Audiobook Review: Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power

Thomas Jefferson:  The Art Of Power, by John Meacham, read by Edward Herrmann

I must admit that I did not like this book as much as I wanted to.  This book reads like a praise of Jefferson from the point of view of a Hamiltonian.  I’m not saying that I disagree with many of the conclusions the author makes about Jefferson and his surface charm as well as his ferocious and consistent lust for power.  My own thoughts about Jefferson are, as is often the case, somewhat complicated and nuanced [1].  For all of his success as a politician in his public life, Jefferson had some black marks on his record, and the author is not nearly candid enough about them, even though the author is embarrassingly candid about many of the flaws of Jefferson as a slaveowner.  It is hard to believe that a book this awkward and cringy managed to win a Pulitzer Prize.  Surely there had to have been a great many more superior historical books written the same year this one was, without fail.  The author has a lot to say about Jefferson that is worthy of thinking about, so although I did not really like this book, I think it is an important and thorough book about an important man that has a lot to say of contemporary relevance that may surprise many readers.

In terms of its contents, this book takes a pretty expansive look at Jefferson’s life.  The author himself apologies for the book’s length, but it is not too surprising given the author’s ambitions at looking at the love of exercising power and the mistrust of having others in a position to exercise power over him as being a unifying principle of Jefferson’s personal and political life.  This ambition is largely successful, as the author navigates Jefferson’s flirtatiousness with women, his early romantic troubles, his rapid political rise, his frequent cultivation of people of class and intellectual distinction, his aversion to traditional morality and the authority of God, and so on.  Many of the contradictions of Jefferson’s rhetoric can be well understood by the twin poles of Jefferson’s desire to exercise power over others as a husband and father and slaveowner and politician and his immense suspicion of anyone in authority over him, which led him to be a rebel against the authority of Great Britain as well as against the authority of the Federalist regimes of Washington and Adams.  The author diligently pursues this line of research through the writings of Jefferson and through a minute discussion of his activities and behavior throughout his life.  All of this certainly makes it easier to understand Jefferson as a person, but it does not make him very likable, and it makes the author’s fulsome praise of Jefferson for these hypocrisies difficult to appreciate.

I think, at the bottom of it, that my dislike for this book springs from a couple of sources.  For one, I have a very different perspective about power than the author does, and I find a great deal of what the author has to say very off-putting.  The author seems enamored of the tendency of American politicians to seek after the power of office, forgetting the tension between the institutional power that they seek and the liberty of the people that they profess to believe through their dishonest rhetoric.  If Jefferson is full of contradictions, it is because he was an important Founding Father that set a great many contradictions within the American state.  Likewise, the author seems to have a great deal of appreciation for Jefferson’s love of power and control, viewing it as an admirable trait instead of a deeply dangerous one.  It is easy to see how command could come easily to someone who was to the manor born and bred like Jefferson, but having slaveowners as leaders of republics dependent on virtue is a very dangerous thing, as it tends to legitimize the tyranny of slavery and the domination of people over others while denying the illegitimacy of that tyranny because one has viewed oneself as a paragon of being enlightened and rational.  The self-deception that Jefferson possessed, and that the author appears to endorse, is deeply unsettling and unpleasant, and it has a great many implications that still are an important aspect of America’s paradoxical role within the world as a whole.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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