Saturday, September 12, 2015

Book Review: "Thomas Jefferson- The Art of Power" by Jon Meacham

While I have been able to get back into the habit of reading far more than I did in 2013 and 2014 (my list of complete finishes has already exceeded the amount I read in both of these years), I feel that I need to review far more than I have been. Here I am to bring some momentum into Caponomics, which will begin with a review of my historical nonfiction read for this year. I have been a U.S. President buff since I was seven and Thomas Jefferson is the president I feel has fascinated me more than any of the others, which led me to pick this up and enjoy it all the same. Thomas Jefferson- The Art of Power is a book I first approached when doing a paper for a British Colonies & American Revolution class I took while I was at college, but it is rare that I review something I read for class, especially when I am reading it to analyze its content. In this case, I was just looking for the statements that supported my case that Jefferson was "the great American Renaissance man" and that his contributions shaped American culture. I also tend to make the argument that he had what is diagnosed today as Asperger's syndrome and that THIS may have played a great influence, but since this is only explored through statements that are made about his personality (not mentioning Asperger's whatsoever), I will save this for another occasion. Perhaps when I read Diagnosing Jefferson by Norm Ledgin, which is an argument about this idea. Let's get back to this book. It grabbed my attention right from the beginning and gave me an objective taste of who Jefferson was as a political figure, as a founding father, and as a person. I felt that I got a lot out of this and if I already knew the subject matter, this only complimented it.

Jon Meacham points out right away that Jefferson had his many interests. Jefferson was a bibliophile whose collection elevated into the thousands; Jefferson was an inventor who created such devices as the swivel chair and the dumbwaiter; Jefferson loved French culture, which inspired the British inspired direction that was brought about from Federalist leaders such as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and to an extent, George Washington; Jefferson was also a man that would keep track of the weather every morning and evening, while also keeping track of the money he spent, just for the sake of keeping track of it (he died owing so much debt). Jefferson is also described as a man that always had a pursuit to learn new things, which led to him creating the University of Virginia. His intent was to create a university that would provide students with the material that they needed to become as intelligent as they could possibly be, yet not be influenced by their instructors opinions so that they could think critically on their own.

The fact that Thomas Jefferson- The Art of Power points out both Jefferson's successes and his failures is something I deem to be really enlightening, for it should be up to the reader to decide where Jefferson's legacy should stand according to what they believe. His immediate success came when writing the Declaration of Independence that would be the foundation Americans leaned on when breaking away from Great Britain. Just a few years later, he saw little success as the Governor of Virginia. He would be an Ambassador to France until becoming the first Secretary of State during the Washington administration. His friction with the cabinet would lead to what was deemed as "retirement," but this was something he was pulled out of so quickly. What we learn is that as a Democratic-Republican, Jefferson contrasted with the Federalists in the idea that state's rights should outdo a large central government. Historians point out that when Jefferson came into power in 1801, he exercised executive power on a great deal of occasions, most notably during the Louisiana Purchase from France. These bold executive decisions were, however, beneficial in the eyes of the American citizens and were popular enough to the point that Jefferson was elected to a second term. The Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited imports and exports to America proved to be his most controversial decision. While it was meant to make a statement to Britain and France, it hurt Americans just as bad. At the same time, this book brings up the Lewis and Clark expedition, the change in culture that involved more laid back dinners instead of a more traditional, royal ceremony, and the more positive moments in Jefferson's administration. This is the first I learned about his Secretary of the Treasury in Albert Gallatin, who was Swiss-born, but moved to America, and became the longest serving person in this position. Gallatin served into the James Madison administration, Madison himself was Jefferson's Secretary of State and perhaps his greatest protégé.

The Art of Power also gives us an idea of what his family life was like. Growing up was not too troublesome for Jefferson, but he quickly became the "man of the house" after his father, Peter Jefferson, died when he was sixteen. His mother, Jane, died a few months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson's wife, Martha, is also not mentioned on too many occasions, much of which has to do with her early death in 1782 at the age of 33. What I got out of this book was that they were a couple that was meant for one another and had the perfect chemistry. On her death bed, she did not want Jefferson to remarry the way her father did, and with the exception of some affairs, Jefferson lived up to his promise. His most notable affair was with Sally Hemings, who was Martha Jefferson's half-sister. Since Martha's father had a child with one of his slave's, Sally was mixed race, but deemed a slave. Sally Hemings would also be the mother of Thomas Jefferson's children, making it one of the more controversial moments in U.S. History. An interesting story about Hemings and her temptation to stay in France, since she would be emancipated if she did so, led Jefferson to allow her children to be free by the age of twenty-one. This particular book really explores the blurry area that was Jefferson's relationship to his slaves.

I feel that any history buff, especially one that wants to know more about Thomas Jefferson, is going to get a lot out of this book. Every area of Jefferson's life is thoroughly covered and we get an idea of not just those in depth details about those moments that we know most about him, but also those little details that get an idea of what Jefferson was like as a person. In turn, we also get an idea of those other important figures in history during that period of time through their interaction with Jefferson, most notably John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, since his relationship with Adams was clearly wishy-washy, while with Hamilton there was no admiration whatsoever. Meacham does an excellent job conveying these emotions and giving us that very idea as to why Jefferson admired or despised the men he admired or despised. I have read up on Jefferson through multiple U.S. Presidential History collections, but this is the first book I read that was strictly about Thomas Jefferson. It was a convincing way to begin and I strongly suggest that you pick it up.

Verdict: 10/10

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