About MeI am a physician and behavioral scientist. My research and writing explore the quirks in human nature that influence our lives -- the mixture of rational and irrational forces that affect our health, our happiness, and the way our society functions. (more...)
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Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson
“When we reflect how difficult it is to move or inflect the great machine of society, how impossible to advance the notions of a whole people suddenly to ideal right, we see the wisdom of Solon’s remark that no more … Continue reading
“Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” (Click here to view comments)
As we watch the newspaper industry die around us, we should reflect on just how important newspapers have been for American democracy. Thomas Jefferson certainly understood this. “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very … Continue reading
Upon the death of his wife, Thomas Jefferson went into a deep depression. In crushing words, he described his state of mind to his sister-in-law, in a sentence that could be placed in psychiatric manuals next to a definition of … Continue reading
In his youth, Jefferson didn’t lack for confidence except, it seems, when smitten by an attractive girl. One night at a dance, he worked up a bunch of things he could say to a girl named Rebecca who he was … Continue reading
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. Continue reading