Jon Meacham likes Thomas Jefferson. He appreciates Jefferson’s brilliance and multiple gifts, even while freely acknowledging his faults.
That helps to make Meacham’s new biography, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” both intensely readable and a well-rounded portrait of the most interesting of the Founding Fathers.
He deals with influences on Jefferson’s political beliefs (Paul de Rapin-Thoyras’ 1723 “History of England,” in which the Constitutional Settlement of 1689-1701 was seen as essential in establishing the rights of the citizenry against monarchial abuses), the sources of his desire for compromise, and with the drives — and sense of entitlement — that led him to push his attentions on his best friend’s wife, and, later, to engage in a long-term relationship with his late wife’s enslaved half sister, Sally Hemings.
Meacham, who will be in St. Louis this week, is a former editor of Newsweek who is now executive editor and executive vice president at Random House. He won the Pulitzer Prize for another presidential biography, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.” His next project, he said, is a more recent head of state: George Herbert Walker Bush.
We spoke by telephone recently about Jefferson, his greatest strengths and his greatest failures.
Q • Some recent Jefferson biographers have exhibited a clear dislike for their subject. Reading “The Art of Power,” I get the sense that you really like him. Would you agree?
A • I do, I do. I don’t see a whole lot of point in spending four years with someone you don’t like. I found him an engaging human being, warts and all — and his warts are as interesting as his virtues.
Q • My sense of Jefferson and the American experiment is that he was the single most necessary part of its success.
A • I think he was essential to it. I think he was the most interesting man, the most versatile figure of the Founding Fathers. He embodied the intelligence, the cultural and the political forces that converged providentially in the founding era.
I do think he was the best politician of that era. I think that’s something you can measure in a way, because no one left a longer-lasting political dynasty than he did. From 1800 to 1840, either he or a self-described Jeffersonian was president.
Q • What do you think was his single greatest failure?
A • He was unable to marshal his unquestioned political skills to address slavery. As a young man, he tried five times and found it too hard. So he did something very uncharacteristic: He gave up. That’s the essential weakness in Jefferson, the essential failing.
It’s not as if Thomas Jefferson was the only person complicit in perpetuating the institution, but he was the only person who was at once a hugely successful political operative and a defender of slavery. That’s a tragedy. He should have tried harder to ameliorate slavery, and he chose not to.
Q • And his greatest strength?
A • He was a master of principled compromise. He always believed in the survival and success of the American experiment, but short of breaking faith with that existential question, he would take the deals he had to take to make it stronger.
Q • Would you consider the Louisiana Purchase Jefferson’s greatest success?
A • Unquestionably. He took advantage of an opportunity and shrewdly managed it. He compromised some core principles of his own in order to make it happen, but he strengthened the country thereby.
Q • What was his greatest failure, other than slavery?
A • (American) relations with Britain. By using the embargo in 1807-1808, he bought time before the War of 1812. Looking back, one wishes he had kept the military a bit stronger. It would not be the last time we would not be prepared for an international conflict.
Q • I found your portrait of his personal life fascinating. I’d often wondered why his wife made him promise never to remarry after her death; it never occurred to me that she was thinking of her own unpleasant experiences with stepmothers. I still think it’s unfortunate.
A • He was clearly a man of enormous appetites and drives. He was a virile and sexually voracious man. That’s pretty clear from the letters and from his whole life. Would he have been happier if he had found the right spouse? Probably so, but it’s understandable that he wanted to keep that pledge.
Q • Was there anything that surprised you in your research?
A • I had not fully reckoned with what a sensuous man he was, what a man of appetites. We tend to think of him as a man who lived in his head. And he wasn’t. He lived in his head and in his heart and in his glands, like all of us. As I learned more, he became much more human, much more accessible, and for me, anyway, much more likable.
I think understanding the vices of a great historical figure is critical to making them illuminating. It’s not an exercise in tearing people down; it’s an exercise in relatability. If someone who was flawed and given to shortcomings could do the great things that he did, then perhaps the rest of us can too.
Q • It seems to me that some historians have delighted in the exercise of tearing Jefferson down, that there’s been some gloating over his relationship with Sally Hemings.
A • I think there are two (basic) caricatures: Jefferson the hypocrite, the author of the Declaration of Independence who owned slaves; and Jefferson the predator in terms of Sally Hemings. I think there are elements of truth in all these caricatures.
At heart, though, my belief is that beneath all the historic constructs, the symposia, the theories, he was a living breathing human being in some of the most tumultuous times the world has ever known. Of course, it didn’t iron out neatly. Life doesn’t iron out neatly. That’s why it’s interesting.
Q • What’s your takeaway from four years of living with Thomas Jefferson?
A • I think that being in conversation with Jefferson is a remarkably fulfilling exercise, because he represents the best of us and the worst of us, and we can see them in him. He’s a distant mirror for us and our own times.
I think that there’s something in engaging with his life that repays our attention. It’s entertaining, it’s a fascinating life, but I hope the folks who read it put it down and see our own politicians and our own culture in a slightly different light, in a slightly more positive light.
Even he dealt with partisanship, even he dealt with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, even he dealt with a hostile press — and yet he managed to govern well. If he did it, perhaps our own leaders can do it as well.