Much to the chagrin of some of my more loyal followers, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. I like the idea of non-fiction, but unfortunately, for me, it is too rarely done really well. I am a storyteller and a lover of stories, reading a book that feels like a textbook, a research paper, or a treatise on someone’s personal opinions (often supported by their own personal interpretation of facts) just doesn’t work for me. In this week’s top ten I talked about 1776 by David McCullough and how I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped. I wanted to be told the story of 1776, I did not want to read a research paper on 1776, and while it was a well-written and well-researched book, it still felt like a research paper to me. Being a fan of Thomas Jefferson (how can you not like a guy who donates 47,000 books to the Library of Congress?), I approached reading this book with some trepidation – I did not want to read a textbook about Jefferson, I wanted to be told his story, and I was not disappointed.
“I cannot live without books.” – Thomas Jefferson
Jon Meacham tells the story of Thomas Jefferson brilliantly; while it is well-researched it is never dry, engrossing you in the world, ideas, and actions of this amazing and complex man. Through his time as a lawyer, author of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia, minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President Jefferson understood the delicate balance between philosophy and politics, that big dreams do not become reality on their own. He knew how to work “the system” to achieve his desired ends, working through both his friends and enemies to achieve his vision for the country.
“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.”
Meacham brings forth the complexity of the man, the conflict that sometimes existed between his actions and the beliefs he expounded. In spite of these beliefs, Jefferson as a politician accepted and understood the realities of the offices he held, mastering the art of power to achieve the ends he desired.
“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.”
As a person, Jefferson was well-educated and well-read, interesting and interested in numerous subjects, congenial and kind, a lover of all things French, devoted to his family, friends, and country. However, Jefferson is certainly not portrayed as flawless, his inability to manage his personal finances, the contradictions between his words and his actions, his hypocrisy on the issue of slavery, are all addressed and show the many sides of this complex and fascinating figure. Regardless of his flaws, he ultimately worked tirelessly to leave the world better. He is a man who I would’ve liked to meet, to share a glass of his French wine, to sit and discuss philosophy and art and science and politics, leaving more enlightened and inspired for my time with him.
Title: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Author: Jon Meacham
Publication: Random House, November 2012