Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Meacham's biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is probably as interesting for what it tells us about ourselves and the age we live in as it is about the life of and times of the much revered founding father. Instead of focusing on the everyday biographical details of a very long and rich life which with current historical information might well have gone beyond even the monumental six volumes of Dumas Malone, Meacham paints with broader strokes. His main concern is with Jefferson's ideas and how he was able to able to implement them even in an atmosphere as patently partisan as our own. Thomas Jefferson's practice of the art of power is nothing less than an object lesson for anyone who would aspire to affect the course of events in a democratic society.
From Meacham's point of view, that Jefferson may not have always lived up to the ideals he professed is less important than what he managed to accomplish. Though he didn't quite manage to practice what he preached about freedom and equality when it came to his own household, what it may speak to his personal shortcomings pales in the context of his political achievement. Certainly Meacham talks about Jefferson's treatment of his own slaves and his relationship with Sally Hemmings and the children he fathered with her. He recognizes they are blots, but argues that they are the flaws of the time. Nonetheless they are blots, and Meacham's argument that it is unfair to judge a man's actions by the standards of our time is at the least problematical.
That Jefferson was willing to relax his scruples about executive power and centralized government when he became the executive in power is less a sign of hypocrisy than a recognition that effective government sometimes requires action at odds with philosophical belief. Centralized power that produced something like the Alien and Sedition Act is bad; centralized power that effected the Louisiana Purchase is good. That the Alien and Sedition Act was a bad idea and the Louisiana Purchase a good one is true enough, but to make a judgment about centralized power based on that truth is to base that judgment upon what are at least by some lights morally questionable grounds. Do the ends justify the means?