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Thomas Jefferson

The Art of Power

Ethan J Covert

AP U.S. History Summer Book Critique
Mr. Brehmer
The Art of Power, written by Jon Meacham, is a biography that reveals who Thomas
Jefferson was as a philosopher, idealist, strategist, and politician. Meacham believes that
because of Jefferson’s remarkable ability to simultaneously master each of these professions, his
life was one of meaning and success. Meacham portrays this idea to his audience by showing the
reader that Jefferson lived a complicated, but fulfilling life. ​Throughout the book, Meacham
consistently backs up this idea. “Broadly put, philosophers think: politicians maneuver.
Jefferson's genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art
of power.” He shows the ways that Jefferson was more than just a politician and how he used his
power to thrive as a leader.

The biography takes us on a journey from 1612, when the Jefferson family immigrated
from England to Virginia, all the way through 1835, when Sally Hemings (one of Jefferson’s
slaves/lovers) died. Over the course of those two hundred and twenty-three years many
important events in our nation’s history occurred including the Revolutionary War, the signing of
the Declaration of Independence, and the ratification of our Constitution. During these years
Jefferson spent the majority of his time in Charlottesville, Virginia where his home Monticello is
located. The biography also takes us to Philadelphia, England, France, and Italy to learn more
about Jefferson’s day to day life.

Jon Meacham was born on May 20, 1969 in Chattanooga, Tennessee is a well known
American writer. Jon attended the University of the South where he graduated summa cum
laude and earned his degree in English Literature. In 1995 Jon landed a job at Newsweek where
he was a writer and later promoted to editor in chief. In 2010 Jon departed from Newsweek
when the company was bought by the Washington Post. Since then, Jon has gone on to be a
contributing editor for time magazine as well as write essays and reviews for the New York
Times and the Washington Post. Jon has also written numerous biographies on former United
States Presidents. In fact, in 2009 Jon won the Pulitzer Prize for American Lion: Andrew
Jackson in the White House.

Jon wrote another very popular book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. He stated in
an interview with The Hill that the reason he wrote a book on Thomas Jefferson was because:
“he’s probably the most endlessly interesting American of all times, and my sense was that there
was not enough appreciation of how he spent the lion’s share of his years, which was as a
working politician who was trying to solve problems in real time by doing what politicians do,
which is building contingent majorities and pressing ahead and cutting deals. And in a climate
that is anti-politician, which is the world we live in, I thought showing one of our greatest
politicians would show, in some sense, that we can redeem politics.”
Although Meacham has good intentions when writing this book it seems that he glosses
over some of Jefferson’s mistakes. Meacham fails to explain that Jefferson being a slave owner
directly violated his principle of liberty. Instead, Meacham suggests that thoughts of abolition
would have been premature and gives Jefferson an easy way out saying that it was common for
rich white males to be waited on by slaves and since Jefferson put slavery under the rug so can
the book. It almost seems like Meacham admires Jefferson as he cites that Jefferson came from
“a very gentle, well-dressed people.” He says that “the first half of the 18th century was a
thrilling time to be young, white, male, wealthy and Virginian.” Jefferson was born in 1743 and
“he was raised to wield power.” Expanding on this “he was born for command. He never knew
anything else.” Meacham also boast about the College of William & Mary, which Jefferson
attended, stating it is “a social swirl that included Virginia’s most charming women and most
prominent men.” Meacham also fails to elaborate on the fact that Jefferson was not as perfect as
he is portrayed to be. Jefferson signed the Embargo act of 1807 which caused the ports of New
England to nearly shut down sparking a regional depression.​ ​All of these prove the bias that
Meacham held towards Jefferson.

I believe that Mecham holds bias when discussing Jefferson’s life, but the same is not
true about the time period. When talking about the events he strictly relies on facts. There does
not appear to be any alterations made. Mecham presents the 19th century as all historians know it
to be.

There is much that can be learned about Thomas Jefferson and his impact on the United
States from The Art of Power. ​Jefferson was an incredible man. Throughout his lifetime,
Jefferson was able to accomplish some amazing things. He was the author of the declaration of
independence, the third president of the United States, and a leading figure in America's early
development.​ During the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), Jefferson served in the
Virginia legislature as well as the Continental Congress and was governor of Virginia. He later
served as U.S. minister to France and U.S. secretary of state, and was vice president under John
Adams. Jefferson funded the Lewis and Clark exploration, and later help found the University of
Virginia. These are all remarkable accomplishments that helped shape the United States into
what is is today.

As I previously mentioned the book takes place from 1612 to 1835, but The Art of Power
was not published until 2012. All the information this book provides is based off of secondary
sources such as letter, journals, etc. When reading a novel that is primarily based off of
secondary sources it requires you to view the text in a different way. Everything that Meacham
writes about is essentially based off of primary sources. One must take this into consideration in
order to allow themselves to fully interpret the text.
There was a lot of valuable information to be learned from The Art of Power, and I feel
as though I gained a great deal of new ideas. Some of the lines really stuck with me such as, “​He
dreamed big but understood that dreams become reality only when their champions are strong
enough and wily enough to bend history to their purposes.” I felt that this quote was an overall
motivating quote. It explains that one must not only realize their dreams, but actively work to
pursue them in order for them to become a reality.

Another line from The Art of Power that I felt was insightful was, “Politicians often talk
too much and listen too little, which can be self-defeating, for in many instances the surer route
to winning a friend is not to convince them that you are right but that you care what they think.”
I think this quote can be very helpful to all politicians, whether they are involved in government
now or they were involved in two hundred years ago. In order for them to be successful they
must began to focus on what others are saying in order to go far.

Personally, I enjoyed reading about Jefferson’s presidential years. I learned that Jefferson
originally tied with Aaron Burr during the 1800 presidential election, so the House of
Representatives had to break the tie. After thirty-six ballots, Jefferson was officially declared
president. One of his major presidential achievements was the Louisiana Purchase, through this
the United States gained land that was previously owned by the French and nearly doubled its
land mass. He was able to negotiate in order to buy the land for four cents an acre, equivalent to
sixty-four cents an acre today. The Tripolitan War also took place during Jefferson’s presidency.
It was started because the Pasha of Tripoli demanded a tribute from American ships going
through their waters. Jefferson was able to end this war in 1805 after the Pasha agreed to a peace.
During Jefferson’s second term, the Embargo Act of 1807 was passed. This act prohibited
exports from the United States. As I mentioned earlier Meacham briefly mentions the act, but
after looking further into the topic I found out that it actually injured the United States more than
it did Britain or France. The law had been passed in retaliation for attacks on US shipping, and
was later repealed in 1809.

After reading about the different accomplishments that Jefferson had throughout his
lifetime, I was interested to learn more about the failures that he had. I researched some of these
ideas further and was able to see that even our founding fathers were not perfect. If it were
possible, I would like to ask mister Jefferson how he was able to balance family life and his
political career. The book states that Jefferson would have to leave his family at Monticello for
months at a time while he conducted business in Philadelphia and numerous other places that
Jefferson’s expertise was needed. Jefferson stated, ““Traveling makes men wiser, but less
happy.” One could only imagine leaving their loved ones for months at a time. What makes this
even more remarkable is that in Jefferson's time period the only communication was by letters
that would take weeks to arrive at the desired destination.
The Art of Power showed me the political genius of Thomas Jefferson which was very
intriguing to me. The way Jefferson formed relationships with his colleagues and maneuvered
his way through politics to get his agenda passed proves just how brilliant Jefferson was.

Prior to reading this book I thought that Thomas Jefferson had no flaws and was a perfect
man. I had never given any thought into that Jefferson, like the rest of us, was human. By
reading The Art of Power, and with the help of a little research, I was able to expand my
knowledge on who Jefferson really was, both good and bad. Common ideas such as that
Jefferson was one of the founding fathers, the author of the constitution, made the Louisiana
Purchase were all reinforced but I was able to go deeper. I found out that Jefferson w​rote The
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, advocated for free public education, served as the first
U.S. Secretary of State, and was involved in various scandals throughout his life.

The Art of Power allowed me to make connections to places I have traveled to in the
recent past. Last summer I traveled to Virginia and got to visit Thomas Jefferson’s home,
Monticello. While I was there I was able to learn more about him and had the opportunity to
actually walk where Jefferson himself walked which I thought was neat experience. This
summer I had the privilege of visiting Philadelphia and Independence Hall which was crazy to
me because I was standing in the same room that Jefferson was in when the Declaration of
Independence was being signed. It was an amazing experience to be able to read a book about
Jefferson and then actually go out into the world and see where these famous events occurred.

Although Thomas Jefferson lived a life full of lessons that we could learn from, I do not
believe this book should be a required reading due to the fact that The Art of Power focuses
solely on Thomas Jefferson. If this were to be made a required reading then each of the founding
fathers would need to have their own required reading as well. We would ultimately end up with
an abundance of required readings. Don't get me wrong, I benefited greatly by reading The Art
of Power, it gave me an in depth look into Thomas Jefferson that I had never seen before. I just
think for a book to be a required reading it should be on more broad of a topic for United States
History. If this were a class that was just on Thomas Jefferson then I would fully recommend
this book to be a required reading.

Overall, The Art of Power taught me an abundance of information about who Thomas
Jefferson was on a public and private level. His actions while he was alive have ultimately
transformed the world that we live in today. The ideas he had about politics and leadership have
given me new perspectives on U.S. government. I enjoyed learning about Thomas Jefferson, and
look forward to gaining more knowledge about United States history this year.