Jon Meacham won and deserved a Pulitzer for his bio of Andrew Jackson. It’s a compelling narrative that takes you inside the head and heart of the man and his times. One comes away from Thomas Jefferson The Art of Power knowing a great deal more about the man and his times, but as for the compelling narrative part, or the journey into the head and heart of the man, this one falls short. Meacham has collected and arranged an impressive array of commentary about Jefferson by his contemporaries–letters, articles, public documents–and from the voluminous writings of the man himself. The chronological sequence is clear, and we get a clear and complete picture of this remarkable man and of the career and country he and his compatriots fashioned. However, the picture is like an inert portrait or a marble statue. Not much flesh and blood to it.
Even the stomach-turning circumstances of his affair with Sally Hemings and the children he fathered by her–as complete an account as I’ve ever heard or read–don’t bring us in actual touch with the man’s feelings (urges?). Meachum tries hard enough. Hemings is sixteen or seventeen when J starts the affair in Paris. She’s his wife’s half-sister, the child of his wife’s father by another slave, given as a wedding present. She’s the same age as his daughter, also with him in Paris. When Sally becomes pregnant, she entertains thoughts of remaining in France, where slavery is illegal and where Jefferson would have been powerless to stop her from walking away. No one apparently knows how he finally persuaded her to return to Virginia. In subsequent years, though she was given some privileges and lighter duties than other slaves (She may have negotiated these while in France.) she remained a slave and continued to pump out children for Jefferson the master, children whom he never acknowledged–nor denied. He simply ignored them. He did provide freedom for a couple in his will–so generous–and they went on to other lives passing as white.
How Meacham avoided bringing alive the juicy lustiness of the man who would do all this and still become the eloquent and brilliant voice of one of the greatest political and intellectual enterprises in human history I don’t know. After reading The American Lion, I felt as if Jackson was sitting beside me and that I’d better be careful what I said. He’d easily best me in an argument, and if I opposed him too vigorously he might bring a cane down on my head. After reading The Art of Power, I felt as if I knew a great deal more about this man on the pedestal, but that he was still up there in his detached, ethereal world, beyond the reach of conversation or argument.
All in all, a sterling effort, but a disappointment. If I hadn’t read the Jackson, maybe I’d feel differently. But I did and I don’t. So there.