set the scene for American expansion into the west and were therefore far-seeing and critical decisions.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Darwin8u

    With this biography, Meacham appears to continue to float in that narrative sphere between popular journalist-historians (Alter, Woolfe) and popular academic-historians (Ellis, Kearns Goodwin, Morris). His writing most closely resembles (in many, many ways) Walter Isaacson and David McCullough. They write similar types of biographies and seem to inhabit a similar clumped intellectual range. That said, while Meacham's style will never perfectly thrill academic historians, this biography is With this biography, Meacham appears to continue to float in that narrative sphere between popular journalist-historians (Alter, Woolfe) and popular academic-historians (Ellis, Kearns Goodwin, Morris). His writing most closely resembles (in many, many ways) Walter Isaacson and David McCullough. They write similar types of biographies and seem to inhabit a similar clumped intellectual range. That said, while Meacham's style will never perfectly thrill academic historians, this biography is interesting and paced-well and shouldn't trouble too many presidential history buffs. Meacham has never had a real boat-tipping agenda with his biographies. He certainly wants to make Jefferson's life, times and experiences (told largely through secondary sources, anecdotes and at times brilliant story-telling) relevant to our current political and social setting. He did this wonderfully with FDR and Jackson and has continued his record with this excellent bio of Jefferson.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Rather stunned by all the glowing reviews of this book. It struck me that Meacham told, much more than showed, the story of Jefferson. I found myself wishing for more detail at every turn (Ben Franklin lent the word "self-evident" to the Declaration? ... would sure love to know more about that discussion; Jefferson lost his horse and got dysentery on his way to report to the House of Burgesses? ... what must that have been like in the 1700s?) Perhaps I just couldn't get into the mood of the Rather stunned by all the glowing reviews of this book. It struck me that Meacham told, much more than showed, the story of Jefferson. I found myself wishing for more detail at every turn (Ben Franklin lent the word "self-evident" to the Declaration? ... would sure love to know more about that discussion; Jefferson lost his horse and got dysentery on his way to report to the House of Burgesses? ... what must that have been like in the 1700s?) Perhaps I just couldn't get into the mood of the book, which sometimes happens. I'm moving onto Ellis' American Sphinx to see if I like that better.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ralph Strong

    great book

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jay Connor

    The greatest problem with a pragmatic philosopher is that in coming ages people from all perspectives can claim ownership to your ideas and ideals. Jefferson is just such a chameleon whose actions often betray his language. Be wary of the ideologue who self-servingly quotes this founding father -- for likely his pearls of phrase on equality or gun rights or states rights are often more costumed in reality. All of this is not to take much away from Jefferson's greatness only to diminish from those The greatest problem with a pragmatic philosopher is that in coming ages people from all perspectives can claim ownership to your ideas and ideals. Jefferson is just such a chameleon whose actions often betray his language. Be wary of the ideologue who self-servingly quotes this founding father -- for likely his pearls of phrase on equality or gun rights or states rights are often more costumed in reality. All of this is not to take much away from Jefferson's greatness only to diminish from those who have used him in the succeeding centuries to prove one point or another. The value of excellent history, as Meacham has presented to us here, is to understand context as well as extent of permissible extrapolation for our times. This deep understanding of context as a primary animator of history is perhaps best seen in Joseph Ellis' "Revolutionary Summer" which I reviewed several months ago. The above notwithstanding, Jefferson is a man of great words. I was particularly reminded of the beauty and relevance of his first inaugural address -- after a very divisive election ultimately decided in the House, he sought to assure and lead the whole: "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mahlon

    I must admit that as a committed Federalist and one who is therefore squarely in the Hamiltonian camp, I've had a tendency to deride Jefferson as a feminine Francophile at times. Therefore it is good to occasionally be reminded of how great Jefferson really was. Meacham Points out that once President, Jefferson had the creative flexibility to rise above party dogma, and make decisions that were best for the country. He also argues quite convincingly that to truly understand Jefferson's character I must admit that as a committed Federalist and one who is therefore squarely in the Hamiltonian camp, I've had a tendency to deride Jefferson as a feminine Francophile at times. Therefore it is good to occasionally be reminded of how great Jefferson really was. Meacham Points out that once President, Jefferson had the creative flexibility to rise above party dogma, and make decisions that were best for the country. He also argues quite convincingly that to truly understand Jefferson's character and the reasons behind his core beliefs, you must view the American Revolution as he did, not as an eight year tactical battle, but a 60 year war for democracy. His second surprising point is that in terms of lasting political influence versus Hamilton, Jefferson wins hands down when you consider that with the exception of John Quincy Adams, four of the five presidents elected in the 30 years after Jefferson left office carried on his Democratic ideals. The best Jefferson biography I've read, if I had a criticism it would be that because Meacham has limited himself to one volume, by necessity he doesn't cover many issues in depth, but he should be lauded for the sheer amount of topics he does manage to cover. Also, given that the book is titled "The Art of Power", he might have given us a few more examples of how Jefferson used it, rather than making the book a straight retelling of life and career.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

    Choppy and not as in-depth as it could be, but, in all, this was a great book. Meacham is effective in the limited goals he sets for himself in this new biography of Jefferson. He persuasively argues that Jefferson's fear of monarchists was not simple paranoia or demagoguery. Jefferson was right to fear concentrations of power in "monocrats" -- be they advocates of kings, those seeking to elevate Washington to dictator, or the powerful national banking interests that Hamilton promoted. Choppy and not as in-depth as it could be, but, in all, this was a great book. Meacham is effective in the limited goals he sets for himself in this new biography of Jefferson. He persuasively argues that Jefferson's fear of monarchists was not simple paranoia or demagoguery. Jefferson was right to fear concentrations of power in "monocrats" -- be they advocates of kings, those seeking to elevate Washington to dictator, or the powerful national banking interests that Hamilton promoted. Jefferson's ability to advocate and then to demonstrate the responsibility of egalitarian rule was his great contribution to American democracy. Jefferson, of course, was a man full of contradictory and paradoxical beliefs. He was a Democratic-Republican, but acted like a Federalist in office. He pretended to hate politics, but was a remarkably shrewd, even devious politician. He expanded government power while fearing such expansion at the same time. He violated the Constitution more than any other president. He viewed slavery as an evil but owned slaves himself (one of whom, Sally Hemings, he almost certainly exploited sexually). He was not a particularly religious man, but considered the freedom of religion clause int he Constitution one of his signal accomplishments. In short, he was the most devious man not named Ben Franklin. Despite Meacham's theme of a politician who mastered the art of power to successfully reconcile philosophy with practicality. Meacham treads lightly on Jefferson's philosophy (one of very few omissions in his lengthy bibliography, tellingly, is Jean Yarborough's study of Jefferson's political and moral philosophy). This is a shame because his portrait of a Jefferson that does not fit the libertarian mold is provocative and interesting. Meacham's Jefferson is less antipathetic to large government, federal and executive power and commerce than is commonly understood today, but Meacham does little to explore further Jefferson's thinking on these and other matters, nor does he attempt any explanation of why the Jefferson of common perception does not fit Meacham's own reading, which would have been very interesting to me. His is a Jefferson more of action than thought. Meacham also tries to deal with Jefferson and slavery. It's a topic that demanded attention, given the light touch traditionally taken and the mass of new scholarship on the subject. Jefferson's views were, unsurprisingly, complex. He made several early attempts to abolish it, but by midlife he chose the pragmatic route and no longer pursued the issue. He didn't think that white folks and black folks could live together, but kept one of his slaves as a concubine. Meacham is leery of validating Jefferson and Sally Hemings's relationship. He thinks Hemings forced Jefferson to promise to free their children in return for returning from France with him (French law at the time would have allowed her to stay). Interestingly, if this deal was made, Jefferson kept it despite its unenforceability once they returned to Virginia. The same man who wanted language in the Declaration of Independence attacking slavery and saw as a "fireball in the night" that threatened the country, there is no examination why Jefferson not only kept up his own massive coterie of slaves he also cut back on his comments and observations on why slavery should end. Instead Meacham offers up that Jefferson was comfortable with the essential contradiction of the man devoted to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" who not only kept slaves but did not free them at his death-as did others,like George Washington. In all, this was pretty good.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    The complex life and the politics of the third President of the United States in a dramatic period in history are brought to the fore in Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. After nearly twenty years in which Jefferson’s reputation has taken a hit through both scientific revelations and new biographies of his fellow Founders, the pragmatic philosopher who still yearned to daydream comes into better light 200 years after his time in office. Meacham approached his book as a pure The complex life and the politics of the third President of the United States in a dramatic period in history are brought to the fore in Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. After nearly twenty years in which Jefferson’s reputation has taken a hit through both scientific revelations and new biographies of his fellow Founders, the pragmatic philosopher who still yearned to daydream comes into better light 200 years after his time in office. Meacham approached his book as a pure biography of Jefferson not a history of the times, which meant that only events that directly affected Jefferson or his immediately family were focused upon. Thus while Jefferson’s own story began in 1743, Meacham sets the stage with a family history that was also a history of colonial Virginia both politically and culturally. Throughout the next 500 pages, Meacham follows Jefferson in and out of Virginia with stops in Philadelphia, Paris, New York, and finally Washington D.C., but through everything a special focus was on how he developed his political acumen to achieve the vision he had for the United States in the world. Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings is discussed throughout the book when important moments in both their lives cross. While Hemings is not the focus of the book, the ‘relationship’ is interwoven by Meacham into Jefferson’s complicated thoughts on slavery that is more thoroughly detailed towards the end of the book and is some of the best analysis in the book. Yet, the focus on Jefferson’s political skill in comparison to his contemporaries and his time resulted in a fairly quick book to read (505 pages) that had extensive notes that could have added more to the body of the book and given the book more depth is the basic drawback of the book. Over the last decade, a new round of biographies of the Founding Fathers has brought praise and more attention to the actual human beings we think of when we hear their names. Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is a fascinating read of a man whose words and actions are both celebrated and controversial.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Sharon

    Historically and personally interesting biography of Thomas Jefferson and the times in which he lived. If it wasn't for his stubborn and persistent efforts to keep America a government by the people, we might be a monarchy today. It's astonishing how few men of his day worked tirelessly and for most of their productive lifetimes to fend off enemies who would take over the young states or western parts of the US and to ensure that this country didn't become what the colonists had just left Historically and personally interesting biography of Thomas Jefferson and the times in which he lived. If it wasn't for his stubborn and persistent efforts to keep America a government by the people, we might be a monarchy today. It's astonishing how few men of his day worked tirelessly and for most of their productive lifetimes to fend off enemies who would take over the young states or western parts of the US and to ensure that this country didn't become what the colonists had just left behind. I found some wry humor in the fact that the political parties haven't changed much in 200 years as far as mud-slinging before elections and opposing each other at every turn. Jefferson understood that opposing parties are essential to our democracy. Jefferson was a fascinating person in both his public and private lives. The book reveals his family life, his quiet hours, his concerns and thoughts, his friendships, and more. This is the most highly researched book I've ever read. This was a slow read for me, not exactly a page-turner. However, I feel enriched intellectually for the read and will always remember the lessons and history I learned. If more of us would read this kind of history, we would appreciate our country in new ways. What we have today was hard-won and lives were dedicated to providing our freedoms, whole lifetimes, in fact. War isn't the only way to achieve great things. It's definitely not the best way. Thomas Jefferson's gentle, congenial, and highly intelligent manner belied a steely conviction that served us well. He authored the Declaration of Independence and procured much of the western US for the young states. Jefferson spent some years in France, living as an ambassador. There are many other surprising revelations in this literary biography. Recommended for anyone who enjoys history, especially of how the US came to be what it is today, and how it almost didn't.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    Jon Meacham provides an excellent popular biography on the life of Thomas Jefferson. Without going into too much detail on anyone part of his life the author is able to give you a sample of Jefferson without bogging down in certain places as some authors have done in the past. The subtitle is a little misleading since there really is no tie back to the art of power and there are but a few scant messages about the way Jefferson organizes his power and leadership style. One of the nice things the Jon Meacham provides an excellent popular biography on the life of Thomas Jefferson. Without going into too much detail on anyone part of his life the author is able to give you a sample of Jefferson without bogging down in certain places as some authors have done in the past. The subtitle is a little misleading since there really is no tie back to the art of power and there are but a few scant messages about the way Jefferson organizes his power and leadership style. One of the nice things the author does well is try to bring together the events in Jefferson’s life that shaped the decisions he would make in the presidency from his time in school and as a lawyer, his failed years as Virginia’s governor an finally his time as a diplomat. Jefferson wore many proverbial hats from philosopher, statesman, scientist, and farmer during his life and Meacham captures all of those in this biography. Overall the pragmatic side of Jefferson’s leadership shines here and a look at how the philosopher differed with the ideal was thoroughly explored at various points during the book especially during his presidency with regards to the Louisiana purchase and the embargo of English goods. For those looking for an indepth look or have read a lot about Jefferson this is probably not going to shed a lot of new light other than spending some extra time on his years as governor that other biographies skirt over. For those just starting out with the founding fathers I think there is a lot of value here.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    Won this Advanced Readers Edition of - Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power - through GR Giveaways, after some consideration whether I should enter the Giveaway in the first place. I like nonfiction, biography, and history – and this book represented all three – but I had some misgivings. What more can be said of Thomas Jefferson? There already exists a body of work on Jefferson that is spectacular – noting just the five-volume 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning effort of Dumas Malone (Jefferson and his Won this Advanced Readers Edition of - Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power - through GR Giveaways, after some consideration whether I should enter the Giveaway in the first place. I like nonfiction, biography, and history – and this book represented all three – but I had some misgivings. What more can be said of Thomas Jefferson? There already exists a body of work on Jefferson that is spectacular – noting just the five-volume 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning effort of Dumas Malone (Jefferson and his Time) and the 1997 National Book Award winner of Joe Ellis (American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson) as examples. We even have a Pulitzer Prize winner on one of Jefferson’s liaisons: Annette Gordon-Reed’s 2009 The Hemingses of Monticello. So when it comes to Jefferson the bar has been set pretty high. But then, this was Jon Meacham – a Pulitzer-prize winner himself (in 2009 for American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House). So I entered and won this copy. Here’s my take. In sum: I found the book a bit plodding. When it stayed on topic – that being how Jefferson maneuvered his way through the various political circles (e.g., Virginia House of Burgesses, Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, President) and diplomatic circles (e.g., Ambassador to France), it was a wonderful read. It showed how Jefferson watched and learned and honed his skills – how he developed that Art of Power. But it did not stay on topic enough. The Prologue sets the tone nicely, but then Part I runs off 55 pages of background and childhood that, while of mild interest, had nothing to do with the Art of Power. The insertion of tangential information that didn’t push the Art of Power theme happened often … often enough that the book is probably 200 pages too long. The book weighs in at around 700 pages, the last 200 or so being Notes, Bibliography, and Index. So we have about 500 pages to work with. Taking out 200 or so pages of peripheral material would have consolidated it into a 300 page focused piece and would have made it much more approachable. So I have to say I was only mildly interested in the book – it was good not great. It was nicely written and professionally presented, but it just did not rise to the bar it had to reach to earn a spot alongside Meacham’s other works. For those that know little about Thomas Jefferson, this would make an excellent primer; for those with basic background on the subject, this volume doesn’t add much to the body of knowledge.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Mlg

    Fascinating portrayal of our third president, a man of startling contradictions. Meacham shows him as a man opposed to slavery, yet who kept over 600 slaves on his plantations. He also participated in the removal of the indians and believed that if the slaves were to be freed, they should be sent back to Africa. Jefferson's interest in all areas of learning was an exceptional part of his personality. Jefferson's personal life was equally interesting. His wife died young and extracted a promise Fascinating portrayal of our third president, a man of startling contradictions. Meacham shows him as a man opposed to slavery, yet who kept over 600 slaves on his plantations. He also participated in the removal of the indians and believed that if the slaves were to be freed, they should be sent back to Africa. Jefferson's interest in all areas of learning was an exceptional part of his personality. Jefferson's personal life was equally interesting. His wife died young and extracted a promise from him never to remarry. Apparently his long time relationship with her half-sister Sally Hemmings did not violate that pledge in his eyes. He showered his grandchildren with gifts he could not afford, but made his slave children work on the plantation and showed them no affection. Jefferson's feud with Adams is also a significant part of the book. When they reconciled, their letters on a wide ranging number of subjects seem to fill the intellectual void that retirement had brought. He was courtly and valued the word of another, yet left debts between 1-2 million dollars. Great books not only hold your attention, but make you want to learn more about the other individuals in the story. This is that type of book. I can think of at least three or four individuals in his story that would be great biographies to read.

  28. 5 out of 5

    W. Whalin

    A fascinating look at the life of the third president of the United States. His immense impact on our world and culture carries into today's world. The detail and insights were incredible and it's worth listening to the entire book (as I did). I highly recommend the experience.

  29. 5 out of 5

    David Huff

    I found myself wondering, often, as I read this book, what Jefferson must have thought and felt as a young man, as he penned the Declaration of Independence that hot summer in Philadelphia -- whether he could have imagined what a revered document it would still be, close to 2 1/2 centuries later? Meacham has written a fine, though selective, account of Jefferson's amazingly full life. There are many more minutely detailed accounts of his life to be found, but "The Art of Power" give a good, I found myself wondering, often, as I read this book, what Jefferson must have thought and felt as a young man, as he penned the Declaration of Independence that hot summer in Philadelphia -- whether he could have imagined what a revered document it would still be, close to 2 1/2 centuries later? Meacham has written a fine, though selective, account of Jefferson's amazingly full life. There are many more minutely detailed accounts of his life to be found, but "The Art of Power" give a good, thorough overview of the 80+ years of our 3rd President's life and accomplishments -- and some of his faults as well. It's fascinating that Jefferson and John Adams, ex-presidents, political adversaries, but old friends to the end, both died on July 4, 1826 -- the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. Jefferson, who had been gravely ill for a few weeks, literally willed himself to live until he saw July 4th arrive. I learned much from this book, about a true Renaissance man -- a musician, a lover of literature, fine wine, culture, science, farming, philosophy, and so incredibly much more, with an insatiable curiosity and thirst for learning. A man who served in Virginia's state government, then as governor, vice-president, secretary of state, ambassador to France, a two-term president, and late in his life, the founder of the University of Virginia. Jefferson engineered the Louisiana purchase, and pushed hard against the Federalists (especially Hamilton) for the maintenance of a Democratic Republic, which he hoped would never lean back toward monarchy. Jefferson also had his faults; he opposed slavery, but was a lifelong slaveholder at his beloved Monticello estate. He fathered several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings; I learned she was actually of mixed race, as well as being the half-sister of Jefferson's wife (who tragically died very young). Jefferson also had lifelong criticism from some quarters for his flight from the British in Virginia during his term as governor. His tastes for the finer things in life also kept him perpetually in debt throughout his lifetime. Still, Jefferson had an incalculable impact on the founding of America, and his influence continues through the generations. He was a man who hated conflict, but used power when necessary; a great conversationalist but a so-so public speaker; very gifted with a pen, and a speaker of multiple languages. I enjoyed this book, and would definitely recommend it!

  30. 5 out of 5

    karl

    My heart loves fiction shoot’em ups. My head makes me read nonfiction. I slogged through this well-searched biography of Jefferson (TJ), who I admire and respect. When I was about to write this short review I looked at Wikipedia. It said it all about him. That made me thinks, “Why didn’t I spend 10 minutes on Wikipedia and have hours more for non fiction? “ Great question. No good answer. The book should have been trimmed by 1/3. Too many quotes from Jefferson’s papers. I found it often My heart loves fiction shoot’em ups. My head makes me read nonfiction. I slogged through this well-searched biography of Jefferson (TJ), who I admire and respect. When I was about to write this short review I looked at Wikipedia. It said it all about him. That made me thinks, “Why didn’t I spend 10 minutes on Wikipedia and have hours more for non fiction? “ Great question. No good answer. The book should have been trimmed by 1/3. Too many quotes from Jefferson’s papers. I found it often repetitive. Consider that w/o email and phones, 200 years ago they wrote and wrote. To do a biography on Jefferson has to be a huge effort. Kudos to the author on that. Still, it was a slog, overdone, too long, boring. Tj was the 1st Secretary of State, the 2nd VP, and the 3rd President. He read 5 or 6 languages. He had only 1 child (of 6) who out-lived him. He had children with his wife’s half sister (white dad and slave mom), who were not acknowledged at the time. He spent more than his income, so his assets increasingly over time were encumbered. Good for him, he drank a lot of wine every night. The one thing that is not in Wiki that comes through all the time in this text is how TJ was afraid of the Federalists (e.g., Hamilton, and even John Adams). They tilted towards an English system of lords and heredity and control over the population. TJ strove for state’s rights. The Alien and Sedition Acts of late 1790’s especially bothered him as they gave the government the shut down complaints. He righted that.

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