Book Review: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham ( Hardcover 499 Pages)

Posted: December 28, 2012 in Books

the art of power

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743. He was born a man of privilege, his father Peter was a cartographer, and surveyor, his mother Jane, came from one of the richest families in Virginia.  Jefferson’s life though advantaged also had more than its fair share of pain, at the age of 14, his father died. Undaunted, Jefferson lived in the family estate, Shadwell, and went to college at William and Mary in 1760. By 1765, Jefferson was already immersed in politics, visiting the Virginia House of Burgesses to listen to floor debates on anti-Stamp Act legislation.  By December 15th 1768, at the age of 25, Jefferson was serving  in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and voted to protest the Townsend Acts which raised revenue from the colonies for England.

On New Year’s Day 1772, Jefferson married widow Martha Wayles Skelton, a few years before, he had fallen in love with a married woman, Elizabeth Walker, wife of his friend John, but when he met Martha, known as Patty, he was in love for good.  They shared a passion for music and he wrote her poetry, and they shared a passion for music.  They moved into Jefferson’s mansion, Monticello, and had their first child Patsy in September 1772.  Jefferson had 6 children, only two survived to adulthood, so pain was never far away from even his most triumphant moments.

In 1774, Jefferson wrote a Summary View of The rights of British America, a pamphlet that basically said that Americans were free citizens in Europe, and aspired for the same freedom in America. As revolutionary battles raged around him Jefferson went to the Second Continental Congress in June 1775. At the end of the Second Continental Congress, Jefferson was put in charge of a committee to govern when the Congress was in recess.  There was only one man in the estimation of the founding fathers that could draft the Declaration of Independence. That man was Thomas Jefferson.  He drafted the Declaration in three weeks.  It was adopted by Congress on July 4th.

In 1779, Jefferson beat John Page to become Governor of Virginia, he decided to stay in Virginia, and not become Ambassador to France because of his wife’s failing health.  In 1780, Benedict Arnold sold his services to the British and led an attack on Virginia.  In 1781, Jefferson was too slow in calling out the militia, it enabled Benedict Arnold to stay in Virginia from January to March of 1781.  It wasn’t a military disaster, but it cost Jefferson politically.  His term was almost over in 1781, but even though the Continental Army won the Revolutionary war, by capturing Yorktown, Jefferson thought of himself as a failure. To make his misery complete, Jefferson’s beloved wife, Patty died in 1782.

Jefferson was not out of politics for very long.  He was put on a committee to study the treaty of Paris in 1783, and helped get the treaty ratified by 9 states.  The US was officially a free country.  In 1784, Virginia released some territory between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Jefferson wrote the Ordinance of 1784 as a member of the continental congress, and created the states we now know as Minnesota Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

From 1784 to 1789 Jefferson was ambassador to France.  In 1786, he argued for armed intervention against the Barbary Pirates, but the request was rejected, because of its expense.  In 1786, he also met and fell in love with  Maria Cosway, who was married to artist Richard Cosway.   It is unclear if Jefferson slept with Cosway or not, but a broken wrist probably dissuaded him from doing so.  He did sleep with his wife’s enslaved half-sister Sally  Hemmings, who Jefferson brought to  Paris in 1787.  He had 5 children with Hemmings, one died in childhood.  These flirtations and dalliances hardly got in the way of Jefferson’s job, he negotiated a treaty with the French to make American debt more manageable.  He secretly meets with Lafayette to discuss the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Jefferson consulted with Lafayette on this document shortly after the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.  In 1789, Jefferson was appointed Secretary of State.

The first issue Jefferson faced as Secretary of State in 1790 was another imminent war with the British.  In 1790 James Cook was exploring the Nooka Sound of the Vancouver Islands.  Jefferson was afraid that Britain would draw Spain and France into a wider war on the North American continent, but Spain backed down and nothing came of it.  Jefferson also argued with Hamilton about the federal assumption of debt, and establishing a national bank, but he was outnumbered in the cabinet, by Washington Adams, and Hamilton. So he gave in.  Jefferson’s overarching concern was that the Federalists were turning into monarchists, Hamilton Adams, and even Washington were becoming too comfortable with the idea of a king ruling over America, and he was tired of the daily arguments, so in 1793, Jefferson resigned.

In the intervening years, Jefferson waited in Monticello, and became the leader of the opposition, he and Madison created the Democratic Republican Party in 1791, and by 1795 the Democratic Republicans opposed the Jay Treaty which strengthened economic ties with Britain.  This incensed Jefferson and Madison , who were constantly worried about the designs of England for America, and wary of the Monarchists in America like Hamilton.  The Jay Treaty was adopted narrowly.

The election of 1796 was between Jefferson, and Adams and when the results were announced in February of 1797, Adams won and Jefferson was second.  The custom in those days was that whoever finished second became the vice President, even if he was in the other party.  The point of at this time was the Alien and Sedition Acts.  The Acts were a reaction to the building anti French sentiment and the Quasi Wars between France and the US. The Acts were signed into law in 1798, and Federalist opponents like James Callender and Matthew Lyon were arrested and jailed.  Naturally, the Democratic Republican vice president was outraged,  and naturally saw this as an abuse of executive power.  In February 17, 1801, on the 36th ballot Jefferson won.

Jefferson was busy as President.  In 1801, he pardoned many victims of the Alien and Sedition Acts, including James Callendar, although the government did not pay his fine.  Jefferson used the Navy to get rid some of the Barbary Pirates in 1801, he asked Congress for authority after he had decided to attack them.   In 1802, the Republican-Democrat Congress repealed the Federalist passed Judiciary Act and passed their own Judiciary Act.  The House impeached judge John Pickering and almost impeached judge Samuel Chase, who had criticized the new judiciary act.  Jefferson overall removed about 46% of political appointments.

Jefferson was not only interested in political payback.  On April 30, 1803, Jefferson heard from Robert Livingston, his Ambassador to  France that Napoleon was willing to sell 828,000 acres of Louisiana Territory for about 15 million dollars.  The Jefferson Administration had until October 30, to ratify the treaty, they had to move quickly, because word was coming from France that Napoleon was having second thoughts about the sale, and so the US Senate ratified the treaty, and although Jefferson entertained the idea of a Constitutional amendment for the Louisiana Purchase, he simply did not have any time for such niceties.    At the same time, in 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition was beginning to bear fruit. The explorers sent back elk skins and plant varieties that had never been seen before.

All was not beer and skittles for Jefferson however, on July 11, 1804 his vice president Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel over the governorship of New York.  He tried to escape West but was arrested and tried for treason in 1807.  Even though he was acquitted, his political career was ruined.

Things got worse for Jefferson in  June of 1807 when the HMS Leopard attacked the USS Chesapeake in waters off the Virginia coast,  The populace felt that war was war was justified, but Jefferson felt like an embargo was the best choice, and signed legislation in December 1807 that codified the embargo.  The powers bestowed on Jefferson were astounding.  Nothing could go in or out of the U.S.  The embargo only forestalled the inevitable, the war of 1812, and that would be James Madison’s issue to deal with since he won the election of 1808.

Jefferson lived out the rest of his days, not exactly quietly, in Virginia.  He conceived and designed the University of Virginia.  What made UVa distinctive at the time was that it separated religious and secular studies.  Jefferson was intimately involved with the university hosting dinners for students and faculty until his death on July 4th 1826.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, precisely because it is not a history book, if you want dates of revolutionary war battles, this is not the book for you.  This is a story of a man of privilege’s rise to power, and what he did with that power when he got to the pinnacle of his career. Jefferson could lay claim to a lot of accomplishments, writer of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Secretary of State vice president, then President.  With each accomplishment came tremendous sorrow.  His father died at age 14, his mother died not long after, his wife died, his father-in-law died, and four of his six children never made it to adulthood.

Jefferson was brave in many respects, his belief in the absolute separation of church and state was brave, at a time when men like Adams were using their religion for political gain, Jefferson did not, and he got pilloried for it whenever he ran for office. He was an incredibly resilient politician though, every time he looked like he was out for the count, a few months later, he was back in the game doing something even more impressive.

It is ironic that Jefferson did oppose the Alien and Sedition Acts, when he was Vice President as a power grab by the executive branch, and then turned around and passed the Judiciary Act, and tried to impeach Samuel Chase and did impeach John Pickering through intermediaries in Congress, and finally passed the bill that created a countrywide embargo against Britain.

But he was not power mad, like perhaps Burr was, he was always in the middle of the fight trying to make things better for the people he served. With the Ordinance of 1774, and the Louisiana Purchase, he added greatly to the size and power of the country, not himself.  He made these deals and expanded the country because he was a product of the Enlightenment.  Jefferson was genuinely intellectually curious about nature, science, education, music, and poetry, and so he commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition to find out what was beyond the 13 original colonies.

Jefferson had his principles, but he knew when to compromise.  He opposed federal assumption of debt, and the national bank, but realized he was outnumbered in the fight by Washington, Adams, and Hamilton, so he gave in and lived to fight another day. One principle that he did believe in, and was willing to fight for was his stand against monarchists; he lost a close friend in Adams, and probably the respect of Washington, when he thought they were becoming too monarchical.  He had seen the American and French revolutions up close, he did not want to go back to those days.

On one issue, Jefferson was an absolute coward and hypocrite, and that was slavery.  He didn’t try very hard at any time in his career to stop slavery or even stop its expansion.  What’s even more galling is his treatment of an underage slave named Sally Hemmings, whom he in essence statutorily raped and had five maybe 6 children with.  It is true that he set Hemmings and their children free, but that hardly mitigates what he did to her, and the awful position he put her in.  The whole episode makes my skin crawl.  If he had been a little bolder, and acted on emancipation, instead of taking advantage of a girl in a vulnerable position, think how many lives would have been saved 90 years later.

Jefferson’s moral compass was obviously broken when it came to women.  He fell in love with a woman who was his friend’s wife in college, he fell in love with Maria Cosway, who was also married, and he took advantage of a teenaged slave who couldn’t say no to his advances.  That was by far his worst moral lapse.

But I applaud this book for showing the whole picture, the complete man, warts and all, and letting the reader decide what is important to him or her.

Thomas Jefferson:  The Art of Power.  I declare my love for this book.


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