Pulitzer-prize winning writer Meacham turns to the story of America’s third president. Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power explores the ways Jefferson wielded power both domestically and politically. As a boy Jefferson learned from his father how to be the master of the plantation, and he attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, which was the center of Virginia politics at the time. After college Jefferson was elected to the House of Burgesses and then became governor of Virginia during the war. But, the book is not just about Jefferson the politician and statesman. Meacham takes the time to explore Jefferson’s domestic life, especially his brief but happy marriage to Martha Jefferson. We see the agony of the couple as they experience the deaths of four of their six children, and then Martha dies after a difficult childbirth. On her deathbed she makes Thomas promise that he will never marry again, and that is a promise he keeps. Thomas was a passionate man, as his various infatuations attest, and the specter of Sally Hemmings haunts the book throughout. Meacham has no doubt that Thomas fathered her children, and he quotes from primary family sources that identify Thomas as their dad. The book is easy to read, despite the weighty topic, and it is divided into parts that correspond with the various episodes of Jefferson’s life. The reader gains insight into the arguments between the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans about the structure of government and the fear that America would adopt a monarchy or some other form of permanent executive leadership. Foreign affairs also occupy a substantial portion of the book, as America was caught in the middle of the ongoing war between England and France. Meacham may well be nominated for another award for this insightful book that brings the Revolution and early days of the Republic to life.
If you enjoy this book, you may want to read “American Scripture: the Making of the Declaration of Independence” by Pauline Maier