Joyce Appleby: Review of Jon Meacham's "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power"

Roundup: Books

Joyce Appleby, emerita professor of history at UCLA, is the author of “The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism.”

Thomas Jefferson has not lacked for biographers and editors, or fans and detractors. Even though Jefferson meticulously saved his papers, he was singularly unlucky in his first editors....

...Those biographers born north of the Mason-Dixon line, particularly in Massachusetts, have leavened the loaf of praise, showing less tolerance for the slaveholder who provocatively yoked equality and liberty in the Declaration of Independence. Jon Meacham, a newcomer to the group, hails from the border state of Tennessee, which may account for his appreciative treatment of Jefferson’s life. Meacham, who has written best-selling biographies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”

In “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” Meacham, despite his subtitle, accomplishes something more impressive than dissecting Jefferson’s political skills by explaining his greatness, a different task from chronicling a life, though he does that too — and handsomely. Even though I know quite a lot about Jefferson, I was repeatedly surprised by the fresh information Meacham brings to his work. Surely there is not a significant detail out there, in any pertinent archive, that he has missed....

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