‘Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power’

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of PowerThomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

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.

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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…

via Henry Wiencek Reviews Jon Meachams “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” | New Republic.

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.

via Jon Meacham: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power – Books – Baltimore City Paper.

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…

via ‘Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power,’ by Jon Meacham – NYTimes.com.

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.

The effect might have been pleasing had the book been half the length. As it is, I was compelled to move “Empire of Liberty,” by Gordon S. Wood, up my list of books to read.


Unintended consequences


Remove femur, it said, and send it for examination by the laboratory. No problem, I thought to myself.

via My First Mistake by Simon Winchester – Roundtable | Lapham’s Quarterly.


Word of the Week: Carbuncle

Yes, carbuncle.

I am still reading Daniel Walker Howe’s delightful and much-recommended “What Hath God Wrought,” (Oxford University Press, 2007), taking my time you might say. Or not (it’s 800-some pages). Anyway, I came across this fun bit:

Thomas Jefferson’s warning that large cities would constitute “great sores” on the body politic seemed well on its way to grim fulfillment. The most putrid urban carbuncle of all was the “Five Points” slum neighborhood of Manhattan, overcrowded with poor people from a variety of origins, native born and immigrant, notorious for its filth, disease, gangs, crime, riots, and vice. Charles Dickens, no stranger to urban wretchedness, expressed horror when he visited Five Points. “From every corner as you glance about you in these dark retreats,” he wrote, “some figure crawls as if the judgement hour were near at hand, and every obscure grave were giving up its dead. Where dogs would how to be, women and men and boy slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.” Pages, 530-531.

Carbuncle, as the above passage suggests, is an evocative and versatile word. Webster’s Fourth reminds us that carbuncle can also refer to a type of gemstone, “a smooth, convex, deep-red garnet.” But Mr. Howe’s meaning, which is an especially popular, if nauseating, employment of the word, recalls the clinical context, i.e. “a painful bacterial infection (esp. Staphylococcus aureus) deep beneath the skin, having a network of pus-filled boils.”

It is an old word, with both meanings having a lot of currency dating to the 11th century, if the O.E.D. can be believed. Going back that far, the word might not refer to just a precious stone but “a mythical gem said to give out light in the dark.” Which led to its use in heraldry, as in this from the 15th century: “His sheeld was al of gold so reed And ther Inne was a bores heed A Charbocle by his side.”

So you end up with the curiosity that carbuncle can both be something marvelous and something malignant. My advice, though, as your attorney, is to never Google “carbuncle.” Some marvels are best left unseen.

Alarming facts about the carbuncle, medically speaking:

  • They can appear anywhere on the body.
  • They can be as big as a golf ball, or bigger.
  • They can be contagious.

Presuming you don’t have one on the back of your neck, or tucked next to your whatsis, you are most likely to come across “carbuncle” in senses similar to Mr. Howe’s assessment of the Five Points, hyperbolic reviews of architecture and the like.

He must be an eminent expert in sculptural art to feel qualified to use the critical terms “monstrous carbuncle” “grotesque attempt” and “general incompetence” to describe such a Romanesque work reflecting Baths heritage, created by Ben Dearnley whose was classically trained in Italy.

via Shame sculpture blocks the view of McDonalds | This is Bath.

But residents were scathing over the plans, calling the development a “concrete carbuncle”, which would “do nothing” for the approach to Salisbury.

via Hotel plans slammed as concrete carbuncle From Salisbury Journal.

“A carbuncle of industrial ugliness — some have called it — but others, myself included, prefer to think of it as a cornucopia of earthly and sometimes unearthly delights.

via Michael Sheens impassioned Richard Burton speech was finest display of Welsh pride – Features – Essential Wales – WalesOnline.

I should go easy with the accusations of hyperbole. It must be something of an accepted term. There is, in architecture circles, a thing called the Carbuncle Cup:

One, Strata SE1, won the Carbuncle Cup for worst building of the year. Are these towers dynamic signs of economic vitality, or tired gestures of developers, architects and politicans egos?

via Architecture: Debate the race for the sky | Art and design | The Observer.

Some combine the aspect of blight with the aspect for physical pain.

Fukushima Daiichi plant sits like a carbuncle on Japans northeast coast 240 km 150 miles from Tokyo. Its damaged reactors still seep radiation, although at a rate of 10 million Becquerel per hour for cesium versus about 800 trillion right after the disaster.

via Insight: Japans Long War to shut down Fukushima | Reuters.

Some seemed to include the word only for its funny sound.

It was around then, of course, that the authorities insisted on introducing that monstrous carbuncle on the grand old game, the epitome of gimmickry flim-flam, a third stump. It’s all been downhill ever since.

via The Spin | Are we living in a golden age of cricket writing? | Andy Bull | Sport | guardian.co.uk.

And you also get breathless political commentary, like this from Bill Moyers, who I can’t believe is still alive, and who fairly frothed at the mouth when he wrote:

The United States Senate — known as “the worlds greatest deliberative body” when I had a summer job there almost 60 years ago — is now a carbuncle on the body politic. A charnel house where legislation putrefies. And where grown men and women are zombified by a process no respectable witch doctor would emulate for fear of a malpractice suit.

via Bill Moyers: WATCH: End the Silent Filibuster.

I was thinking Mr. Moyers would be old enough to remember that the so-called “greatest deliberative body” blithely enforced a gag rule on antislavery petitions for decades before the Civil War. But I was mistaken. (Sorry.)