AMERICA’S third president, Thomas Jefferson, has long been known as the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the most important Founding Fathers.
A new book by Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power, should elevate Jefferson’s standing to a height perhaps comparable to no more than two or three others. (Lincoln? FDR? Make your own call.)
Charlie Crist, former Florida Republican governor, announced on Dec.10 that he was changing parties, becoming a Democrat, after reading Meacham’s book on Jefferson.
Not meaning to read the governor’s mind, but, having just finished the book myself, I can see how he was influenced.
JEFFERSON (1743 -1826) was undoubtedly a genius, interested in science, books, architecture, gardening and other pursuits. He would have been much happier to stay in his mountain-top Virginia mansion, Monticello, than to answer his country’s call.
But just a few years after America had won its independence from Britain, the Federalist Party had elected John Adams president. Jefferson feared the Federalists might evolve into a new monarchy, with a hereditary elite ruling over the majority.
(Jefferson himself was considered a democratic-republican, the modern parties not yet having emerged. He saw America as the pioneer experiment in self-government by lan entire people.)
AUTHOR Jon Meacham had access to voluminous unpublished Jefferson presidential papers and other primary materials that may not have been used by previous biographers.
Most notable is the 1998 DNA tests of descendants of Sally Hemings, the slave who was said by his enemies to be Jefferson’s concubine and mother of several of his children. Of the four who survived into adulthood, Meacham writes that two daughters, Beverly and Harriet, were allowed to leave Monticello in the 1820s and lived as whites.
Sally herself was said to be half white. Jefferson in his lifetime never acknowledged the children he fathered by her, but in his will freed five members of the Hemings family who moved north and lived as whites. One changed his name to Eston Jefferson and lived in Wisconsin.
Although he was opposed to slavery in principle, Jefferson never freed any of his other slaves. They were necessary to maintain his “lifestyle,” a term that probably wasn’t used back then.
ONE OF THE third president’s greatest accomplishments was no doubt his signing of the Louisiana Purchase, which made it possible for the U.S. to become a transcontinental power.
In the epitaph he wrote for himself, though, he listed himself as the writer of the Declaration of Independence and a founder of the University of Virginia—but made no mention of the presidency.
The most poignant passages in this recent book tell of how Jefferson fought to stay alive until July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
By this time the second president, Adams, and Jefferson had reconciled their differences. And Adams, then 90 years old, died on the same day, His last words were said to be, “Jefferson still lives.”
Jon Meacham has produced a book that is hard to put down for anyone interested in how America came to be what it is today.