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The Storyteller—Thomas Jefferson’s Political Calculations

THE SUBTITLE OF Jon Meacham’s massive new life of Thomas Jefferson promises a probing exploration of how-he-did-it—the ways and means of power politics. Since Jefferson is generally perceived more as a philosopher-king than a Tammany pol, such an examination, coming from a highly regarded biographer and political commentator, should yield fresh insights into the Sphinx. But Meacham has chosen storytelling over analysis, offering up a genial but meandering narrative. There is some meat in the book, but finding it requires dexterity and doggedness—checking the endnotes after every ten pages or so to see what is missing from the passing panorama. Meacham has read the scholarly literature on Jefferson—some of it critical—but doesn’t let enough of this debate intrude on the storytelling, which nearly always puts Jefferson in the best possible light.

Early in the book, Meacham shows that he has fallen under the Jeffersonian spell. Perhaps having George Washington’s formative, rough-and-tumble early years in mind, Meacham seeks to give Jefferson some backwoods cred and tells a story of a hunt that was set down by Jefferson’s grandson: “Jefferson learned the importance of endurance and improvisation early, and he learned it the way his father wanted him to: through action, not theory.” To toughen ten-year-old Tom, his father sent him into the woods, “alone, with a gun,” Meacham writes. “The assignment—the expectation—was that he was to come home with evidence that he could survive on his own in the wild.” The little deerstalker doesn’t do well, but “he soldiered on until his luck finally changed.” And here the episode slides into farce. Young Jefferson finds a wild turkey already caught in a trap—“he tied it with his garter to a tree, shot it, and carried it home in triumph.” Not exactly the infant Hercules strangling the serpents, but it will do as a test that “foreshadowed much in Jefferson’s life” and illuminates his character: “When stymied, he learned to press forward. Presented with an unexpected opening, he figured out how to take full advantage.”

Savoring victory over a trapped animal does not speak well of a future president; and a reader cannot have much confidence in a biographer who is blind to the ridiculousness of this episode. Similarly, Meacham has a hard time seeing the ugliness in Jefferson’s unsavory (to say the least) sexual advances to Elizabeth Walker, the wife of a close friend. Conceding the obvious, that “it would have been adultery,” Meacham nonetheless offers a rather positive gloss on Jefferson’s attempts to force himself on Mrs. Walker: “Attractive and virile, a powerful and charismatic man, he wanted what he wanted, and he did not give up easily.” In this telling, lechery sounds like just another political campaign.

When the Revolution erupts, Meacham hits his stride, painting a vivid picture of the confusion in the Continental Congress over war policy and the composition of the Declaration of Independence. Meacham gives a clear-eyed account of Jefferson’s inglorious performance as Virginia’s wartime governor, though he cannot resist sprinkling Jefferson with a bit of second-hand martial glory: “To live among those who are following the news of bloodshed in their homes, who have a direct stake in the outcome, is to experience conflict at a more fundamental level.”

But at times Meacham simply hands the book over to Jefferson, allowing the narrative to devolve into a pastiche of quotations from Jefferson’s papers, stitched together chronologically, with Meacham interposing only light, talk-show-level commentary. This is understandable; with so much seductive Jeffersonian prose to quote, Jefferson’s biographers run the risk of becoming little Jeffersons, making his perspective theirs. The problem, as Joanne B. Freeman has pointed out in her reading of Jefferson’s political memoirs, is that Jefferson did not shrink from depicting his “personal perspective as objective history.”

In his notes, Meacham concedes that “a vapor of duplicity,” as Charles Francis Adams wrote, beclouds this founder. But Meacham hastens to reassure us that Jefferson would never tell a lie. If his language seemed to deceive, the deception must be in the ear of the listener: “He hated arguing face-to-face, preferring to smooth out the rough edges of conversation …” Thus, Jefferson gets a pass for lying to Washington when he sought to deceive the president about his deep involvement in the propaganda wars raging in the newspaper : “Jefferson had been dishonest …preferring to mislead Washington rather than force a confrontation.” This was power politics at its dirtiest—and most fascinating—yet Meacham gives it only cursory attention, perhaps because, as he admits, Jefferson’s financial ties to the propaganda hounds reeked of “the smell of the stables.”

Ironically, the narrative feels weakest when Jefferson is strongest—winning the presidency in the “Revolution of 1800,” sweeping John Adams and his Federalists into the dustbin. This, if anything, seems an occasion for a meditation on the “art of power.” Meacham skillfully paints the background to the deadlocked election of 1800, which had to be decided in the House of Representatives because Jefferson and Aaron Burr split the Electoral College. Meacham poses, and then dodges, the big question: “Did Jefferson strike a deal to win the presidency?” He responds with a weak maybe, adding quotations from Jefferson’s self-serving account and culminating with “Jefferson prevailed.”

But how exactly did he prevail? In the endnotes we find that Sean Wilentz, Joanne B. Freeman, and Ron Chernow have all pointedly asked why the Delaware Federalist elector James Bayard suddenly flip-flopped in Jefferson’s favor. Perhaps unwilling to pin prevarication on Jefferson, Meacham rather too easily blames Bayard for thinking that Jefferson had offered a deal. Reflexively averse to casting any shadow on his subject, Meacham misses the chance to probe the role of deal-making and, yes, duplicity, in presidential politics.

Meacham begins his account of the presidency with Jefferson’s inaugural address and the famous conciliatory remark, “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Calling the speech “a political masterpiece,” he notes its soothing effect on Jefferson’s enemies, including Hamilton. But just a few pages later, it has all fallen apart. We hear Hamilton again savaging Jefferson, and Jefferson privately denouncing the Federalists: “Their leaders are a hospital of incurables … insane persons.” Meacham offers a couple of paragraphs of political analysis, interrupted by asides on Jefferson’s fondness for mockingbirds and his redecoration of the White House, but not nearly enough on how and why everybody had gone back to partisan loathing. More than mockingbirds, this is a topic of great interest in the Obama years.

If any larger picture of Jefferson’s strategy emerges, it is the somewhat trite notion that Jefferson was able to soar while keeping his feet on the ground. Jefferson was idealistic but “he was also realistic.” At one end of the spectrum we have: “he was prepared to do whatever it took to have his way.” He “seized control and forced his will on others.” But at the other end: “His political instinct to fight only those battles he believed he could win now took even firmer hold.” Not surprisingly, Jefferson made that retreat from a battle over slavery.

The shadow of the Peculiar Institution looms over this book and, I suspect, is the main reason why Meacham so persistently emphasizes Jefferson’s political “realism” and his refusal to move farther and faster than the law or the public mood allowed. Meacham has no problem with bold presidential moves such as the Louisiana Purchase, which as Meacham admits, was illegal (the Constitution did not provide for its acquisition) and Jefferson’s naval action against the Barbary pirates, which he pursued without Congressional approval (he secured it retroactively). But slavery is always a special case. Slavery was just one of “the complexities of life.” Sally Hemings was not enslaved by Jefferson but by “geography and culture.” When the political issue is slavery, the man who elsewhere seizes control and imposes his will, immediately gives up: “Wounded by the defeats of his progressive efforts on slavery, Jefferson was finally to retreat to a more conventional position.” Meacham does not let Jefferson entirely off the hook, but his rebuke is gentle.

In his conclusion, Meacham admits that there is a big fight going on over this man and what he means to the country: “Jefferson has not had an easy time of it in recent years.” But that’s for other authors, other books. Meacham insists that his book is neutral—it “neither lionizes nor indicts Jefferson.” One regrets that a writer with his skills is so risk-averse, and does not wade into the fray; but Meacham merely shrugs that Jefferson has too many sides: “The real Jefferson was like so many of us: a bundle of contradictions, competing passions, flaws, sins, and virtues that can never be neatly smoothed out into a tidy whole. The closest thing to a constant in his life was his need for power and for control.” That last sentence, coming late in the book, raises a question that might have been taken up earlier: Was a man who so needed power corrupted by his quest for it?

In Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson the scientist obliquely offers advice to his biographers: “To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations”—guidance that Meacham has duly honored. But Jefferson went further: to get at the most elusive truths, the object at hand may have to be “submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents.” Jefferson the man is safely beyond such tortures, but his record is fair game. It is not enough to exclaim, as one of his correspondents did, “Thou strange inconsistent man!”

Henry Wiencek is the author, most recently, of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.