Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809

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Book: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Author: Jon Meacham

1. Date published- Released in late 2012, Meacham’s book is the most recent biography on Jefferson and maybe the most recent substantial work on any president to date. If one is attempting to emphasize recent works this is ideal. The result is an updated perspective on the life of Jefferson. The most important aspect is that Meacham’s book updates the way we view Jefferson. For example, an overwhelming amount of Jefferson scholars throughout the 20th century slanted toward a southern narrative that seemed to downplay and, in Randall’s case, discount the reality of Jefferson’s slavery life. He did indeed have children with Sally Hemmings and Meacham deftly puts that fact into perspective despite centuries of perspective. Meacham gives an updated take on the Jefferson Presidency especially the 1807 Embargo which has largely escaped criticism in other Jefferson works. There will come a time when Meacham and/or his characterization of Jefferson itself becomes dated but for now it is as fresh and as fair of a perspective as this project can get.

Grade: A

2. Scope- The scope of the work is a quickened yet comprehensive life of Jefferson. It would be exceedingly splitting hairs to point out spots of his life that Meacham did not cover. As compared to the less recent work from Randall, the pre-presidency is given a solid look and recanted at a complete but brisk pace. Perhaps one cannot have a perfect scope of Jefferson as his accomplishments in every aspect of his life could in itself become a thrilling narrative about early America. For a work of slightly over 500 pages, a fifth is dedicated to his presidency, a solid portion of a full life of public service. Particularly interesting is that the two Jefferson biographies in this project lack the scope when it comes to his retirement. Any University of Virginia student could inform you that a biography of Jefferson must include the fitting capstone in his career. In Meacham’s book it tarnishes an otherwise solid scope.

Grade: B-

3. Author-Jon Meacham is a well decorated writer who has multiple credits such as Newsweek, Time Magazine, and Executive Vice President of Random House. He is also a Pulitzer Prize winning author for his biography on Andrew Jackson in 2008. This book characteristically does not show signs of a journalist. This is only his second biography after the well received work on Jackson which will appear later in this project. Meacham has shown again that he can rapidly and thoroughly cover his subject. His admiration for Jefferson is abundantly clear but his overt approval of his actions at times distracts from the objectivity.

Grade: B+

4. Length-At over 500 pages, there is no mistaking that this should be taken as a short biography. There is no aspect of Jefferson’s life that is left uncovered. The length may be deceptive to a reader eager to delve deeply and completely into the rapid events covered in the book. For most US Presidents this work could have been covered in 250-300 pages but Meacham wisely goes the complete route by covering it all. The work never drags and is a quick read for any interested party and never shifts into a wonky extreme or gets too personal. However, you are reminded that the contradictions and seemingly irreconcilable faults of such a great man are not discussed at length.

Grade- B

5. Mission- For most of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Jefferson was the mind and philosophical saint of the American Revolution. Despite being a slaveholder, womanizer (relatively) and otherwise flawed man, Jefferson emerged from history on Mount Rushmore. In the past generation, Jefferson has taken an awful beating and Meacham interestingly blames recent lauding of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton at the inevitable expense of Jefferson. Meacham’s mission then emerges as almost too simple. It is a steering of the ship back to the accomplishments of Jefferson. It is told through the ways he wielded and attained power and how his whole life simmered down to that ideal. The result is a focused and at times narrowed mission to right the ship, admit faults and attempt to pick up a tarnished Jefferson back to greatness. Meacham comes close but the cat is already out of the bag. Adams always feared that history would sweep him under the rug. Now that he is re-emerging it is only works such as Meacham’s that can keep Jefferson on the pedestal.

Grade: B+

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