January 6, 2013

Book Review: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

It seems appropriate, given my goal of reading more nonfiction this year, to make my first book review post of 2013 a nonfiction one!

Thomas Jefferson was full of contradictions: philosopher and politician, thinker and farmer, writer of the Declaration of Independence and slave owner. Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion, clearly understands what a complicated man Jefferson was. In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Meacham tries neither to lionize nor to denigrate his subject but to present him as a man who sought ultimate good yet was willing to compromise in order to succeed. Fearing a monarchical revival, Jefferson spent decades fighting against a strong central government, which led to the creation of a two-party American political system that endures to this day.

As Meacham points out, although Jefferson hated confrontation, he almost always managed to get his way through his skillful application of intellect and intrigue. From his privileged childhood through his college days in Williamsburg; his governorship of Virginia; his terms as ambassador, secretary of state, vice president and president, Jefferson was always planning and scheming and one step ahead of most of the people around him.

Meacham's deft portrayal of Jefferson's character and personal life lends a humanity to Jefferson that is clear, even 200 years later. Meacham creates a vision of a man who was unmistakably a genius, gifted in the art of power, whose impact upon American history cannot be understated.

I really enjoyed the book, although it made me mad at Jefferson all over again for the hypocrisy of the Sally Hemings affair. I was surprised to learn that Sally Hemings was most likely the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, which makes it even worse. His black children were both the cousins and the half-siblings of his white children, and yet were slaves, because they were 1/4 black. Ugh. 

Rating: 4 out of 5
Should I recommend this to my grandma? If she can handle holding heavy books. It's almost 800 pages.
The cover image is an affiliate link. I originally wrote the main part of this review for Shelf Awareness.

Do you ever get mad at historical figures?