A Founding Father, philosopher-politician, inventor, farmer, author of the Declaration of Independence, leader in the Enlightenment, university founder – there are many accolades and attributes that can be extolled upon Thomas Jefferson. But as Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Meacham reveals in his upcoming book, the third president of the United States may be our most overexposed and least understood.
In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Meacham, the former editor of Newsweek, has written a magnificent biography that is a thought-provoking and intelligible study of power. We learn from Jefferson lessons that still ring true today: have clarity of purpose (American democracy), believe in the politics of optimism (present hope for tomorrow), and master the art of compromise (be a pragmatic achiever). The book makes a compelling case that we won’t fully understand America if we don’t properly engage Jefferson.
At a fitting time to dive deeper into the brilliance – and the flawed humanity – of one of our greatest presidents, we asked Meacham about his experience researching “the father of the ideal of individual liberty.”
What drew you to the idea of writing about Thomas Jefferson?
Jefferson may well be the most interesting American who’s ever lived, and he is certainly the Founder who charms us most. I thought spending time with him would be fascinating – and I was right!
What makes Jefferson one of the least understood presidents?
He’s the least understood Founder, I think, because we tend to remember him only as a man of ideas, not as a man of political action, which is how he spent 40-odd years of his life. Jefferson the author, Jefferson the architect, Jefferson the educator, are familiar images – not so Jefferson the politician. That’s what my book is about.
Through your research, what did you find to be the most engaging aspect of Jefferson?
I was most struck by his skill as a political figure, as a man who worked in the arena to fight for the survival and success of the American experiment.
What can an understanding of his life teach us in our politics today?
Jefferson was a brilliant practitioner of the art of principled compromise. He knew how to get things done. And Lord knows we need more of that today.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power will be available November 13.