My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Light and breezy; e.g., the Declaration of Independence flits past like a plastic sack on a Brooklyn sidewalk.
Mr. Meachem’s book is pretty good, I’d say.
Though, for me, the prevailing feeling is one of his sketching out the broad strokes of an idea without ever filling in the details.
Mr. Meachem marshals an impressive, and occasionally oppressive, array of facts and has a gossip’s eye for interesting excerpts from myriad letters and pamphlets. All these make for good, if monotonous, reading, and through this march of information Mr. Meachem ably impresses upon the reader his theme, namely that Jefferson was an adroit manipulator of the levers of power.
But at times Meacham simply hands the book over to Jefferson, allowing the narrative to devolve into a pastiche of quotations…
Other qualities shine through more brightly, if you ask me. For one, Jefferson was charismatic and quick to make people feel at ease. He seemed to know exactly what to say to strangers. The book fairly overflows from glowing recollections of a first meeting with Jefferson, and even his enemies, Alexander Hamilton for one, allow that Jefferson, at least, “has character.”
Jefferson, too, was loyal to his friends. This combined with his charisma to make him a gifted politician, or at least one of the first American ones. It is not for nothing that the Democratic party mythologizes its origins in Jefferson’s handshakes.
Another quality was his vigor. Mr. Meachem describes Jefferson as a strapping outdoorsman who was romping in the countryside on his horse into his 80s. Apparently the folks who cast “Jefferson in Paris” didn’t agree (Nick Nolte?!), but the evidence seems to be on Mr. Meachem’s side.
Perhaps the most enduring aspect, certainly the most titillating, is that Jefferson was possessed with an overactive libido. (Those long horse rides probably were necessary.) Mr. Meachem records an interesting quote from a letter in which Jefferson early in life seems to be expressing gratitude for prostitutes, female slaves or both. Jefferson also aggressively pursued the wife of at least one good friend, for years, and without any reciprocation whatsoever.
His wife was basically pregnant the whole time they were married, about 10 years, and you can say without too much controversy that it was pregnancy that killed her. Jefferson never married again, but did have a yearslong relationship with at least one slave, notably Sally Hemings, who was the half-sister of wife. That shiver-inducing fact is both disgusting and descriptive of a persistent, pernicious evil of slavery.
Which, by the way, was one thing Jefferson never managed to exert his supposedly masterly influence over.
A young Jefferson, like seemingly every other figure from the Revolution and early antebellum period, toyed with abolition. But after his first effort was roundly defeated in the Virginia legislature, Jefferson seemed to shrug and say, To heck with it. An odd sentiment considering that, for the rest of his life, he would fret almost daily about the contradiction of a government founded on liberty with an economy rooted in bondage, “a wolf by the ears” as he would famously write.
…the book fails to engage Jefferson as a nuts-and-bolts powerbroker.
So my lasting impression is a charming pragmatist, loyal to his friends, handsome and vigorous — and unable to control his urges. And, really, that’s my dog.
The problem with Mr. Meachem, or perhaps it is his strength, is that he never drills deep enough into the details to make the connections he airily tells you are there. The writing of the Declaration really does blow right past in just a few pages.
One wishes Meacham offered more concrete details about Jefferson’s highest political achievements…
Thumb through and stop, and chances are the words wend together like an introduction. Look closely for the meat of the proposition, and it eludes you. Press further for a conclusion and you run butt up against another introduction.
- How it really happened (news.harvard.edu)
- Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (madamespeed.wordpress.com)