The most common image of Thomas Jefferson is the Sage of Monticello, an intellectual and political luminary who rose above the tawdriness of politics in a way that defies gravity. Jefferson himself preferred the reputation he gained during the last decade of his life as the Pen of Liberty, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, founded the secular University of Virginia, and convinced the Virginia legislature to adopt his bill for religious liberty. (If a man’s tombstone is any indication of how he wishes history to assess him, Jefferson’s self-composed epitaph speaks volumes.)
As in all matters Jeffersonian, the reality is far more complex. Few biographers have examined Jefferson’s political career – and a career politician he was. Schooled in roughhouse Virginia politics from the first time he rubbed shoulders with the royal governor during his college days at William and Mary, his career was marked by tactics familiar to anyone in the cockpit of partisan politics today. Jefferson frequently used surrogates to fight his battles on controversial issues, remained silent in the face of criticism (the Sally Hemmings controversy is one famous example of the Sphinx of Monticello at his most mute), and practiced the art of the well-placed contradiction (for example, publicly espousing the “Jeffersonian” ideal of open, limited, constitutional government while secretly negotiating the Louisiana Purchase and then presenting the deal to Congress as fait accompli).
Jon Meacham in his new book Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power spends much-needed time in the political world of Thomas Jefferson, and it is a welcome visit. One always can be cynical about Jefferson, a trend that has marked at least the last 40 years of Jefferson studies that often can be boiled down to a simple statement: Jefferson is an unknowable hypocrite who declared “all men are created equal” while sexually enjoying at least one of his slaves and clinging his entire life to the continuance of slavery as an institution. The questions about Jefferson and slavery are perennial and unavoidable, but Meacham convincingly portrays Jefferson as a man who understood the emerging crop of voters in the new republic as men (remember the times) dedicated to representative government and agrarian opportunity. The book is particularly clear on Jefferson’s role in the growth of what would become the Democratic Party, though Jefferson swore his entire life that he was not the founder of any political party and his efforts to reverse the Federalist agenda of the Washington administration were simply attempts to preserve the republican spirit of the American Revolution and a rejection of monarchial power he believed Alexander Hamilton favored. (Hence, the first name of the first “Democratic Party,” the Jeffersonian Republicans.) Yet, Jefferson’s own words clearly detail his belief that in a free society, differences of opinion will naturally give birth to partisan factions. The agenda the factions pursue is what really matters. As Jefferson once wrote to his friend Henry Lee in 1824:
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.”
Considering 1824 is the year of the first presidential election cycle that recorded the popular vote and the inaugural year of what some American historians still call The Era of the Common Man, Jefferson was a clear-eyed analyst of what would forever mark the landscape of national politics in the United States. From then on, a two-party political system each claiming a vision of liberty that they would present to the people while pursuing the same object, namely what is good for nation, would dominate American national politics. Again, like so many things about Jefferson, the idea is simple but the reality is often monstrously complex. Meacham, however, navigates his way through the thicket.
A brief but thorough review of the book is here. As biographies go, this is a welcome new approach to Jefferson, a man whose obvious flaws still do not drown his lifelong contribution to the growth of government by the people and for the people through the sometimes seamy but always necessary pursuit of power on behalf of the people, not the government.