Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon MeachamAuthor of the Declaration of Independence, Virginia state legislator and governor, member of Congress, minister to France, Secretary of State under Washington, Vice President under Adams, and ultimately President himself, Thomas Jefferson was no stranger to power.

This 800-page volume was a good book, but I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t as biographical as I had initially hoped.

Influence

I hadn’t realized how much influence he had on other presidents:

“For thirty-six of the forty years between 1800 and 1840, either Jefferson or a self-described adherent of his served as president of the United States: James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren.32 (John Quincy Adams, a one-term president, was the single exception.) This unofficial and little-noted Jeffersonian dynasty is unmatched in American history.”
—Kindle location 192

Politics

Jefferson and Hamilton were openly opposed to each other’s politics and their disagreements ultimately became the basis of the two major parties at the time. Hamilton wanted a stronger, more centralized government which emphasized trade and commerce, while Jefferson despised those who worked with their heads instead of their hands—he wanted a rural, agrarian society. Thankfully, Hamilton had President Washington’s ear and the country headed that direction rather than remaining a simple farming culture.

Jefferson was a republican through and through:

“The Jefferson of the cabinet, of the vice presidency, and of the presidency can be best understood by recalling that his passion for the people and his regard for republicanism belonged to a man who believed that there were forces afoot—forces visible and invisible, domestic and foreign—that sought to undermine the rights of man by reestablishing the rule of priests and nobles and kings. His opposition to John Adams and to Alexander Hamilton, to the British and to financial speculators, grew out of this fundamental concern.”
—Kindle location 5171

Conclusion

This biography did cover major events in his personal life, but it seemed to shift a bit around the time he became President and began to read more like a philosophical discussion on how his seemingly-contradictory decisions fit into his framework of wielding executive power to fit his purposes.

It’s definitely worth reading and will give you a perspective on how he made decisions, but personally, I would look elsewhere if you are reading just one book about him for a good biography. That said, it does have a 4.5 star rating (with 1464 reviews) on Amazon, so many other people definitely enjoyed it.

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John Adams by David McCullough

John Adams by David McCulloughFinally…back to the actual presidents. John Adams by David MucCullough was my pick for our second president, partly because we owned a copy of the book already, and partly because it’s one of the most-acclaimed biographies of this lesser-known founding father.

I took almost a year to finish this 752-page book. At times it seemed a bit slow, but I did keep getting sidetracked with other unrelated books, so it’s not this volume’s fault.

Overall, it was a good biography; I didn’t feel like McCullough tried to gloss over Adams’ foibles and character deficiencies. It seemed an accurate portrayal of an intelligent, sometimes-cranky politician who was self-aware enough to know that he was too ambitious.

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Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America by Stephen F. Knott

Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged AmericaA slight tangent from my presidential biographies series, this 352-page volume by Stephen F. Knott examines how Washington and Hamilton worked together and ultimately laid the foundation for banking and commercial success of the United States.

Jefferson’s view that the country should remain primarily an agrarian society stood in direct opposition to Hamilton’s dream of a robust national bank and thriving trade. Probably partly due to Hamilton’s service during the Revolutionary War as Washington’s secretary, and partly due to his prolific writing, he usually managed to get his ideas approved.

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

Weak vs. Strong Federal Government

Jefferson, to give him his due, was primarily devoted to liberty, which he believed was best preserved in a simple republic in which the citizenry were truly self-sufficient, and many of Hamilton’s schemes threatened to erode that self-sufficiency. Washington and Hamilton were devoted to liberty but believed that this could be best achieved if Americans thought continentally, moving beyond the parochial and developing more of an attachment to a traditional nation-state.
—Kindle book location 4134

Washington and Hamilton looked at more conventional forms of national power as the surest bulwark of liberty, while Jefferson believed that the character of the citizenry, fostered in an environment of unencumbered liberty, would best protect the American experiment.
—Kindle book location 4140

Results of Washington and Hamilton’s Teamwork

Americans should put aside the caricatured account of their early history that pits the supposed “champions of the people” (Jefferson, Madison, and their party) against the “forces of privilege and authoritarianism” (Washington, Hamilton, and the Federalists). If they do so, they will discover that due to the exertions of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, the American people began to “think continentally” and created a strong union that decades and then centuries later helped defeat fascism and communism, explored the universe, produced endless scientific and technological breakthroughs, and perhaps most importantly abolished slavery and Jim Crow, thereby securing the blessings of liberty for all of their fellow citizens.
—Kindle book location 4251

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Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Washington: A Life by Ron ChernowI’ve started a new personal reading project: I plan to read a major biography about each of the US Presidents.

Obviously, the first is George Washington.

Washington: A Life written by Ron Chernow is a 930-page volume that thoroughly covers Washington’s life. There were a few things that surprised me a bit—they aren’t part of the typical “Founding Father” narrative in general history books or popular knowledge.

Federalist Leanings

One realization was the extent that Washington’s administration ended up leaning toward the Federalist side. He started out trying to limit executive power and stay within the bounds and intent of the Constitution as written, leaving as much power as possible to the states, but eventually realized the need for a stronger Federal government and took more control.

The author previously wrote a major biography on Alexander Hamilton (who was the definition of Federalist), so perhaps he interpreted some of Washington’s actions from that viewpoint, but Washington was heavily influenced by Hamilton.

Second-Term Attacks

Throughout his first term, the majority of the country practically adored their hero. During his second term, however, the press—especially Phillip Freneau (the National Gazette) and Benjamin Franklin Bache (the Aurora)—fiercely criticized him, even questioning his integrity, motivation for power, and military reputation. At least in my experience of popular history, this has largely been forgotten.

Summary

I highly recommend this book as both a good historical biography and as providing insight into Washington’s character and personality.

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