Of all the founding fathers, I have always been most drawn to Thomas Jefferson. His supposed synthesis of the intellectual and the political appeals to me, yet until recently I had not read a single biography of him. Having just finished Benjamin Franklin’s excellent autobiography, I thought it was time to read up on his successor.
Meacham’s book is a voluminous one, and at times the details do feel a bit strained. Yet what emerges by the end of the book is a rather complete picture of the Master of Monticello, one that, on the whole, is flattering but not without qualification. Several interlocking threads run through the book, each weaving a picture of a distinct aspect of Jefferson’s personality. The first, obvious from the book’s title, is Jefferson’s relationship with and use of power. Meacham’s primary thesis is that the real Jefferson, unlike the portrait painted by his contemporary adversaries, was no naïve theorist. He was animated by and committed to certain ideological principles, ones which he outlined in the Declaration of Independence and in his other writings, but his overriding aim was to bring life to these primary principles by all the means at his disposal, even at the cost of sacrificing some secondary causes. The defining characteristic of Jefferson’s personality, according to Meacham, was not his philosophical discipline, his love of science, or even his commitment to individual liberty and republicanism. Rather, it was his ability to use power to effect his will on the political and social stages in which he operated, and in so doing implement the political and social system he deemed most compatible with, and most empowering of, human nature. More so than a philosopher or a revolutionary, Jefferson was fundamentally a politician, one whose primary interest was in the acquisition and exercise of power.
His seeking of power was purposeful, and it is this purpose that forms the second thread of the book. Meacham places the American Revolution within the larger context of the English Civil War of the 17th century. To Jefferson and his revolutionary contemporaries, growing up as a subject of the British Crown was a perfectly natural state of being, and he found much with which he could sympathize in the struggles of his home country in the preceding century. During his early adulthood however, he becomes, for lack of better word, disillusioned with King George III and what he perceives as inconsistent and hypocritical treatment of the American colonies. His disillusionment eventually spreads to the entire British monarchy, and the system of governance it represented. This hatred and fear of monarchy becomes the defining arc of Jefferson’s political life, beginning with the Declaration of Independence, and continuing through the American Revolution, the European wars of the 1780s and 1790s, the internal turmoil and political infighting in the nascent American Republic during the 1790s, and ultimately through his years as President and the looming British threat which culminates and is ended in the War of 1812. Jefferson was obsessed with monarchy and its defeat, and his exercise of power was singularly focused on establishing democratic and constitutional republicanism as a practical and stable form of government. This singular focus was, in the beginning of the Revolution, directed outward toward foreign adversaries. Ultimately however it was most forcefully projected onto internal foes, primarily the Federalists Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. In this respect, Meacham’s book paints a somewhat nuanced picture of Jefferson. Many historians perceive Jefferson as reactionary, perhaps even paranoid, of the potential of reestablishing monarchy in the United States. Meacham argues that the threat was not entirely exaggerated, and that Jefferson’s actions, as he perceived them, were effectively a continuation of the struggle of the English Civil War, something with which he was intimately familiar and which therefore colored his worldview.
On matters of race and color rested the third thread of Meacham’s biography. Jefferson’s view on race relations in the United States, and his personal relationship with black slaves, is an extremely contentious issue. Meacham tries to approach the subject delicately, and does not paint a terribly flattering picture of Jefferson in this regard. Nonetheless, the book does veer into apologia, although it is made clear that Jefferson’s views were retrograde even relative to some of his contemporaries. Jefferson did view slavery in a negative light, and considered it an immoral act. Yet he owned slaves and did not seem to have any reservations about doing so. Worse yet, his solution to the slavery problem was to end it by expelling all blacks out of the United States. The book mentions all this but focuses primarily on the personal aspect of Jefferson’s relationship with slavery, in particular his sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings was a subject of historical debate until recently, when in 1998 DNA testing established with high likelihood that Jefferson fathered several children from Hemings. The nature of the relationship is not entirely clear, at least not from the book, but it appears to have largely been consensual. Jefferson met Hemings after the death of his wife, and they continued to live together for decades and likely had five children. Inexplicably, the children lived with Jefferson as slaves, but were freed upon reaching the age of 18, in accordance with an agreement that Jefferson made with Hemings.
In totality, the Jefferson that emerges out of Meacham’s book is a brilliant if human politician. What appears to me most remarkable about his story is the fact that, starting with a philosophical vision of how people and government ought to relate to one another, he was able to articulate this vision in words that had popular and universal appeal. He used the power of this appeal in the cause of the Revolution, and in so doing helped bring about the creation of the confederation. He participated and was instrumental in reforming the process until a strong federal Republic was born, and insured that a republican form of government was indeed the one that would prevail. By the time his second term as president had ended, he not only had given life to his vision and seen it established, but managed to also put it on firm footing, defeating the Federalists and securing the American experiment in democratic republicanism. Few people, if any, see their life’s project through with such thorough completeness. And it is a testament to Meacham’s work that the richness of Jefferson’s life can come through the medium of the written word.