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?
That he was willing to make use of scurrilous attacks on his erstwhile friends in a political campaign, that he died mired in debt–these may be character flaws, but they are human flaws and let he who is without sin start casting. Great heroes, political and otherwise, are no less subject to the failures of the rest of us, and to dwell on those failures is to demand of them a standard impossible to meet. History is filled with the accomplishments of fallible human beings.
Indeed, Jefferson’s greatness, as Meacham concludes, is precisely because of his own fallibility.
“We sense his greatness because we know that perfection in politics is not possible but that Jefferson passed the fundamental test of leadership: Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and dreams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the arena of public life.”
At a time when the current political atmosphere seems as contentious as it was back in Jefferson’s day, there would seem to be a lesson for today’s politicians in Jefferson’s perfection of the art of power. Speak eloquently of the ideals, and do what needs to be done to govern practically. It is the lesson of Jefferson, the lesson of Lincoln, the lesson of FDR.