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December 06, 2016 Articles

Book Review: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

An adoring portrait of a highly conflicted man.

By Dennis Owens – December 6, 2016

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

By Jon Meacham

Random House


Jon Meacham won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion (2008).

The foundation stone of the study of Thomas Jefferson is the six-volume Jefferson and His Time, by Dumas Malone. Other sources include Merrill Peterson’s massive Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation and Conor Cruise O’Brien’s remarkable The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution. We published a review of O’Brien’s book in the March 1997 issue of the Appellate Practice Journal.


The thrust of O’Brien’s book was this: Jefferson wrote letters that stated indifference to the killing of innocents in the Reign of Terror. (Thousands were beheaded!) Jefferson wrote that he did not care if France’s population was reduced to one Adam and one Eve. Malone’s foundational book did not address these shocking letters, but merely noted that Jefferson had written some letters that did not reflect the real Jefferson. Subsequent scholarship followed suit in a long affair of adoration of Jefferson. O’Brien’s book should have ended that affair. But it did not. Of O’Brien’s ground-breaking work, Meacham recites in a footnote, “For the case against Jefferson on the French question, see Conor Cruise O’Brien’s [book].” Having mentioned this book, Meacham then ignores it entirely in the body of his text.

Meacham does not try to supply us with a biography. Rather, his book is an adoring portrait of a highly conflicted man.

Much has been made of Jefferson’s headstone inscription: author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and author of the statute for religious liberty—and no mention of his having been president of the United States! But, the reason for this is that Jefferson and most of the country considered his tenure an utter failure. Representatives of the United States bought Louisiana, but Jefferson opposed it as unconstitutional. In response to European interference with our ships at sea, Jefferson imposed the embargo of 1807–09, closing our ports. Our economy was devastated. Jefferson’s popularity took a deep nose-dive. Indeed, Jefferson was undone by his complete ignorance of economics. He was one of our worst presidents. It was shame, not modesty, that caused him not to mention it on his headstone. Meacham misses all of this.

We have always loved Jefferson’s comments while vice president: “My books, my family, my friends, and my farm furnish more than enough to occupy me for the remainder of my life.” The books come first! Of course it was all pious nonsense. He was planning on running for president when he wrote it.

Meacham does an inadequate job of dealing with Jefferson’s many contradictions. The long affair continues.

Keywords: litigation, appellate practice, Thomas Jefferson

Dennis Owens is an appellate attorney in Kansas City, Missouri.

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