Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

In the beautiful mansion that was Thomas Jefferson’s mind, there were hundreds of separate chambers. All of them were locked.

In his lifetime Jefferson’s intellectual gifts drew legions of admirers, but his “feline” elusiveness — one observer’s adjective — and his baffling contradictions kept most of them at a distance. A vivid description of him in 1790, in Pennsylvania senator William Maclay’s diary, stresses the difference between the high dignity the senator expected in our first secretary of state and what he saw as the slipshod reality of Jefferson’s presence.

His clothes seem too small for him. He sits in a lounging manner, on one hip commonly, and with one of his shoulders elevated much above the other. His face has a scranny [scrawny] aspect. His whole figure has a loose shackling air. He had a rambling vacant look…. I looked for gravity, but a laxity of manner seemed shed about him. He spoke almost without ceasing. But even his discourse partook of his personal demeanor. It was loose and rambling, and yet he scattered information wherever he went, and some even brilliant sentiments sparkled from him.

But other descriptions make you wonder if the same man was being described. “Mr. Jefferson,” recalled one of his ex-slaves, “was a tall, straight-bodied man as ever you see, right square-shouldered”; he bowed formally to everyone he met and he always spoke “with his arms folded” tightly across his chest. Jefferson’s overseer at Monticello said that Jefferson was “straight as a gun barrel.” Even the color of his eyes was controversial. Some said clear blue, others hazel, still others green. Besides his height — he was six feet two — about the only personal traits universally agreed to were his habit of constantly singing to himself and his odd lifelong practice of plunging his feet into a basin of cold water when he awoke in the morning.

Jon Meacham has a feeling for complex, contradictory characters. Among his previous books are studies of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of that Ahab among democrats, Andrew Jackson. The subtitle of his new book — Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power — suggests an exercise in political science, a study of Jefferson’s remarkable extension of presidential authority during his two terms in office. In fact, like the Jackson book, this is a full-length biography, a patient, deeply sympathetic examination of Jefferson’s paradoxes, in its scale and ambition clearly meant to stand beside Ron Chernow’s recent masterful biography of George Washington.

Meacham organizes his story around two themes, one psychological, one political. Psychologically, Meacham says, Jefferson, the adoring son of a physically imposing father and a strong-willed mother, “was shaped by the need to make the world conform to his will,” just as his parents (and their slaves) had tamed the wilderness of colonial Virginia. This need for control, realized or frustrated, would be seen in his several tangled affairs with women, in his numerous mechanical gadgets and inventions, in the ingenious architectural details of Monticello, and, like inky grids of order imposed over a disorderly nature, in his compulsively detailed weather records and garden books.

Politically, Meacham argues, echoing Harvard’s Bernard Bailyn, Jefferson was a pragmatic visionary. From the days of the Revolution onward, he had one “defining vision,” one “compelling goal — the survival and success of popular government in America. Jefferson believed the will of an educated, enlightened majority should prevail.” And in pursuit of that vision he sought and wielded power, and misled and improvised in any way he thought might help. The great defender of limited government would, when it served his vision, simply ignore the law. (“The less we say about the constitutional difficulties respecting Louisiana,” he wrote James Madison, “the better.”) The great defender of a free press would, when the attacks on him became too sulfurous, murmur to the governor of Pennsylvania, “I have…long thought that a few prosecutions of the most eminent offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses. Not a general prosecution, for that would look like persecution; but a selected one.” The author of “All men are created equal” owned slaves and almost certainly kept one as his concubine, and kept their children in his house, still slaves. Every chamber in his mind was a separate, closed-off compartment.

As novelists know, character is best revealed in narrative, not description. After a preliminary, throat-clearing summary of his themes, Meacham shifts gears and begins a dramatically paced retelling of Jefferson’s long, astonishingly crowded life. He has new things to say about Jefferson’s youth — the statesman’s lifelong habit of avoiding personal confrontation may have begun when he was a boy living in a friend’s household, disguising his feelings for the sake of peace. His account of Jefferson’s education in Williamsburg is fresh and lively, his portrait of Jefferson’s marriage to Martha Wayles warm and generous. And when, like a whirlwind, the Revolution arrives with its grand Homeric cast of characters, he describes a Jefferson serene and confident in the storms of history, no longer young student and husband but grandly Homeric himself, a Founding Father.

If Meacham underestimates, as I think he does, the dazzling aesthetic shock of Jefferson’s years in Paris after the Revolution — the City of Light, the world’s great center of art and architecture — he does broadminded, even indulgent justice to Jefferson’s personal life there. Maria Cosway, the wife of an English painter, bursts into the widower Jefferson’s sight like a flirtatious comet. There are romantic dinners, daring excursions alone, stolen hours. For her Jefferson shows off like a schoolboy, one day jumping a fence in the Cours la Reine and breaking his right wrist. (The result will be his famous “Dialogue between My Head and My Heart,” written three weeks later with his left hand.) And not long afterward, the fourteen-year-old slave Sally Hemings, the mulatto half sister of Jefferson’s dead wife, arrives from Monticello as the companion to his daughter Polly. Nothing Meacham says about this famous relationship will be new to students — he draws heavily from Annette Gordon-Reed’s definitive scholarship — but his text and notes offer the general reader a remarkably clear and convincing presentation of the facts, perhaps the most mysterious and disturbing of all the locked chambers of Jefferson’s mind.

Meacham’s best pages concern Jefferson in power, first as secretary of state, then as president. It is always a story worth hearing — Jefferson the Virginia democrat braced in a titanic struggle with the New York Federalist Alexander Hamilton for the soul of the Republic, the eternal mighty opposites of our politics eternally at war. “I know of no safe repository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves,” said Jefferson. “Your people, Sir,” Hamilton snapped at him, “is a great beast!”

Meacham, himself a Tennessee-born New Yorker, writes about it all with a journalist’s relish, obviously fascinated by the volleys of pamphlets and editorials, the backbiting, the chicanery, the deals. But this is history usually left out of the textbooks. Many readers will be shocked by the instability of the new nation, the virulence of the political rhetoric Meacham quotes, the constant fear among both people and leaders that their magnificent revolutionary experiment in self-government was at the point of collapse. There is a discouraging contemporary resonance — Federalists tell voters in 1799 that they must choose “GOD — AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT” or “JEFFERSON — AND NO GOD.” The threats of assassination, the accusations of extremism and treachery sound all too familiar. But for Meacham, Jefferson’s pragmatic approach to crisis — most brilliantly seen in his swift action to purchase the Louisiana Territory — Jefferson’s willingness to use power to limit other people’s power, his sense that history is always a war between the few and the many — all this makes him the great transformative leader of the early Republic.

It is a solemn, steadily admiring portrait of a hero. The Hamiltonians in Meacham’s audience may grumble that the tone is too admiring, that Meacham makes Jefferson’s detours into hypocrisy and inconsistency seem less like flaws than inspired realism. And it is true that Meacham’s analytic categories have a certain unexamined abstraction — Jefferson’s need to “control” suggests a much darker dimension of obsession and compulsion; there are other ways besides eighteenth-century politics to explain his need to own and use his slaves. At times one does long for a touch of irony from Meacham’s palette (“One always dined royally,” drawls Gore Vidal’s truly feline Aaron Burr, “at the great democrat’s table.”)
But these are quibbles. Jefferson’s life and character have an enduring fascination. If more — far more — than other men he kept his secrets, even from himself, those chambers of his mind that Meacham opens still throw out a dazzling light.

I am for freedom of religion, [Jefferson wrote a friend in 1799] and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another; for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, against the conduct of their agents. And I am for encouraging the progress of science in all its branches; and not for raising a hue and cry against the sacred name of philosophy…. The first object of my heart is my own country. In that is embarked my family, my fortune, and my own existence.