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07

"Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power" by Jon Meacham was the 4th book I have read in my quest to read a biography on each president in order, with some detours. Having read and blogged about Chernow's book on Washington, McCullough's book on Adams and Isaacson's bio of Benjamin Franklin, I was not looking forward to reading about Jefferson since the predecessor books did not always paint him in a favorable light. I was pleased, however, to find Meacham's book to be thorough, thought-provoking and, of course, educational. As a friend of mine once said, it's best not to see everyone naked. Nonetheless, I did not look away while Meacham presented a 500-page stripped down Jefferson, as a biographer ought to do. 

We all know about TJ being a slave owner and the accounts of him and Sally Hemmings (who was not only his slave but his deceased wife's half-sister). Rightfully so, such well known and unconfirmed information was not given a lot of ink by Meacham. It feels gossipy and, I suppose, the author had nothing new to add. Where Meacham's book most shined were his passages on TJ's approach to politics, especially TJ's guise of wanting to unite the parties while in reality he was divisive. Meacham tells us in TJ's first inaugural speech he wowed the room in writing (he did not speak in front of congress) by calling for the elimination of partisanship. This from the man who before he became president wrote anonymous articles attacking the Federalists, believing Adams, et al, were truly monarchists eager to bring a king to America, or to actually be The King. Before long, while president, TJ repealed all of the circuit judgeships Adams had put into place near the end of his term. The tit for tat was present at the birth of our country, and so it lives on today.  

In reading this book, and the other biographies, I felt two distinct emotions. First, our founding fathers had the opportunity to set a tone for the country--one of conciliation, freedom and equal rights--but failed to do so without battle (literatively and figuratively). And second, political divide has existed since our founding, from the whigs and tories to the federalists and the democratic-republicans to the present. Meacham's book demonstrates the complicated man that TJ was, and foreshadows the inevitability of the complicated and divisive political atmosphere of our world today. Part of why I wanted to read about all of America's presidents is to try and understand how our country became so fractious. I imagined this would take me at least into the double digits of presidents but I haven't had to search that far. The answer is obvious. It has always been that way. Even (#5) James Monroe's "Era of Good Feelings" did not last. 

Since the formation of our government, even since the first congressional congress which had no power, our country has been steeped in ill-will. Feuding factions bellowed. Land owners versus laborers, the north versus the south, slave holders versus abolitionists, anglophiles verus francophiles, and on and on and on. 

Fake news has always existed. Benjamin Franklin wrote as Silence Dogood to get his articles published. John Adams used the pseudonym Humphrey Ploughgooder to oppose the stamp act. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (#4)  wrote scathing articles against John Adams (#2) and the Federalist Party, and also paid people to do the same. Truth didn't matter, only achieving their objectives did; objectives brought under the auspices of unity but in actuality divided. 

The difference from then until now is communication. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, word spread slowly. As an example, during Monroe's presidency, Andrew Jackson (#7) attacked Spanish forts in Florida unaware a treaty had already been signed as it took months for the treaty to arrive on the president's desk. 

So, I have the answer to my original question. However, I am not going to stop reading. This only taps the surface of my education. Perhaps I will now discover the answer to the bigger question: What can be done to achieve unity? What has worked in the past that can positively shape our future? And so, I read on.

Back to TJ. I hate to honor a slave holder however I would like to end on a positive note. At times, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were the best of friends; Jefferson and Abigail Adams too. Their relationships became fractured for a long period over their political differences. TJ and Adams reunited in their retirements and enjoyed one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- epistolary relationship of all time. That's the side of the man I choose to honor. The one who broke barriers to love an enemy. The philosopher, the book collector, the beautiful writer. The one who had included a provision in the Declaration of Independence calling slavery abominable (yet gave no fight when it was stricken from the document, plus he barely freed any slaves during his lifetime). 

TJ died on July 4, 1826, the same day as Adams. Adams' last words are reported to be, "Thomas Jefferson survives.", unaware his friend had pre-deceased him. 

The greatest sentence ever written was by Thomas Jefferson, with editing assistance from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin (all great writers have great editors): 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." 

Indeed.

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Joanne Lewis Blog