American history, biographies, book reviews, Jon Meacham, presidential biographies, Presidents, Thomas Jefferson
“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
Liz Parrott said:
Thanks, this is a very thorough and impartial review. Meacham’s book looks like just what I need to get an adult sense of Jefferson (most of what I read is written for children or YA).
I do think this book is perfect for someone who is (1) flying to Beijing and needs something other than movies to remain entertained for 14 hours, (2) knows a little about Jefferson but wants to dive deeper without getting too serious or (3) has read one of the lengthier biographies but would like an easy and thoughtful bio to read. Probably the right balance of “PhD” and “YA” for most, and reminds me a bit of McCullough’s “Adams” and Chernow’s “Washington”
I just purchased two books on Thomas Jefferson. This one by Meacham and also a much smaller book in The American Presidents Series.
A.J. Caldwell said:
I am kind of torn with how I felt about this book. At first I was frustrated with the biography. Trying to find that fine line of balancing a well researched and documented biography while entertaining the reader must be quite a daunting task–I certainly am nowhere near qualified to do so. However Chernow and McCullough seemed to strike this balance almost perfectly, IMO. As I began reading Meacham’s biography of Jefferson I felt like I was reading a mystery/suspense novel, not a historical biography (which is not necessarily a compliment).
However, once I grew accustomed to the writing style and chose deliberately to not let it affect my enjoyment of the general content, I started to appreciate the subject matter more. Jefferson is certainly a difficult person to understand, and Meacham does an admirable job of trying to diagnose his character. Though not my favorite biography, I would certainly be thrilled if this author had an available biography of a lesser known President (I have been looking ahead at Martin Van Buren specifically, and there seems to be a lack of volumes on him).
After completing the book, though I enjoyed it, I had almost decided to read Brands as my single volume biography of Jackson (after the next three Presidents of course) but after your most recent review of that book I may reconsider Meacham when I reach our seventh President. Looking forward to your review of that book, thanks for the thorough and informative job you do with this blog!
I’ve just finished Meacham’s “American Lion” and my reaction to his biography of Jackson was not unlike your reaction to his “Art of Power.” After reading Remini’s bios on Andrew Jackson I felt each of the other authors on Jackson fell somewhat short.
Funny (timely) you mention Martin Van Buren. As I am typing this reply, I am staring at the two bios of him I’ll be starting shortly, wondering why he lacks attention. During my journey through Jackson I found Van Buren (when well described) astonishingly intriguing, particularly as a political strategist. But there seems to be a risk the MVB bios will prove dry and uninspiring. We’ll see…
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I didn’t like this one at all. Basically ignored everything important in Jefferson’s Presidency, while devoting endless paragraphs to Sally Hemmings. Further, the book is not titled accurately – there were only a couple of passing references to how Jefferson acquired power and used it. 1.5/5 stars
Teacher in Tejas said:
I just finished the book myself and I thought there were some serious gaps, especially in description of the major events of his presidency. The Barbary Wars are barely touched upon and there is not even a listing for the Embargo Act in the index.
Alec Rogers said:
Do not agree re Meacham. His bio was seriously flawed in several ways. More here: http://www.amazon.com/review/R3JXCYS3TQNEWA/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0812979486&channel=detail-glance&nodeID=283155&store=books
I just found your site and am very impressed by it. I’m having a hard time getting into this book. It seems to treat seminal events in Jefferson’s life rather perfunctorily and alternate uneasily between his private and political life. Aside from references to the claim that Jefferson possessed the “art of power” and used it to achieve many of his political ends, this book does not seem to contribute much to the field of Jefferson scholarship.
More than any other biography I think I’ve read, this one by Meacham seems to be a “love it or hate it” bio. In hindsight I agree there was little if anything “new” in his study of Jefferson – and that seems a common problem among most contemporary biographies of long-deceased presidents.
Ryan Anderson said:
It’s definitely a common problem. It’s why I think Ron Chernow waited until after the new and considerably enhanced Washington papers were compiled before he wrote his biography of President #1. There is probably similar reasoning behind his and Ronald White’s upcoming books on Grant.
Just finished this last week on vacation and I agree with your review. I can see where people had problems with Meacham’s habit of talking about Sally Hemmings when the section isn’t about that, but overall I found it a quick, enjoyable read. Definitely along a “beach read.”
It’s not all about U.S. presidents, but I’m halfway through Archie Brown’s The Myth of the Strong Leader. Would highly recommend!
I’ll have to take a look at the book you are currently reading – sounds promising / interesting!
Haven’t read this one yet, its on the pile. I have read Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty and it was quite good.