Tennessean, Dec. 14
Thomas Jefferson embodied the best and the worst of human nature, using his intelligence, vision and political skills to help a young democracy steady itself and understand what it could be, biographer Jon Meacham said Thursday.
Jefferson, the nation’s third president, was “the most versatile and most vivid of the founders,” Meacham told about 350 listeners at the Nashville Public Library.
“He speaks to us because he spoke so fundamentally and elementally to us then.”
Meacham, a recent Nashville transplant, is the author of “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” a best-selling book published last month. He said Jefferson possessed a rare one-two political punch: an ability to inspire people with an expansive vision and an understanding of the legislative push and pull necessary to realize it.
“Those are two different skill sets,” Meacham said. “That was his gift. He could articulate an ideal, and he could maneuver to make it real.”
But Jefferson, born into wealth in 18th-century Virginia, was also an “unrepentant and difficult slave owner” who, after numerous failures to abolish slavery, simply gave up on that ambition in 1784, years before reaching the nation’s highest office.
“If you’re me, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t argue that here was the most formidable politician of the early republic … and let him off the hook for stopping these reform efforts,” Meacham said during a nearly 45-minute speech full of humor and references to today’s politics.
He compared President Barack Obama to Jefferson, another “tall, cool, cerebral politician-writer who affected an ambivalence about politics while he was awfully good at it.” Meacham suggested in a recent New York Times piece that Obama follow Jefferson’s lead in his second term by socializing with his political opponents more.
But Jefferson could be vicious with his opponents, too. Meacham recited the barbs Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton delivered in stinging letters to one another even after their boss at the time, President George Washington, wrote that their feud was “harrowing and tearing” the body politic’s “vitals.”
“I know that a lot of you all want to think Karl Rove invented all of this,” Meacham said. “I know Karl wants you to think he invented all this. But he didn’t.”
He said Jefferson, like Obama, was no miracle worker. Jefferson understood that partisanship will always be central to the political system, that “deep division is intrinsic to the American experience because the very point of the country is not to settle arguments but to contain them peaceably,” Meacham said. But he also knew that “the key is to manage … and marshal” that partisanship to achieve political goals.
“We live in a world, we live in a system, where solutions are not ready at hand,” Meacham said. “And it was supposed to be that way.”
While many think of Jefferson in terms of his brilliant mind and diverse interests, from books to architecture to fine food, his political skills left an unmatched legacy, Meacham said. From 1800, when he was first elected president, to 1840, there were just four years when a “Jeffersonian” didn’t occupy the White House.
“He had a rare gift … of being able to project a vision of the ideal in a way that convinces all of us — or enough of us — to take action … because we begin to see it as an investment.”
Meacham, who was born in Chattanooga and went to college at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., moved to Nashville this year with his wife and children. He is executive editor of Random House and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “American Lion,” a biography of Andrew Jackson, as well as other books.
Also appeared in Iowa City Press Citizen & Visalia Times
Contact Michael Cass at 615-259-8838 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tnmetro.