On Thomas Jefferson

I recently finished reading Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power – by Pulitzer Prize Winner Jon Meacham.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

He had a defining vision, a compelling goal—the survival and success of popular government in America. Jefferson believed the will of m educated, enlightened majority should prevail. His opponents had less faith in the people, worrying that the broad American public might be unequal to self-government. Jefferson thought that same public was the salvation of liberty, the soul of the nation, and the hope of the republic. In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma. Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic. To realize his vision, he compromised and improvised. The willingness to do what he needed to do in a given moment makes him an elusive historical figure. Yet in the real world, in real time, when he was charged with the safety of the country, his creative flexibility made him a transformative leader. America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromises. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end. Jefferson’s story resonates not least because he embodies an eternal drama: the struggle of the leadership of the nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world. More than any of the other early presidents—more than Washington, more than Adams—Jefferson believed in the possibilities of humanity 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. 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.

Like his father, he believed in the virtues of riding and of walking. holding that a vigorous body helped create a vigorous mind. “Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded,” Jefferson once said…Jefferson was always asking questions. With “the mechanic as well as the man of science,” a descendant recalled, Jefferson learned all he could, “whether it was the construction of a wheel or the anatomy of an extinct species of animals,” and then went home to transcribe what he had heard. He would soon be known as a “walking encyclopedia.”

Jefferson and his fellow American Revolutionaries took the positions they did—positions that led to war in 1776 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776—partly because they saw themselves as Englishmen who were being denied a full share of the benefits of the lessons of English life.

For the colonists, the decision to revolt was not solely economic, but it was surely informed by concerns over money. In Virginia the impetus to rebel came from the propertied elements of society; the middle and lower classes were slower to follow the lead of men such as Jefferson. It was a rich man’s revolution, and Jefferson was a rich man. It was a philosophical revolution, and Jefferson was a philosophical man.

He had the best of editors in private: “self-evident” was Benjamin Franklin’s, In sum, Jefferson’s draft was a political undertaking with a philosophical frame. It was produced in a particular moment by a politician to satisfy particular concerns for a particular complex of audiences: undecided Americans, soldiers in arms, and potential global allies.

Boldness and decisiveness were sometimes virtues in a leader. Having failed to be either bold or decisive during the invasions of Virginia, he gained valuable experience about the price of waiting. At the time, however, he could not have known that one day he would owe something of his presidential success to his failures of 1781.

Like poetry, politics was partly inspiration, but it was, as Izard said and Jefferson knew, a craft that required relentless practice. It was a lesson Jefferson had learned in Williamsburg, and which now served him well an ocean away.

Liberty, he was saying, requires patience, forbearance, and fortitude. Republics were not for the fainthearted. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” he told Madison, “and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

For Jefferson, the images of monarchy swirled. The rhetoric of the American Revolution—Jefferson’s rhetoric, the product of his own pen—seemed fainter in the clatter of a capital that he believed was beginning to feel more like a king’s court than the seat of a republic.

He understood the country was open to—even eager for—a government that seemed less intrusive and overbearing than the one Washington and Adams had created…Jefferson had long cared about two things: American liberty and American strength. For eight years he summoned all the power he believed he required to make America more like what he thought it should be.

The America of Jefferson was neither wholly Federal nor wholly Republican. It was, rather, a marbled blend of the two, confected by a practical man of affairs. The significance of the case of Louisiana in shaping the destinies of the country and in illuminating Jefferson’s political leadership cannot be overstated. He believed, for instance, in a limited government, except when he thought the nation was best served by a more expansive one. It was a moment to savor success.

Slavery was the rare subject where Jefferson’s sense of realism kept him from marshaling his sense of hope in the service of the cause of reform. “There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity,” he wrote in 1814, but that was not true. He was not willing to sacrifice his own way of life, though he characteristically left himself a rhetorical escape by introducing the subjective standard of practicability.

A Decalogue of canons for observation in practical life. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. 2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself 3. Never spend your money before you have it. 4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, and cold. 6. We never repent of having eaten too little. 7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly. 8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened. 9. Take things always by their smooth handle. 10. when angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.

On a beautiful day in Boston, with President Adams in the hall, Webster painted an indelible portrait of Jefferson’s and Adam’s ascent to the American pantheon: “On our fiftieth anniversary, the great day of national jubilee, in the very hour of public rejoicing, in the midst of echoing and re-echoing voices of thanksgiving, while their own names were on all tongues, they took their flight together to the world of spirits.”

Jefferson speaks to us now because he spoke so powerfully and evocatively to us then. His circumstances were particular, yet the general issues that consumed him are constant: liberty and power, rights and responsibilities, the keeping of peace and the waging of war. He was a politician, a public man, in a nation in which politics and public life became—and remain—central. As Jefferson wrote, “Man … feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs not merely at an election, one day in the year, but every day.”

He endures because we can see in him all the varied and wondrous possibilities of the human experience—the thirst for knowledge, the capacity to create, the love of family and of friends, the hunger for accomplishment, the applause of the world, the marshaling of power, the bending of others to one’s own vision. His genius lay in his versatility; his larger political legacy in his leadership of thought and of men.

We sense his greatness because we know that perfection in politics is not possible but that Jefferson passed the fundamental test of leadership: Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and dreams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the arena of public life. Jefferson is the founding president who charms us most. George Washington inspires awe; John Adams respect. With his grace and hospitality his sense of taste and love of beautiful things—of silver and art and architecture and gardening and food and wine—Jefferson is more alive, more convivial.

A highly recommended read on a defining figure of modern history.

 

 

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