Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power


Jon Meacham’s book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, focuses on the balance of a practical politician, and those of an inspiring philosopher. He was presented as a man of principle, and given credit for the inspiration of the Declaration of Independence. What seems remarkable is how his sentiments were measured, with no regard to the lack of inclusion in those ideals that women and slaves held. The power and strength of his intellect has not be disputed to this day.

President John F. Kennedy assembled the Nobel Prize winners of his day in a dinner at the white house. His comment in addressing these intellectuals at that dinner is included at the beginning of the book. It declared, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Meacham shows Jefferson as willing to comprise principles when required, and at the same time he was seen as upholding his position in all sincerity. The author praises Jefferson’s talent for this, but the contradiction, or elephant in the room, is the issue of slavery. He was born to a rich father and he was referred to by the author as a “fortunate son”.  He was cared for by slaves from the day he was born. He had a relationship with Sally Hemings, one-time slave and mother of several of Jefferson’s children.  The only slave Jefferson every freed was Sally Hemings and it didn’t happen until after his death.

John Adams was politically an opposite from Jefferson and his comment about Jefferson is also included in the beginning of the book. He said, “A few broad strokes of the brush would paint the portraits of all the early Presidents with this exception- Jefferson could be painted only touch by touch with fine pencil, and the perfection of likeness depended upon the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transparent shadows.

Looking closer at Jefferson’s work the author feels that he left America, and the world, a better place than it had been when he first entered the arena of public life. He was key in putting together the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the creation of the University of Virginia. He loved his home at Monticello and he loved Paris.

Jefferson was shown as a man who sought out the latest art and science accomplishments. He loved to converse with the leaders of his day, as well as with beautiful women on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jefferson died on July 4th,1826.  Six hundred miles away, John Adams, ninety years old, had also died the same day. Both died in their own beds. On his own death bed Adams final words were said to be about his old rival and friend, Thomas Jefferson. Both Adams and Jefferson were felt, at the time of their death, to be remembered mostly for the Revolution of 1776.

Quotes by Thomas Jefferson

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.

Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever. 

When you abandon freedom to achieve security, you lose both and deserve neither.