Energy in the Executive: Thomas Jefferson's Transformative Presidency

Jon Meacham concludes his Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power with quotations praising Jefferson from Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and Ronald Reagan.  For Meacham, these were our “finest presidents,” and they looked to Jefferson to ground their own transformational presidencies.  In this, they were in engaged in their own Jeffersonian projects, each “creating a Jefferson that represents the best of the American spirit and the possibilities of politics in an imperfect world” (501).

It is a powerful way to end a biography about a man who lived 200 years ago. What is it about Jefferson (and more so than, say, George Washington or James Madison) that remains so attractive?  Why does Jefferson attract presidents and biographers alike?

There are several possible answers.  One is that Jefferson dominated his age.   Meacham calls Jefferson the “most successful political figure of the first half century of the American republic” (xix). Meacham notes that every president, save one, from 1800 to 1840 ascribed to the label Jeffersonian.  I would add another figure: a quick word search of Gordon Wood’s 2009 Oxford History of the early republic reveals that Jefferson towers over other Americans from 1789-1815—if I remember correctly, Jefferson has twice as many mentions as the next competitor, Washington.  Another possible answer is that Jefferson dominated politics while pretending to be more interested in the world of ideas.  No small part of this is that his writing is always large, always sparkling.  That is not true of his contemporaries—anyone who moves from Jefferson’s letters to Madison’s letters will be disappointed.  Finally, Jefferson seemed to flourish without letting on that there was a tension between bare-knuckle politics and the high-minded search for enlightenment.

Hence Meacham’s subtitle and the justification for his book. Meacham wants to reveal Jefferson as theorist of power to help round out the Jefferson who claimed he wanted to be remembered for the Declaration, the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, and the University of Virginia.  For Meacham, the tombstone instructions were crafty misdirection, aimed at obscuring Jefferson’s lifelong desire to win political office.

Meacham succeeds in writing a very good biography of Jefferson.  Perhaps more than any other American, Jefferson’s political accomplishments defy single volume treatment.  Yet Meacham somehow manages to discuss all the major stages of Jefferson’s political career and the key developments in Jefferson’s private life—from writing the Declaration to founding the University of Virginia, from the loss of his wife to the loss of Maria Cosway.  He even devotes an entire paragraph to listing every known name of Jefferson’s horses.  The strongest part of the narrative is Meacham’s account of Jefferson’s final days.  His description of the grandchildren gathered around Jefferson is touching without being saccharine, as his account of Jefferson’s frequent requests to learn the time in his final hours, seemingly with the intention of making it to the 4th of July.  In an overnight stay at Monticello, Meacham noticed that Jefferson placed his grave where it would it would be the last spot on that side of the mountain to receive the day’s light. Meacham is friendly, but he is not a cheerleader.

Meacham’s biography fails, however, as a study of Jefferson and the art of power.

In one sense, this failure is one of missed opportunity.  Meacham might have given more attention to the way that Jefferson was able to convince others –-often young men — to do his bidding.  As in account of Andrew Jackson, Meacham demonstrates a knack for offering a glimpse of the way Jefferson interacted with the young women in his life.  But he might have found more material for his thesis had he turned to the men. Jefferson was, to use a word that is overused today, a mentor to the young and ambitious and frequently to those sorts, like Meriwether Lewis, who traveled in less than polite company.  No small part of Jefferson’s power derived from the fact that Jefferson was able to get these kinds of men to do things in secret for him.   Aside from these men, there lurks and even larger question.  How did Jefferson manage to make Madison his ally?  Madison was no natural Jeffersonian, yet this alliance lasted five or six decades.  This alliance, between two men but also between two rival approaches to constitutionalism, was central to the Revolution of 1800 and to Jefferson’s political dominance.

But there is a larger failure, and it has to do with Meacham’s inability to provide any meaning for what he means by his subtitle.  Meacham doesn’t explain why Jefferson wanted power and what power meant to him, nor does he explain what was distinctive about Jefferson’s art in pursuing and wielding it.  Meacham tells us in the introduction that Jefferson “hungered for greatness” (xxviii), but he never stops to ask what greatness was for Jefferson (as opposed to say John Adams or John Marshall), or whether Jeffersonian greatness might be incompatible with Jeffersonian equality.  Meacham never mentions that Jefferson was fascinated with Napoleon.

If Meacham does have a thesis with respect to the art of power, it would be that Jefferson knew how to seduce with charm and that he was willing to compromise.  Jefferson was more successful as a “man of action” than as a “man of theory” (392) and more successful as a “practical politician” than as a “moral theorist” (480).  On the Louisiana Purchase, for example, Meacham concludes that it illustrated how Jefferson “believed in . . . . limited government, except when he thought the nation was best served by a more expansive one” (406).   Jefferson’s consistency, then, was only that “he did what it took, within reason, to arrange the world as he wanted it be” (318).  It would seem, then, that Meacham’s Jefferson is the solution for today’s  gridlock: over dinner, Meacham’s Jefferson would steer us away from our fiscal cliff.

But this emphasis on Jefferson the trimmer misses the transformational quality of Jefferson the revolutionary.  Jefferson did compromise, but frequently he compromised to terms that were favorable to his position, because his uncompromising declarations of principle clarified the arguments at stake, attracted support, and pulled the argument his way. When he did compromise, he never yielded the argument from principle. For example, Jefferson gave up on amending the Constitution to authorize the Louisiana Purchase, but he never embraced the broad construction of the Constitution that would have solved the difficulty. Another example is his treatment of religious establishment.   At the recommendation of his advisors, he decided not to publicize his refusal to issue a proclamation of Thanksgiving.  This was a tactical retreat perhaps, or just good politics, but what he did do was assert a few years later that the first amendment required  “a wall of separation” between church and statement, a phrase so perfectly conceived that it eventually changed pulled public opinion to his position.  It would be hard to know, but it could be the case that Jefferson issued more declarations than he negotiated back room deals.

This problem is also illustrated in Meacham’s several statements that Jefferson believed in a strong presidency (504). Meacham never tells what this means, either for Meacham or for Jefferson.  Does it mean persuading Congress to enact the president’s agenda, or does it mean enacting that agenda by way of unilateral power?  Does it mean interpreting Article II of the Constitution broadly, or does it mean interpreting it narrowly and then departing from the Constitution when emergency or opportunity requires it?  Does it mean heeding public opinion, or spurning it?  Does it mean FDR or Dick Cheney? Does it mean embracing Hamiltonian means, or does it mean creating new ones?

With respect to the presidency, at least, it would be wrong to say that Jefferson compromised and accepted Hamilton means to pursue Jeffersonian ends.  Rather, Jefferson fundamentally reconstituted the presidency: he changed the scope and function of the inaugural address, founded the argument for coordinate construction of the Constitution, removed members of the opposite party from office, asserted executive privilege against a subpoena from Chief Justice John Marshall, and more or less created the two term limit (Washington’s decision to retire was a personal one.  Jefferson elevated it into principle. He said the 8 year term, with the opportunity to remove midway, was very close to his preferred position all along, a 7 year term).  Most important, Jefferson saw that executive action – clarified through presidential elections centered around presidential declarations—could provide unity to public opinion in a way that congressional action could not.  That was a theory of the art of power, and it changed democratic politics forever.

To be fair, writing a biography of Jefferson is not easy, and some details have to be left out.   But Meacham’s decision to devote valuable text to details like the flirtatious exchange with Maria Cosway was critical, and, combined, these decisions resulted in a fairly conventional book.  Readers looking for a biography of Jefferson should purchase this one, but readers looking for a study of Jefferson and power will have to wait.