Jill Abramson: Review of Jon Meacham's "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power"

Roundup: Books

Jill Abramson is the executive editor of The Times.

The political biographies most popular in the modern era often tell us less about their subjects than about the moment in which the books themselves are published. John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. But few remember its portraits of Senate lions like Thomas Hart Benton and George Norris. What lingers is its status as a kind of campaign document that set the table for Kennedy’s own rise from the Senate to the presidency. Similarly, “The Age of Jackson,” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s vivid book, published in 1945, the year Franklin D. Roose­velt died, recast the populist Andrew Jackson as the bold progenitor of the New Deal — and also won a Pulitzer. Schlesinger’s multivolume history of the New Deal was called “The Age of Roose­velt” — tightening the link between the two projects and the two presidents.

In our time, presidential historians have been reaching back even further, to the founders, either in search of lessons useful for current debates or to re-examine the characters and leadership of those colossal figures in ways that can help clarify our own preoccupations. Thus, Joseph Ellis (in 1993) and David McCullough (in 2001), reviving John Adams, who had fallen into disrepute (in part because of the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts), depicted him as a farsighted statesman whose conservative instincts could be held up as a counterexample to the destructive passions of the Clinton and Bush years. Some recastings of the founders have been so original or counterintuitive as to alter their current reputations. This happened with “American Sphinx,” Ellis’s study of “the character of Thomas Jefferson,” which argued that the author of the Declaration of Independence and putative father of American democracy was also a scheming and even paranoid anti-monarchist, deficient in both wisdom and judgment, unlike his adversary, the stolid if unromantic Adams. This stinging revisionism was amplified in 2008, with the publication of “The Hemingses of Monticello,” Annette ­Gordon-Reed’s majestic study of Jefferson’s “other” family, his slave mistress and the children Jefferson had with her. The author’s exhaustive research resulted in both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and “gave fresh energy to the image of Jefferson-as-hypocrite,” as Jon Meacham observes in his new book, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.”...

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