July 28, 2016
Learning from a Presidential Biography
What might an incoming president learn from a biography of Thomas Jefferson? Much indeed.
Study and learn from history. Jefferson didn't come to the American Revolution as a blank slate. He had studied the successes and failures of Britain's seventeenth-century anti-monarchical Cromwell revolution and subsequent restoration of the crown. He studied both the political philosophy and the practical political lessons of the era.
Be willing to set aside political doctrine for the good of the country. Jefferson came into the presidency opposing those who advocated a stronger executive branch of government and especially those who supported a return to monarchy. While he never wavered on the issue of monarchy, he was quite willing to expand executive initiative and powers, notably in his pursuit of the Barbary pirates and the purchase of the Louisiana territory from France.
Jon Meacham's readable biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, offers all this and much more. Meacham also doesn't flinch from exploring epic contradictions in Jefferson. The author of freedom owned hundreds of slaves with one, Sally Hemings, bearing him several children. While he made a few efforts here and there against slavery in his career, when opposition emerged, he easily set those efforts aside.
Also the man who sought to be in charge of his political and physical environment was constantly under the pressure of creditors, much of it due to his own excessive expenditures. Indeed everything he owned, including Monticello, had to be sold on his death to meet his debts.
Why these inconsistencies? Meacham never explicitly identifies that Jefferson was a Southern Patrician. He was raised as defacto Southern aristocracy in Virginia and imbued deeply the culture of superiority over others layered with charm and grace. From this emerged both his overbearing debt (to sustain his class standing) and acceptance of slavery.
A couple other quibbles: Several times Meacham builds up to some key event but never fully resolves it. After pages of discussing Jefferson's courtships, Meacham skips over the wedding which we don't learn the date of until his wife dies. Likewise we never exactly learn how the efforts against the Barbary pirates were settled. Finally, not Meacham's fault, after gentle use of my trade paperback edition, pages began to fall out.
Is history worthwhile? The cost of ignoring it is great. As Steve Turner says, "History repeats itself. Has to. No-one listens."