Sunday, February 3, 2013

Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power by Thomas Meacham (A Pulitzer Prize winning book)

Most of us see the 'founding fathers' as graven stone images - or stiffly portrayed in old paintings. They put together the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with skill, dignity and equanimity.  Right? Wrong. Birthing a nation can involve long & arduous labor. This book presents a view of events as they really happened. There were prickly personalities, feuds, anger and personal animosity - just as we see in politics today.

There were two 'parties' then - as now. These were the Federalists and Republicans. The conservative Federalists leaned toward a reunion with England or a monarchy type of government and the more liberal Republicans toward a freely elected, representative government. Jefferson personified the latter view. It caused breaks with many of his former close friends - John Adams among them. (Adams succeeded George Washington as our second president). 

An extremely controversial act was passed during the presidency of John Adams - the Alien & Sedition Act. It provided for anyone who criticized the president or the government to be liable to fines and imprisonment. It's hard to believe it was signed by Adams. It was clearly a templet for dictatorship. Jefferson rescinded it upon ascending to the presidency and pardoned those who had been imprisoned.

His administration was notable for some outstanding achievements. He quickly seized upon the purchase of Louisiana when the French offered it for sale at a 'bargain' price, roughly doubling the size of the country. He also commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition to the northwest, establishing a claim to that region.

What makes this a good read is the fact that you are drawn into the personal lives of these iconic figures. You see them - warts and all. It was astonishing that so many men of brilliance lived and worked in one time period. 

Jefferson was beset by doubts and lack of confidence - a conflict between modesty and a desire to see his name writ large in history. Jefferson's wife extracted from him a deathbed promise not to marry again. (This wasn't quite as selfish as it sounds - her own mother died when she was two and she was brought up by a succession of stepmothers. Evidently she wanted to protect her own children from a similar situation). He never did marry again but was not celibate. While serving as the country's representative in France, he carried on a long standing affair with a married Italian aristocrat and notably fathered several children by his slave, Sally Hemmings.

Jefferson viewed slavery as a vice that should be eliminated - and yet he never freed his own slaves. He did free the children he had with Sally Hemmings when they reached the age of twenty one. After his death, Jefferson's daughter gave Sally a house and she was in effect freed.

 Jefferson lived into his eighties in reasonably good shape with intellect intact. Memorably, both he and John Adams (with whom he had repaired differences later in life) died on July 4th, 1826 - the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.