Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable statesman from early in the American Revolution through the American founding to the early decades of the new nation. His lifetime of public service included the Virginia Assembly, the Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, the Confederation Congress, minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice-President, and finally President for two terms. This incredible record places him among the highest ranks of founding fathers.
For a long time, Jefferson has been seen as an idealistic visionary who had a wholly optimistic view of human nature and trusted ordinary Americans to govern themselves as yeoman farmers in his agricultural republic. Moreover, he advocated consistently throughout his life for rights of mankind. Never was Jefferson more idealistic than in his nearly uncritical support for the French Revolution that sought to bring radical French Enlightenment to life. Of course, scholars recognized that the “sage of Monticello” played hard in the rough-and-tumble fierce partisan politics of the 1790s and early 1800s, but our vision of him was deeply rooted in loftier vocations and avocations.
In his recent book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, 2012), journalist and biographer, Jon Meacham, challenges this traditional view of Jefferson. Meacham’s Jefferson is a statesman who was a pragmatist who knew how to wield political power behind the scenes and cut deals to get things done. The author argues: “Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic. To realize his vision, he compromised and improvised . . . . his creative flexibility made him a transformative leader.” Meacham continues to delineate his thesis, stating that, “Broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power.” Jefferson is still the genius sitting atop his mountaintop, but he is also the consummate politician bringing his vision to life.
With a smooth and inviting narrative, Meacham gets much about Jefferson correct. The early chapters narrate the early life in the rising Virginia gentry, his classical education, and his study of the law under George Wythe and the practice of it. Meacham then weaves together the personal life of his subject and the introduction to politics in the milieu of resistance to British tyranny as an eloquent writer proclaiming the rights of man but also witnessing the performance of the great orators who made persuasive speeches and the politicians won people over to their points of view in the taverns of Williamsburg or Philadelphia.
Meacham buys into some fashionable interpretations of the American Revolution, calling it a “rich man’s revolution” and a “shrewd economic choice.” Yet Meacham cannot avoid the fact that, for Jefferson, it was a revolution of ideas and natural rights as he penned some of the most eloquent statements of rights in the American Revolution beginning with the Summary View of the Rights of British America – which he states “moved [Jefferson] toward the front ranks of the cause” – the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms in the Second Continental Congress, and the penultimate statement of rights and self-government in the Declaration of Independence. Whatever Meacham’s strained attempts to paint the latter as a practical document, the three great statements of rights and the purposes of government as well as his silence on the floor of the Continental Congress reveals Jefferson in the traditional way: a philosophical and eloquent writer and statesman rather than a political operator.
The next stage of his life does perhaps even less to prove Meacham’s main contention. Jefferson helped to revise the legal code of Virginia, served as a weak and ineffectual governor who controversially fled from the British, a congressman who achieved little, and then the minister to France who had few concrete achievements besides developing a profound loathing of monarchy and aristocracy as well as contributing to the French declaration of rights once their revolution began. Even his famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was an articulation of a free mind and conscience. Moreover, Jefferson was frustrated and settled for the idea of praying for Patrick Henry’s death while his friend and political ally, James Madison, was responsible for clever maneuvering to nullify Henry’s influence and securing passage of the bill in the assembly. As for his time in France, Meacham labels Jefferson an enlightened “Man of the World,” which hardly supports the idea of a pragmatic politician. Moreover, his letters are filled with idealistic, radical notions that debts, property, laws, and constitutions cannot be transferred to future generations, while infamously praising the spilling of blood in revolutions.
Increasingly, during the 1790s, as Secretary of State in the Washington administration, Jefferson undoubtedly became fiercely partisan as he battled his nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, and helped to create the first political parties despite the universal antipathy towards factions. For Meacham, this period is Jefferson’s most pragmatic by teaching Americans that “in his defense of republicanism – then tactical flexibility can be a virtue.” Here is where Meacham is most wrong on his subject. Jefferson was hardly a pragmatic statesman who engaged in compromise and set aside partisanship as he worked for the common good of the country. Jefferson constantly expressed an unalloyed fear that monarchism was springing up all over the land, complaining to President Washington on numerous occasions and leading to a presidential rebuke that there weren’t more than a handful of monarchists in republican America. Additionally, at times Jefferson acted as little more than a party hack, establishing an anti-administration, partisan newspaper in his office and callously sought to discredit his political opponents personally and politically.
Vice-President Thomas Jefferson was no better as a pragmatic politician as he assiduously worked behind the scenes to oppose President John Adams, most notably with the Kentucky Resolutions arguing for nullification of the Alien and Sedition Acts. His presidency was moreover ideologically democratic but marked with a strong Hamiltonian strain of a powerful executive who acted according to a broad construction of the Constitution, whether in the Louisiana Purchase or the Embargo Act. One might well argue that Jefferson was acting pragmatically but one might also chalk up Jefferson’s exercise of presidential power as an example of his earlier naïveté and idealism that he contradicted once he actually came to the nation’s highest office.
Meacham has written an admirable biography on a grand, enigmatic subject not easily explained. However, his thesis simply is not supported by the evidence. As I read the book, I kept thinking of the incredible statesmanship of James Madison who was indeed the pragmatic, compromising politician of the deliberative Constitutional Convention, Ratification debate, and First Congress that Thomas Jefferson was decidedly not.