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on 25 May 2017
Deceiving book. Just a collection of gossips, not an history book. I had to read Wikipédia to know the achievements of the presidencies of Adams and Jefferson. More than 50 % of the text is just a collection of says and writs from Jefferson and others. Not worth reading
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 23 November 2012
How many biographies of Thomas Jefferson do we really need? What else is there to say and how many ways are there to say it? I had asked myself the same questions but "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" occupies a niche that I have not found to be filled before.

Author Jon Meacham promises to show us the political genius of Thomas Jefferson, the son who assumed leadership of his family upon the death of his father, the student who learned at the feet of George Wythe, the young Burgess who admired the rhetoric of Patrick Henry and who absorbed the political skills of his seniors, the delegate to the Continental Congress who authored the Declaration of Independence and the initial draft of "TheDeclaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms", the governor who organized Virginia's defenses and fled in disgrace from the raiders of Banastre Tarlton, the husband and father who withdrew to domestic tranquility of the mountaintop until, as a grief stricken widower, he accepted his country's call to diplomatic service in France. It was in France that he came to love his second country even while he watched it descend into the throes of Revolution and Terror. Called home to serve as the first Secretary of State, Jefferson gradually became the leader of the opposition, even to Washington and, as second Vice-President, to the Adams administration. After enduring a bitter campaign and contentious balloting in the House of Representatives he emerged as a President committed to limiting the size and scope of the national government who, never the less, used the Navy he wanted to abolish against North African pirates and bought Louisiana, even though he doubted his constitutional power to do so. Readers are shown a politician who uses allies and editors when are helpful and who cuts his ties when they become liabilities. In retirement we are introduced to the Sage of Monticello who still cares for his country, builds a university for his commonwealth and reconciles with his erstwhile friend and political foe, John Adams. Finally we watch those two molders of America die on the Fiftieth Independence Day. Such is the stuff of which a political genius is made.

We have heard all that before. What is it that Jon Meacham brings to the Jefferson canon that was not there before? I think that it is the way that he presents the Jefferson story. Meacham's prose carriers the reader along as it flows naturally down the river of Jefferson's life. The periodic assessments of Jefferson's actions and legacies provide the reader with opportunities to reflect on just what Jefferson did and accomplished. The seeming absence of an agenda is a welcome contrast to many recent Jefferson books. If this tome has a weakness its willingness to accept as fact matters that remain within the realm of controversy. Throughout the book Meacham writes of the relations between Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the children they had together. It is only in the Notes and Acknowledgments that he concedes that "The 1998 DNA findings and subsequent scholarly reevaluation that established the high likelihood of his sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings." A reader who did not persevere that far would never know that there was any doubt about the relationship.

So what is it that makes this book unique, that makes it worth reading another Jefferson biography? I think that it is the way it makes Jefferson seem real, someone the reader comes to know, to appreciate and admire. This book makes the reader not just a researcher or an observer but a companion, a friend, even an intimate. That is what makes this a unique contribution to the Jefferson lore that any Jefferson fan or historian needs to read.
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on 18 November 2013
I wouldn't have believed that you could have made a life like Jefferson's boring but Meacham has managed.

The sheer banality of the insights on offer is quite startling. I was surprised in what is marketed as a political biography, that a good half of the correspondence quoted seems to be between Jefferson and his family and there is an enormous amount of domestic detail which serves little purpose here.

In fact, the whole narrative is clouded by a great deal of trivia.

In a letter to James Madison about the necessity of the American colonies presenting a united front to the rest of the world, we are also informed of a parenthesis requesting "a hundred or two nuts of the pecan. They would enable me to oblige some characters here whom I should be much gratified to oblige." Such a detail might have been evidence of the great man's ability to wring great returns on tiny but precisely targetted gestures of goodwill but, since we are not informed of the identity of the gentlemen nor the nature of the obligation, and no further reference is made to the matter, we might just as readily conclude that he was seeking to answer an honest inquiry from his gardener.

An author who burdens his reader with irrelevant details might be excused if all the essentials are included but here they are not. We learn that Jefferson was much agitated when the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War could not be ratified for several crucial months because the representatives of only six states were present - too few to ratify the Treaty. Why were the States so slow to act? Were they indifferent to the peace? Did they distrust the new Congress? Were the terms of the treaty not to their liking? Or were they detained by freak weather? You won't learn from this book - all you will learn is that Jefferson constructed an ingenious strategem in case the missing states did not show up, although, in fact, they did show up at the last minute.

And even that might be forgiven if this were a rumbustuous read, with a compelling narrative that carried you through its 800+ pages. But you won't find that here either. Meacham is so concerned with the greatness of his subject that he seems to think wit, verve or style almost impious - resorting time and time again to the trite and the lapidary.

For Meacham, Jefferson was never a teenager, or even nineteen years old. He must be "a man of not yet twenty". And when he buys a copying machine, it is because "he wanted to ensure that his role was part of the saga of the age when the time came for the telling of tales and the weaving of history." If you can read nearly a thousand pages of that sort of guff then you're made of sterner stuff than I am. I gave up after a little over 200.

There must be a thousand biographies of Jefferson. If this is the best one in print I'll eat my hat.
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on 29 August 2014
This is an interesting book. The author points out that there've been a number of very good books about the founding fathers in the last few years. He also points out that those books tend to paint the more instinctively Federalist/pro-English elements (i.e. Washington, Adams, and Hamilton) in a particularly good light, while being negative about the more Republican/Francophile revolutionaries (a category that contains Jefferson). I'd probably agree with him.

I guess you could say that this book tries to address this issue. It looks at Jefferson's leadership style (which could be described as more intellectual (and involving more backroom politics)). The problem was I didn't much like Jefferson before I read the book (I've read a bunch of those pro-federalist biographies), and I didn't much like him after I finished the book either. I mean I can see he was successful (his party was in power for 32 of the 36 years that started with his presidency, and as a result, he defined America, but.... the book still didn't endear him, or his politics to me. I just found his tendency to equate federalism with monarchism too hard to believe.
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on 16 January 2013
Considering that Jefferson's life and interests spanned so many years, this book is a marvellous synthesis of the important points. I had no idea that it took 50 years to embed the Constitution; that a lot of Americans wanted an elected President-for-life and a strong government that controlled from the centre not unlike the English system. Hamilton didn't trust the people. Jefferson did and he fought for a democracy with control from the States. All very interesting. His private life was also a revelation. Like thousands of people in his time, he wrestled with epic contradictions inexplicable to us. This book has led to further reading.
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on 16 July 2014
Reader be warned, this is a hagiography, not a biography or a history.
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on 5 June 2014
This is an intimate and well-crafted portrait of the emergence of a state through the life of one of its key founders. I found some of the more psychological interpretations of Jefferson's motivations, while thoroughly justified with historical sources, unnecessarily novelistic. That, however, is one of the features that make this a fascinating and enjoyable account of the conjoined development of state and person.
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on 26 November 2015
I thought this was a very good book which gave an excellent overall portrait of Jefferrson, although somewhat biased in favour of the subject.Having just finished a biography of Washington it was interesting to note the strong prejudices of both authors.
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on 21 January 2013
We are brought up on 1776, the war of independence, and George Washington. All worth knowing about. But it didn't end there. Just because the colonies had their independence did not mean they knew what to do with it. For many years the dominant strand of opinion in America was that the president should be a king-like figure (maybe even just a king, full stop).

Jefferson is the chap who put a stop to that. He gave us the American system we more or less still have today. He started a dynasty of like-minded presidents and before very long his views - at first peripheral to the point of eccentricity - became the new norm. And still are. Well worth the read.
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on 2 October 2013
A superb history of the great man that not only examines his political and philosophical achievements but also gives an insight into the personal life of Thomas Jefferson.
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