Great Writing, But Not by the Author of the New Thomas Jefferson Biography

Jon Meacham’s best-selling biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, is at best a solid read, presenting the basic facts of Jefferson’s life competently but with little grace and an almost invisible point of view.  Perhaps I have been spoiled by Robert Caro’s amazing series of books on Lyndon Johnson, four volumes so far that not only make Johnson come to life (his ruthless genius as well as his fascinating contradictions) but also illuminate a whole era in U.S. history, all the while enveloping readers in gloriously rhythmic paragraphs.  It is not fair, perhaps, to compare any biographer to Caro.  Meacham’s book, after all, is just a single volume, so it cannot explore Jefferson in the same depth that Caro portrays Johnson.  Meacham also had the disadvantage of writing about a man who lived a couple hundred years ago, whereas Caro could interview people who knew the subject of his biography firsthand.  In addition, Meacham is a busy man, running a publishing company and appearing on television shows, whereas Caro lives the life of an obsessive, dedicating the better part of his adult life to understanding the ins and outs of Johnson’s life.

Nevertheless, if you are going to write a book about an American president and subtitle it “The Art of Power,” you better expect some Caro comparisons.

As it turns out, however, being compared to Caro is the least of Meacham’s writerly problems.  Because there is another great writer that readers won’t be able to ignore when making their way through Meacham’s book.  That writer, of course, is Thomas Jefferson.

I’m going to give you a sprinkling of Jefferson’s prose in a bit, and follow-up later this week with several other great Jefferson quotes.  But first, a little bit more on Meacham’s book.  I was really disappointed, because in Meacham’s hands, Jefferson rarely comes alive on the page.  Time passes by and suddenly the reader realizes: “Jefferson just became governor of Virginia? Was that something he was trying to accomplish? Which of the arts of power did he employ to reach that position?”  Meacham never provides answers to these kinds of questions.

For the most part, Meacham isn’t a bad writer as much as he is just not a good one.  But there are some awkward attempts to be colorful that capture part of my problems with this book.  For instance, Meacham describes Jefferson’s friend George Wyth as “hawk-nosed” both in the text, as basically the second thing readers learn about Wyth (the importance of said nose being…?) and in the caption accompanying Wyth’s portrait.

A portrait painted in profile.  In case readers would otherwise have missed out on this crucial aspect of Wyth’s character.

Meacham is similarly awkward in describing a distant relative of Jefferson’s, Thomas Randolph: “ambitious, well educated, and black-haired, young Randolph had…”

Black-haired?  That’s the fact we needed at that moment in time, in that position of the sentence?  Strange indeed.

Fortunately, Meacham’s book is sprinkled with Jefferson’s writing. For instance, when discussing whether the newly established United States was so politically and socially unstable that it would disintegrate, Jefferson argued that the American people would fight to maintain their hard-won freedoms:

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.  It is its natural manure.”

Blood and manure: Who would have thought of those words when describing liberty?  Only a bold writer.

I could quote Jefferson all day long.  But now, let me parse one final bit of Jefferson’s eloquence, to show you why I love this man’s writing so much.  Writing about a time in his presidency when he pushed for, and achieved, emergency powers, Jefferson later defended his actions with the following words:

“A strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest.  The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation.”

Whether you agree or disagree with Jefferson on this point, at least he is laying out a rationale for presidential powers.  He goes on to round out his defense with a beaut of a sentence:

“To lose our country to a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.”

What a wonderfully logical mind, again whether you agree with him or not.  He thought in profound terms about the trade-offs inherent in striving for liberty while holding a country together.

And then there was his wonderful use of the word “law” two times in the front of that sentence—a beautiful technique: abide by the law, and lose the law itself.  Powerful stuff.

I only wish more of Jefferson had come through in Meacham’s pages.  Nevertheless, I am now inspired to go find a collection of Jefferson’s writings, to see what other gems I can unearth.

Any of you have a specific book you would recommend?

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