“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