Book Review Classics- Jon Meacham

Meacham, Jon, Thomas Jefferson; The Art of Power, Random House, New York, 2012.  ISBN 978-0679-64536-8

     Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham is …swept away by the flood of shoddy Jefferson scholarship in his book, Thomas Jefferson; The Art of Power.   Meacham promises a bold new look at Jefferson’s mastery of political power, but his study falls prey to the same flimsy scholarship lesser studies are built upon.  The result fails to show what kind of study Meacham wanted this book to be.

“It was a world of desire and denial…sex between owner and property…The strange intermingling of blood and affection and silence suffused the world of the Forest that Jefferson came to know in 1770…”    Meacham explains how Jefferson learned the proper way of keeping a slave concubine from his Father-in-law John Wayles.   A strange beginning to a study of Jefferson’s political prowess.   But, thus is the state of Jefferson scholarship in 21st century;  political correctness dictates a scholar must reconcile Jefferson the icon, with Jefferson the flawed man- in this case, sex fiend.  Meacham wastes considerable print on the sexual proclivities of our third President, when more effort was needed in the analysis of Jefferson’s troubled Virginia governorship( this period receives a scant 7 pages.)   In the same breath, Meacham gives us the idyllic Jefferson, ” loved his family; he loved Virginia; he loved his nascent nation;”  and the sexual predator “self-evidently an ardent lover…”  Jefferson’s desires kept the women close to him pregnant- vital analysis of the statesman we thought we knew.

Meacham is unsure of the book he intended to write….  A new perspective on Jefferson’s wielding of political power would have been a welcomed edition.  Unfortunately, Meacham wants it both ways; he wants to analyze Jefferson’s diplomacy in France and deduce the likelihood of a sexual encounter with Maria Cosway.  Several passages show commendable  restraint from the author, especially the misunderstood Embargo of 1807 and Jefferson’s failed attempts at abolishing slavery.  If only he had invested more energy in Jefferson’s artistic use of power, rather than pondering whether Sally Hemings resembled Martha Wayles Jefferson.   Studies such as this insure Fawn Brodie’s brand of authoritative conjecture will live on and continue to malign the good name of Thomas Jefferson.  There is a book to be found in Meacham’s efforts, sad it escaped him this time.

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