Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Published: 2012 | Pages: 800

Though Jon Meacham won his Pulitzer for his biography of Andrew Jackson, this exploration of Thomas Jefferson is far more worthy of that honor. Though it’s far from perfect—Jefferson’s warts should’ve gotten more exposure—it’s a very good narrative of has made the man such an enduring figure in American history. 

As the title suggests, Thomas Jefferson’s life is really a study in power. As a young politician, he helped shape the heritage of his native Virginia in innumerable ways. 

As a middle-aged politician, he wrote the words that would cement his status as an American icon: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Of course, those rights didn’t apply to all people at that time, but the idea for American equality was seeded in that Declaration of Independence. 

As an older politician, he led the nation as president, mentored a couple of young proteges (future presidents Madison and Monroe), and lived a long post-POTUS life. 

Meacham did a good job showing how Jefferson was actually sort of the archetype for American power. He was a man with great intellectual capabilities, everyman sensibilities, and massive blindspots in his moral compass. Haven’t most of the powerful men in our history shared those traits? 

I just wish Meacham has put a little more focus on those blindspots. The omissions aren’t egregious, but I did feel like the Jeffersonian picture I ultimately ended up with wasn’t as full as I’d hoped. 

The story of Jefferson’s life is expertly told and this is a great beginning point for studying the man. If you’re like me, though, you’ll be pulled into more Jeffersonian literature in order to try to figure out the great American enigma.