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Jon Meacham on Jefferson: The Art Of Power

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HH: Jon Meacham is back with us. He is of course the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion, which we talked about four years ago. He has a brand new book out, and it’s a wonderful book. Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power. It’s in bookstores everywhere right now, it’s linked over at Jon Meacham, welcome back, it’s good to have you.

JM: Thanks for having me back.

HH: This is really a magnificent book, and my compliments to you. I did not want to like Jefferson. I’ve never liked Jefferson. I don’t know if you’ve run into that much, but those of us who are self-styled Hamiltonians just prepare not to like him, and yet you’ve made him sympathetic.

JM: Well, I appreciate that. I do run into that. You know, he’s had a rough about 50 years, 40 years, as Hamiltonianism sort of became more respectable after Eisenhower ratified the New Deal in many ways. You know, we have arguments about big government and small government, but it’s really a matter of degree not of kind, as you know. And so Jefferson has had a rough time. Part of it, also, is that there have been so many wonderful books where Jefferson comes off badly.

HH: Yes.

JM: So whether it’s David McCullough or Ron Chernow, and I just thought that someone needs to step in and make at least a modest brief for the old boy.

HH: Well now, I would summarize the case against Jefferson as that he was somewhat paranoid, he was a slave owner, of course. He took advantage of his slaves, as you discuss in detail with Sally Hemmings in the course of the book. He was an anti-anti-federalist in some respects. And there was lots in the indictment, Francophile and Anglophobic, and all the other things. But I begin by saluting you, because what I didn’t know, and I thought I’d read pretty widely, is how deeply acquainted with grief he was. And I will point out to the audience that by the time he was a relatively young man, he’d lost his father young, but he lost not only his mother, but his oldest and closest sister, Jane, his wife, Patty, three children, and his best friend when he was a young man. I mean, he’d lived in a sort of state of constant sorrow.

JM: You know, the scene the weeks after he loses his wife are truly remarkable, because his friends outside Albemarle County were hearing rumors that he was suicidal, that he was so bereft. And you know, as you say, it was a compounding problem. And death was, as we all know, far more common then, and people lost children, they lost spouses. But even with that as an accepted reality, Jefferson, I believe, had far more contact, as you say, with death, and therefore, with tragedy. And part of my argument in this book, and it’s the one thing on which Gordon Wood and I strongly disagree, Gordon Wood, the great historian at Brown, has written that Jefferson had no tragic sensibility whatsoever.

HH: Oh.

JM: I think that’s wrong. I think that he was an optimist, but I think he understood that the world was never going to fully conform to what we wanted it to be. And in that sense, I think he and Hamilton had more in common that perhaps either one of them would have wanted to admit.

HH: Well, long before he becomes president, he has built up a very tough skin. When I was reading the letter that arrived to him in Paris when his daughter, Lucy, died of the whooping cough…

JM: Yeah.

HH: I thought to myself, wow, another hammer blow. But he’s not reduced to despondency at that point.

JM: Well you know what he does is he orders his youngest daughter, Polly, to be brought to him at that point. Patsy is with him, the woman who became known as Martha Jefferson Randolph, and he, by losing yet another child, his reaction was I’d better seize every familial moment I possibly can. And so he begins this immediate, long, complicated correspondence with his relatives in Virginia about how to get young Polly to France. And history is determined in that instance, because the woman, the young teenager who ends up accompanying her is Sally Hemmings.

HH: And it’s a beautiful sequence as well, because she is given over to the care of Abigail Adams when she arrives in London. And I was thinking in that, in terms of their later falling out, how he could have ever fallen out with Abigail Adams after she showed the kindness to his daughter that she did, and very touchingly portrayed. I don’t know how much time you put into the family history here, but that’s the part of Jefferson, I think, that you’ve made accessible to people who read Dumas Malone and some of the other dry political histories that don’t quite get the full fabric of his life.

JM: Well, I appreciate that very much. My goal, and the reason I do this, is I believe that the great figures of the past were men before they were monuments. And the more we can know about them, the more we can appreciate their humanity, their sins, their shortcomings, their flaws, their failings, the result of that appreciation should not be disillusionment with the past and thus, despair. But I find it somewhat inspirations, because if even Thomas Jefferson, with all of the shortcomings that we all know about, and everyone else of his generation, if even he, with all that, could leave the world better off than it was when he found it, then there’s hope for all of us, and there’s hope for the present time as well. And I’m not being homiletic or 4th of Julyish, not that there’s anything wrong that that, but I do think that one of the points of biography, and as Emerson said, there’s properly no history, only biography, one of the points, I think, has to be to remind ourselves that we have been led through storm and strife by flawed individuals who were just as flawed as the leaders of our own time.

HH: And part of the effort of biography, I think it was Leon Edel who said it’s the search for the figure in the carpet. And the figure in the carpet here is extraordinarily complex. And lest anyone thinks that Jon Meacham has papered over Jefferson’s warts, let me say, he comes across as paranoid, as a philanderer, in fact, I’m shocked that he attempted to seduce his very good friend’s wife.

JM: Isn’t that amazing?

HH: Yes.

JM: You know, one of the things, and I don’t mean to interrupt your train of thought, but quickly, one of the things that puzzles me about the centuries, literally, the two centuries of denial about the Jefferson-Hemmings connection, is it’s predicated on this idea that Jefferson was not driven by sexual appetite. What we have, when you do a fair-minded reading of his own letters, of his own account of his own actions, from his very earliest days in Williamsburg at William and Mary, all the way though, trying to seduce the wife of a friend whom he’d been left in charge of when the husband went off to do Indian negotiations, Maria Cosway in France, this was a lusty, appetite-driven man. And the idea that at the age of 40, when his wife died, that suddenly he would just like a switch turn that appetite off, I find to be beyond reason.

HH: No, and I think in recovering that, it makes much more sense of who the individual is. Buried deep in your notes, Jon Meacham, and I read these, Jefferson was a man of appetite who appreciated order, and that ability to carry on a long term liaison with his late wife’s enslaved half-sister under circumstances he could have largely controlled, would have suited him. Now you buried that pretty deep, but I think that’s actually very profound.

JM: Thank you. I think it is. I think that he, what we don’t know about Sally Hemmings is we don’t know what she looked like. We have very few physical descriptions, no images. But we do know this. We know that she was his, Jefferson’s wife’s half-sister. And therefore, either in manner, in physical appearance, in affect, in some ways, she may have reminded him of the woman he loved so much. And the Hemmings family was a highly, this is a seemingly crazily anachronistic thing to say, but in terms of the culture of enslaved people at that time, they were a privileged group at Monticello. The overseers, who were white men, who were employed to run the slaves, it was made very clear to them that the Hemmings were of a different order, that they were beyond the authority of the overseer. They reported directly to the family. And so I think before we cast retrospective moral judgments on people, I think we have to remember this was a very odd world driven by desire and denial, and almost impossible to recover.

HH: I also want to point out, though, if you put Hemmings to the side, he was a hound. He went after married women again and again and again. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen that communicated quite as fully as in Jefferson: The Art Of Power. Are you catching a little criticism from the Jefferson lobby for doing so?

JM: No, you know, I’m not. In fact, the only thing that’s puzzled me, and the book’s been out about eight weeks, I guess, and the only criticism that I found surprising, and I’m having done five or six books of these, so you’re sort of ready for anything, is this idea that somehow or another I let him off the hook on slavery, which I appreciate what you just said a minute ago about no. I think he’s totally complicit and not only indicted before the bar of history, but convicted.

HH: No, I don’t think you let him off.

– – – –

HH: Jon Meacham, there is one reference that I recall from my notes where Andrew Jackson sent Thomas Jefferson a note on the occasion of the Louisiana Purchase, and he was very thrilled. Did they have much communication? Were they friendly at all given that they are your two biographical subjects?

JM: You know, it’s funny, I’m just working on a separate little essay about that. They weren’t particularly close. If you think about white society in the late 18th century, early 19th Century, basically Jackson came from about as low as you could come from, and Jefferson came from about as high as you could come from. And there’s a great deal of class prejudice in Jefferson’s view of Jackson. This is based mostly on a conversation in 1824 with Daniel Webster at Monticello. Now Jefferson, like all politicians, like all people, tended to tell the person he was talking to what he thought they wanted to hear. And Webster was no Jacksonian. But Jefferson did express great concern that Jackson himself had the makings of being an American Bonaparte, which was one of the great fears…

HH: Oh, interesting.

JM: …great fears that Jefferson always had. You mentioned quite rightly that Jefferson was paranoid about the return of the British, and the return of a kind of monarchical rule. But as President Nixon taught us, you know, even paranoids have enemies. And they did come back in 1812.

HH: Talking about that, then, that paranoia, it extended to every aspect of his political life. He always thought that the British were around the corner, that Hamilton was in the next room, and that Washington was about to throw him over. Is that a personality defect? Or is this in the case where the politics of 1774 were justified, that sort of suspicion of people with whom, I mean, Burr turned on him. Burr tried to detach the country.

JM: Burr tried to detach the country. You know, again, I think it’s kind of an easy argument for me to win on this one, because they burned Washington in 1812, or 1814. They did come back. And when you think about it, why on Earth wouldn’t they have tried? I mean, here’s this weird coastal republic that barely won the revolution to begin with. You know, if the fog and the wind had been different in New York, if two or three other things had happened in the revolution, they wouldn’t have lost North America in any event. And so they must have, and they were. They looked at this odd defeat of theirs as something that could be remedied, and they tried. And we won a ratifying victory that ended, actually, next week we celebrate the anniversary, the Battle of New Orleans on January 8th, which was once as important as July 4th, which gives you some sense. I mean, it was known as Andrew Jackson Day. And so Jefferson, I believe, had excessive but not unfounded concerns about the return of a monarchical system to the United States. And he worried that Hamilton was the means by which that could happen. He worried that Washington could be a tool in the hands of Hamilton, somewhat of Adams. He was a little softer on Adams, because he and Adams had come up together so much, and the personal relationship, you mention, though their bitterest fights were over. And when you think about it, let’s put ourselves back in 1798-99. The Alien & Sedition Acts are passed, the president of the United States has the power to deport anyone single-handedly. They’re prosecuting newspaper editors. Now I know most politicians ever since have wanted to do that. But it was a moment where the civil liberties that the white American establishment thought they had won, and successfully both won in 1780-81-82, and then ratified their hold on in 1787, and ’89 with the Constitution, were in jeopardy. And Jefferson worried about that.

HH: And he had right to believe that Hamilton would have brought back a son of the monarch if he could have. Hamilton made the monarchical speech at the Convention, and Madison told him about it. And so there’s reason, but it was in every aspect of his life, as you communicate so well. I also want to tell people a coming impression I did not have previously of Jefferson. He hated confrontation, extremely sensitive to criticism, but unfailingly gracious. And he never contradicted anyone, taking the example of Ben Franklin. Those are aspects that you know, I read a lot of Dumas Malone years ago, I really didn’t capture from the classical biographies.

JM: It’s really interesting. His advice, and he repeats it to his children and his Godchildren and grandchildren, never contradict anyone, because as you say, it has its roots in Benjamin Franklin, because as Jefferson put it, no one’s ever changed their mind because you said they were wrong. And John Adams, who as we all know, if John Adams had it back, he would have written the Declaration of Independence. And he just didn’t think the document was going to be quite as important as it was. He resented the rest of his life that Jefferson had, “turned the Declaration into a theatrical show and run away with all the glory of it.” But even Adams believed that Thomas Jefferson had risen farther and faster as a politician because he did not stand up in legislative assemblies and give speeches telling his opponents they were wrong, because, as Adams put it, no one ever said oh, well, you’re right, you know, of course you’re right and I’m wrong, and I’ll vote your way. What Jefferson did, he was a back room guy.

HH: Right.

JM: He was a boarding house guy. We’ve just seen this, quite powerfully depicted, in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Thomas Jefferson was very much like Lincoln in his capacity to leave no fingerprints as he exerted his political will. And I believe, you know, go to Monticello. Go look at the inventions, look at what he liked to do. What did he like to do? He liked to invent things – dumb waiters, buttons where doors would open, but you couldn’t tell who opened them. Even his inventions were about control at a remove.

HH: I think you did a find job, by the way. I’ve been to Monticello a couple of times, and once got to go up on the second floor because of the intervention of some friends. And you got to spend the night there. It’s the most amazing house in America. It is so full of his genius. Everything reflect it, and in his dying days, as you captured that alcove in which he laid, and how he would…it’s just very, I think you’ll spur sort of a pilgrimage back to Monticello if it’s fallen by the wayside. And Jefferson really has kind of been eclipsed in the last 20 years.

JM: He has, and it’s been, I think going to Monticello is as close as any of us will ever get to having a conversation with Jefferson, because it’s very much, it’s lovingly preserved, the archaeology, the scholarship that goes on at the foundation there is first rate, without peer in presidential sites. They’re very honest, they have done remarkable work. And what you see, and what, you know, when you do what you and I do most of our time, and you live in the present, and you comment on the present and you think about it. It’s getting harder and harder, because of the nature of American life, to go back to a place where an American president feels as though he’s just left the room, you know?

HH: Right, right.

JM: We don’t have that with President Reagan except at the ranch a little bit. You know, you don’t, you’ll have it with President Bush at Kennebunkport.

HH: It’s very powerful at the ranch. I broadcast from the ranch this summer, and it’s very powerful there, but it’s hard. It has not been encroached upon, and there is the benefit of space at Monticello.

– – – –

HH: This hour, I’m spending more time on Jefferson’s personality. In the second hour, I’m going to talk most about his politics and his political legacy. Jon Meacham, one of the things that I did not know about that I was struck by was his relationship with Dabne Carr. I’d long read about the letter of Peter Carr and things like that, but I didn’t realize the intensity of his friendship, or how losing your closest friend, and truly your intimate could actually change your life significantly, and it surely did sear him.

JM: You know, they wandered Monticello together as young men. They found a place where they would like to be buried, with the promise that whoever died first would bury the friend, and then would follow. Carr, of course, married a sister of Jefferson’s, becoming a permanent part of his family. There was a kind of, you know, we all have, I think, in a phrase of Robert Penn Warren’s, a friend of our youth who seems to embody what we want to be, or to complete us in some way at a moment when all the world is young, and all possibilities are green, and the world’s glittering prizes lie before us. And that’s what Dabne Carr represented to Jefferson. And one of the things we have to remember, and it’s hard, is how remarkably exciting and enervating that era was intellectually for young men like Thomas Jefferson, like Dabne Carr, like George Washington, like James Madison, like Benjamin Franklin, who was a little older. But the enlightenment, the European enlightenment, this idea that society was not vertical, coming down from kings and priests, but was horizontal, that people were responsible for their own destinies, their own souls, their own educations, all of this was unfolding. And for Jefferson, this adventure, this thrilling intellectual adventure, was unfolding with Dabne Carr.

HH: Also, a very strong father who dies when he is quite young, a very strong mother, I was thinking of MacArthur’s mom, and wonderful sisters who are very strong. And then he marries a very strong wife. There aren’t very many pale characters in his life.

JM: No, no. He was totally accustomed to powerful women. You know, Mrs. Jefferson, his mother, has gotten kind of short shrift through the years in terms of history in a way that I don’t think is fair. And I follow the scholarship of Virginia Scharff and Susan Kern, who’ve done really remarkable work in recent years trying to recover Jane Randolph Jefferson, Jefferson’s mother. Part of the problem is he didn’t mention her much, but you know, George Washington didn’t mention his mother much, either. There was just a kind of, John Adams didn’t mention his much. You know, there was a kind of reticence, a cultural reticence. And there was a fire at Shadwell, the house in which he grew up. And so any letters they exchanged were destroyed. My strong sense of her is that you know, she lost her husband when her oldest son was 14, and she kept a very large, complicated, complex plantation going, and raised a man who became one of the leading figures in the history of the world. So not bad.

HH: Yeah, remarkable woman. Also, remarkable portrait of Williamsburg for any of us who love it have been there. In the early years of his young adulthood, when he is under the tutelage of the governor, George Wythe, Dr. William Small, he sought out influential, older men who befriended him probably because of his genius, and took him in. And it really conveys, as you mentioned earlier, the spirit of the times before it all went to hell in a hand basket.

JM: It’s true. He was very good at cultivating mentors, which is a pattern for most great leaders. What does set this apart, as you say, is Jefferson was in Williamsburg at a very fortuitous moment. It was the center of Virginia politics, there were active theatres, there were print shops, there were book shops. It was the place to be in Virginia if you were intellectually engaged, if you were politically ambitious, if you were well off. And Jefferson was all those things. And what he did was he took advantage of the fact that he was related to everyone in Virginia three times over, and became very much a habitué of the House of Burgesses. He learned politics as a student. He watched the debates, he watched Patrick Henry argue against the Stamp Acts. He had dinner quite often at the governor’s palace there on the green that’s still there, and was the bright, young man of his generation.

HH: He watched Patrick Henry win and then lose.

JM: Yeah.

HH: And when I come back from break with Jon Meacham, I want to explain the significance of that, very artfully done.

– – – –

HH: Back to Patrick Henry, Jon Meacham. Everybody knows give me liberty or give me death, but Patrick Henry wins and then loses, and Jefferson observes this in his young career. Tell people the significance of that episode.

JM: The great moment, it’s during the Stamp Act debate. It’s before the give me liberty or give me death speech, which was in Richmond. This is back in Williamsburg. And Jefferson is standing at the door of the House of Burgesses. He’s still a student, not a member, and watches Henry give a marvelous attack on the King and the power of taxation. He, as Jefferson put it, Henry seemed to speak as Homer wrote, and was totally transported by this. And Henry represented in that time, in the early 1760s, mid-1760s, represented a more aggressive faction in terms of breaking away from British authority. So he carries the day, he passes these harsh resolutions, but then he makes a fatal mistake. He rides back to Louisa County. He goes home. And Jefferson shows up at the house the next day, the last day of the session, Henry’s already gone, and he finds a cousin of his going through the records, trying to find a parliamentary maneuver to overturn the vote the day before, and reassert the power of the more moderate faction, which they find. And Jefferson learned in that moment that it doesn’t matter how eloquent you are, or how charming you can be. If you don’t master the ways and means of the legislative body of which you’re a part, you’re going to loser.

HH: A rule that would serve him again and again and again throughout a long career. Now tell us, there are two people in the book who play back stories that I’m very intrigued by, don’t know much about. One is Patrick Henry. You describe him as Jefferson’s nemesis, but I’m not quite sure why he became his nemesis. Why?

JM: Henry was more of an opportunist, I think would be a fair way to put it, than Jefferson was. Henry was much less polished, not as well educated. He became, ultimately became the leader of the anti-Federalists opposing the Constitution that Jefferson’s friend, James Madison, had spent so much time working on. He opposed Jefferson’s bill for religious liberty in Virginia, which led Jefferson to say that, to Madison, that we much pray devoutly that he might drown. So that sort of shows a certain skepticism. He believed in the efficacy of prayer. He just didn’t want it done in state places. So they were simply rivals under the same flag.

HH: Well, I was wondering, because I believe Henry was the governor before Jefferson…

JM: Yup.

HH: And Jefferson’s governorship, as we’ll talk about next hour, was flawed and much criticized. He was very sensitive about it. Did Henry criticize him as governor?

JM: He, well, Jefferson believed that Henry had put in motion something that troubled Jefferson the rest of his life, which was after a governorship which was marked by the British invasion of Virginia, Patrick Henry used a middleman to introduce resolutions of censure against Jefferson, which enraged Jefferson no end, and in fact, haunted him the rest of his life. He hated that. He hated that failure. My own argument actually is that he was about 40-41 years old at that point. He’d just lost his wife, he was about to lose his wife. It was a terrible moment, but when you look at the lives of great men, many of them have in midlife some cataclysmic disaster from which they learn. You know, Bill Clinton lost his election as governor. Ronald Reagan lost his way before he found GE.

HH: Sure, Richard Nixon lost the presidency and the governorship of California, yeah.

JM: Precisely. Goes on…it’s actually a very interesting game to play, and I call it the Dantean principle, because Dante wrote The Divine Comedy saying that he had reached the middle of his life’s journey, and he found himself in a dark wood wandering. And I think a lot of great men find themselves in a dark wood wandering, and Jefferson always blamed Patrick Henry in part for his own troubles.

HH: What’s interesting about that, if he really resented using a middleman, that is, if I recall correctly from The Art Of Power, that’s what Jefferson did to Justice Chase. Didn’t he use a middleman to launch the impeachment of Chase?

JM: Oh, yeah. Now let’s, I’m sure you don’t share this, but I think all of this, the rest of us always dislike in others faults of ourselves that we see in them.

HH: Okay, so it’s not even consciously hypocritical. He just is learning from his adversary. The other fellow I mentioned who’s in the back here is Benjamin Rush. And I would like to read a concise biography of this man, because he’s everywhere in the revolutionary era, and finally knitting the broken bones between Adams and Jefferson.

JM: Totally. Rush is a fascinating guy. He’s a patriot-physician. He was the great matchmaker in American history. Without him, we would not have that 158 letters between Adams and Jefferson. It’s probably the greatest correspondence in American history. I think of Benjamin Rush as the world’s best Cyrano de Bergerac. You know, he told Adams, oh, Jefferson really wants to make up with you. Then he told Jefferson oh, Adams really wants to make up with you. If you need a date for the prom, hire Benjamin Rush, because he’ll find you one. What Rush did, and was one of the leading physicians of his time, he used to write these long, long letters to Jefferson offering diagnostic help, which were fascinating to read. And I excerpt some of them. He was an early enlightenment figure, incredibly important physician in the history of American medicine, based in Philadelphia, and was a politician who looked on the life of the Republic almost as a physical body that required health, that required, I don’t want to kill this metaphor too much, but required exercise. He believed that Adams and Jefferson, by being in opposition to one another late in their lives, that that was potentially dangerous to the health of the Republic, because it was an infection, and it should be cured, which was a really interesting, I think, recovery of an idea that I had lost track of, actually, in the last four or five years. But when the founders, all the way through Jackson, really, into the 1850s, when they talked about corruption, they weren’t talking about money necessarily in the way we think of it. They were talking about it in terms of the body, the physiology of the Republic, because they saw the Republic, they saw the country, they saw the American experiment, as a living thing that required care, it required nurturing, it required protection, required shelter. And Rush was a critically important architect, I believe, of that idea.

– – – –

HH: Two things in this quick segment, Jon. One is that he was a wonderful grandfather. Now this is something you never think about Thomas Jefferson wandering Monticello with his grandchildren, and ordering them with one word or even a glance.

JM: Nope, absolutely. He was an indulgent grandfather to his white grandchildren. He would show up with a frock that a girl had mentioned she might want. He was very attentive in terms of playing games with them, in terms of reading to them. Part of this was he believed, there’s a political and philosophical element to this as well as a familial one, which is that he really believed the family was the great central unit of society, and out of that, from that unit radiated the neighborhood, the county, the state, the country. Without a strong family, without a virtuous family, he believed that republicanism, lower case r, was in jeopardy, because if we didn’t like each other, there was very little chance we would ever make the kinds of mutual concession of opinion necessary to make a democracy work. And so this idea of sociability, the idea of affection, the idea of neighborliness wasn’t just some kind of gauzy thing to him. It was very much about the survival and success of American liberty.

HH: I saw that arrayed when he was trying to encourage Madison to live next door to him as Monroe did, so that he could encourage that. But last minute of this hour, he was ambivalent about Washington.

JM: Yeah.

HH: Quoting him here, “His mind was great and powerful, Jefferson said about Washington, without being of the very first order,” and then remarking on his most tremendous wrath.

JM: He was, yeah, absolutely. You know, there’s a wonderful scene, Gilbert Stuart described Washington as having the eyes of a man who if he had been born in the wilderness would have been the fiercest of the savages. And so I think Jefferson absolutely captured something about Washington there, did not like his temper, had been on the receiving end of his temper. And also, remember, basically Jefferson had lost the fight for Washington’s soul to Alexander Hamilton. So that was always a difficult issue for him down the decades.

HH: Very quickly, do you think he felt that Washington’s physical courage overshadowed him, especially given the record in Virginia as governor?

JM: Oh, absolutely. He believed that Washington was a kind of untouchable figure because of his bearing, because of his horsemanship, because of his military valor. And as you say, Jefferson spent his life running away from charges that he had run away from the British. Now my own view is if he’d stayed and gotten arrested, what good would that have done?

– – – –

HH: And I want to do in this hour, Jon, if I could, sort of a quick march through his official career, beginning with the assignment to write the Declaration of Independence, through his governorship, through his time in the Continental Congress, in France, just to give people a sort of taster’s course in the life of Jefferson, which is why Dumas Malone fell into it and never got out of it. But let’s start with how did he come to write the Declaration, and John Adams’ role in that?

JM: He was assigned to a subcommittee with Adams, Benjamin Franklin and a couple of others. The Declaration, the act of the Declaration was not seen as particularly important. John Adams thought that the authorization for the state governments to reorganize themselves, which was passed a couple of weeks before, was the more significant document. Adams told Jefferson he should write, he, Jefferson, should write it. Jefferson said why, you’re my senior, eight years older, and Adams said well, one, I’m from Massachusetts, which was seen as too progressive, too aggressive, and if a Massachusetts document came out, it might force the middle states, the colonies that were on the fence a little bit, might keep them from going and joining the move for independence. And, Adams said, much to his credit, and you’re ten times the writer I am. And Jefferson accepted that, and worked hard on it. It was improved by Franklin, improved by Adams. I don’t think it was particularly improved on the floor of the Continental Congress in Carpenters Hall where it was edited. But the key phrases about the equality, all men are created equal, all of that came from Jefferson’s pen.

HH: Now flash forward 50 years later. Jefferson and Adams die on the same day, in one of the better known anecdotes of American history. And Adams dies saying Jefferson survived, when in fact Jefferson didn’t survive. But what a, was it John Quincy Adams who said this was providential, that they both died on that day?

JM: Yeah.

HH: And it really is a remarkable fact of American history.

JM: Oh, if you wrote an historical novel, your editor would say take it out.

HH: Yeah.

JM: …because you’re gilding the lily. It was also the beginning, interestingly, I think, of one of the first moments of founders chic, you know, that we go through sometimes. People say we’re in one right now. I think it helped the country four or five years later, as the first nullification movement, as the first steps toward disunion over tariff policy and slavery policy began to unfold, you had the sense that the Union had been consecrated somehow. And I’m a religious guy, so I don’t mind speaking in those terms, that there was something sacred about the United States because of this joint apotheosis, in which Adams and Jefferson had both gone to their fathers on the same day, on the anniversary of the moment at which they had undertaken and risked their lives to put this remarkable experiment in liberty in motion.

HH: Now interestingly enough, I’m also a man of faith as you are, and you deal gently with Jefferson on this. On Page 122, you write that, “He had come to believe that the apostolic faith was superstitious.” And you move on. You don’t make it a huge issue for him. He was always rather discreet about his, I think, flat-out atheism. Some people would say it’s agnosticism. What do you think, Jon?

JM: No, I don’t think it’s atheism, because he believed, he wrote that he believed in a creator God, so that knocks atheism out. He believed in a state of rewards and punishments in a future existence for deeds undertaken or committed in this life, which is remarkably, it’s a remarkably specific philosophical vision that the soul is not, the soul has a consciousness that exists beyond time and space. And then he did believe, in the more deistic way, to use the phrase that’s thrown around most of the time, that the sum of all religion is to do good to one another. My own sense is that what makes, what moves him from being the poster child for atheism, and I think atheists who claim him are just as wrong as Evangelicals are who try to re-baptize him. What moves him from atheism to a more interesting place, I believe, is this sense that the soul of man is immortal, and would be treated in a future life, in a future existence, for its conduct in this. He believed, he wrote John Adams about this, that they were going to be sitting up there, that they are sitting up there right now, looking over, seeing how their successors are doing. God knows what they make of it at this point. But that’s a more interesting view.

HH: Let me speak up for Hitch, who was 70 times a guest on this program…

JM: Yeah.

HH: …and wrote the small biography. I believe it was he who argued he would not have counseled Thomas Paine the way he did about not publishing, I believe it was from Hitchens, don’t publish your letter on atheism, don’t do that, and that he often wrote in a way that would allow him to get along and avoid the charges of atheist in colonial history, but that he was an enlightenment man through and through, and a skeptic. So if Hitch were here, how would you, would you anticipate him saying no, no, come on, Jon Meacham, he’s an atheist. He’s an atheist.

JM: Of course, and Christopher, with that brilliant accent, would win, of course, because he always did. And I miss him, as you do. But I don’t see how Christopher could be right, could be totally right given that none of us, as Queen Elizabeth said, can make windows into men’s souls. So here’s my evidence. Thomas Jefferson went to church. Thomas Jefferson carried an Episcopal book of common prayer around with him. Thomas Jefferson, on his death bed, repeated Lord, now let us now, Thy servant, depart in peace according to Thy will. How, therefore, do you make a complete case for his absence of some kind of faith in a transcendent reality?

HH: All right, let’s move on, then, to the republican, small r, attempt to reclaim Jefferson now. And he is a fan, he is much appreciated by the Tea Party. And he’s much appreciated because of some quotes here and there. But he was a big believer in executive power, and I begin Con Law almost every year by pointing out that the most significant contribution to American history that Jefferson made was not the Declaration, but was his decision to take Louisiana when it was offered to him, and to do so without any authority. And I didn’t even know until I read Jefferson, your book, that for a time, he has counseled a Constitutional amendment to authorize that purchase. But then oh, we’d better get it done. That’s not a constitutionalist approach.

JM: No, and in fact, this actually helps your lectures this next term, because it’s what I call Thomas Jefferson’s Claude Rains moment. He was, after proposing a Constitutional amendment to specifically authorize the purchase, because it was not an enumerated power, he’d built his life attacking Hamilton for broad construction. What does he do? He’s shocked, shocked to find that anyone would suggest we needed a Constitutional amendment, because he got a letter, let’s see, the 2nd or 3rd of July, 1803, he learns about the purchase. It’s another providential moment, because it’s the 4th of July, there’s the largest party in White House history that 4th. Then the 21st, 22nd of August, he gets another letter from France saying Napoleon is rethinking this deal. And that’s when, by the 23rd of August, 1803, Jefferson is writing letters saying I think we must not stumble upon Constitutional niceties.

HH: Yeah.

JM: And so he absolutely abandoned it. In that, plus his orders to Commodore Dale, in fighting the Barbary pirates, where he basically authorized a war without reference to Congress, and got a retrospective approval for those orders. That was early. That was 1801.

HH: He was Hamiltonian when he needed to be Hamiltonian.

JM: Well, what my conclusion is, is that he used Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends.

HH: That letter that he sent out about the Constitutional amendment, people have to read this letter. But it’s sort of, in the modern context, it’s when you hit the recall email please button, because he did not want that letter to go around. I’ll come back in order, though. But after the Declaration is written, he then serves in the Continental Congress, and having been Virginia governor as well, and learns in both of those offices that you’ve got to have executive authority, that it does not work to have a weak executive, something that I think Republicans in the House of Representatives are learning right now, that you know, you get a strong executive with W., you’re going to have to live with one with President Obama.

JM: It’s, you know, it’s a remarkable thing. I’ve been out talking about this, obviously, a lot. And you know, people who are outraged by President Bush 43 will stand up and denounce the imperial presidency. And I’ll say how did you feel about Franklin Roosevelt sending destroyers to Winston Churchill? How did you feel about Abraham Lincoln suspending habeas corpus? One man’s imperial president is another person’s bold executive who’s using the powers of the office to create opportunities that must be created. So whenever one denounces an imperial presidency, they have to be careful, because power is about what it is used for, not necessarily, I don’t think you can denounce power as in intrinsic evil. It’s about how we use it and what we use it for.

– – – –

HH: Jon, before I go back to the timeline of his career, and take us to France, there is a rather extraordinary letter that he writes in 1786. You reprint it at Pages 201, 202 and 203. I think it’s the longest excerpt anywhere in the book, that he writes to his mistress, I think you would call her.

JM: Yeah.

HH: Tell people about this letter, because I’d never seen it before, and it’s really quite remarkable.

JM: Oh, the head and the heart letter?

HH: Yes.

JM: It’s remarkable. It’s one of the longer pieces he ever wrote, period, which is sort of interesting. It’s a debate, as its title suggests, between his head telling him he should not be falling in love with a married woman, and his heart which tells him he should. And as only Thomas Jefferson could do, it’s almost as though this was a think tank guy writing a love letter, because he uses American revolutionary history as illustrations. It was not the most romantic of letters, but it’s revealing, because it shows that what was critically important to him was, in fact, the history of his own country. So he talks about oh, the ungovernability of the heart, which is a lot like the ungovernability of the confederation congress.

HH: Yes.

JM: So it’s sort of funny, actually.

HH: It is. Why did you put so much of it in?

JM: Well, I put so much of it in because I think you, it’s as though you’re talking to him, right? I mean, it’s as though, it’s as close as you can come in a book to embedding some video of a conversation with him. It’s a sustained piece of dialogue with himself. And one of the things, this is as a dork, a fellow dork, you will appreciate this. One of the things I found in the difference in researching Andrew Jackson and researching Thomas Jefferson is I think the rise of the novel in the early part of the 19th Century fundamentally changed both diary keeping and letter writing in the sense that in the 18th Century, people were much less narrative in there, much less descriptive in their communications.

HH: Oh.

JM: By the time you get to 1830 or so, people are mentioning what the weather was like, whether there was a bottle of whiskey on the table, whether there was, who was in the room, whether there was a fire going. And I think that what happened in those decades, I can’t prove this, but my sense is what happened was people were reading novels, and were beginning to see their own lives in theatrical terms. And Jefferson rarely did. He doesn’t physically describe many things. He has some travel descriptions and travel writing and all that. But the head and the heart letter is the one place where you can imagine, I think, sitting down and just listening to him debate with himself.

HH: Oh, he unbuckles. Now what was his voice? In the new movie of Lincoln, which you referenced last hour, Daniel Day Lewis pitches the voice where we have been told Lincoln’s voice ought to be pitched. But I’m not sure I know where Jefferson’s, he’s not a public speaker. I’m not sure if he has a mellifluous voice. But where is the register?

JM: The register is low. He disliked, it did not carry well. I think he would have sounded like a Virginian, with not quite a Tidewater guy, about would not have been aboot, as it is sometimes now. But he had to lean into him. He’s sort of the Daisy Buchanan of American politicians. You know, he always, in the Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald describes Buchanan’s voice is being full of money, and she whispered so that you would lean in closer to her. He used his voice, he used his eyes, he used his hands all as weapons in what was a long, almost nine decade long charm offensive. He wanted to make people love him without their quite knowing why. And I think that’s one of the secrets of his political success.

HH: He was quite, as you communicate, solicitous of other people’s good opinion, and extremely sensitive to criticism. Does that go to a basic insecurity?

JM: Well, I don’t know anyone who likes criticism. And so I certainly don’t know any politicians who do, unlike writers, you know, who welcome it. So I think there’s something about the instinct to perform, the instinct to make oneself conspicuous, which is an interesting letter. Jefferson wrote George Rogers Clark, William Clark’s older brother, who was the original explorer that Jefferson wanted to send west as early as the 1780s. Clark was being kicked around for a defeat in the, militarily. And Jefferson wrote, “You must realize that when you have made yourself conspicuous, there will always be those who will try to knock you down.” And he might as well have been writing about himself. Now he could be philosophical about it when others were being upset about criticism. He was not particularly philosophical about it when he was upset. And he was acutely sensitive to it. But I think that’s part of the same continuum. You know, again, you interview these guys all the time. I’m yet to meet, no kidding, even our modern presidents who pretend not to read the papers, uh-uh. Everybody reads everything. Everybody has some sense of what other people are saying.

HH: Oh, I’ll have to tell you about Nixon sometime from the years ’78-’80. He never read a thing, but that was because it was probably so awful.

JM: Right.

HH: He never touched it. Tell me about, since you’ve written about Jackson and Jefferson, after the break, I’m going to ask you about the art of this. But if you had time to spend with either of them, say, at the peak of their powers, who would you prefer to be in the company with?

JM: That is a fabulous question. I’ve been asked about every possible question on this subject. I have not been asked that. You know, all in all, I hate to say it, Jackson is more interesting on that level, because he was so self-made. That is, he pulls himself with no education and no advantages. He willed himself into becoming the most powerful president in history. Jefferson had more advantages, and so I would want to hear more about Jackson’s struggles. At the same time, I would probably get a much better meal at Monticello than the home of Jackson.

HH: And Jackson, of course, was dueling all the time. I learned that from your book. Jefferson, there’s not a whisper of a duel in these many decades of public life.

JM: No, no. He was, he just, he was not a temperamental man. And insofar as the emotional storms ebbed and flowed, and they did, one of the things we haven’t mentioned is he had stress migraine headaches all his life. The first one we know of was when a young women refused his first marriage proposal as a young man. He had one after his mother died. He had one after his wife died. He, at critical moments in the presidency, he would become debilitated by this horrible, horrible headache. And so there was a lot going on in there, you know, but there was, but he had mastered that critically important classical virtue of projecting calm amid the storm, which is one of the great qualities of leadership.

– – – –

HH: I’m fairly certain we share a friend in common, Jon, Richard Norton Smith.

JM: Yup.

HH: And Richard once told me the reason he would not take up the task of writing a biography of Richard Nixon is that he would, he was afraid he would fall in and never get out. You’ve done that twice now with Jackson, but I think even Jefferson must appear to be a daunting task compared to Jackson. Am I right about that?

JM: That’s right.

HH: And so how did you steel yourself to do this where many, many other biographers have gone before you? And the paperwork is so immense.

JM: It’s true. The key thing, and you’ve been enormously kind in mentioning it, what I wanted to focus on was his political life, his skills and education as a politician in part because I think he would have been reluctant to hear us talk about the things we have been talking about the last couple of hours. I believe that his tombstone, which lists the authorship of the Declaration of the Independence, of the Virginia statute for religious liberty, and the founding of the University of Virginia, is one of the great acts of misdirection in American history. I call it the Keyser Soze tombstone, because it doesn’t mention his presidency, it doesn’t mention any of the political offices he held. Often, this is held up as a Cincinnatus-like virtue of humility. I don’t think so. What I think it was, was he knew that his political battles, like all political battles, were going to be forever contentious. And it would never really be contentious to have been the author of the idea of human equality, if not this application, the founder of an institution devoted to enlightened education, and liberty of conscience. I think that he knew that those were three achievements that would travel well through history. His political career was going to be bumpier. And you know, a lot of shrinks will tell you it’s the thing you don’t mention that’s often the most important.

HH: Yeah, I can’t imagine he did not put the Louisiana Purchase on there, because it’s such a significant event for the unfolding. And he must have known it at the time. His opponent, Hamilton, wrote that fame is the highest ambition of the noblest minds. And clearly, Thomas Jefferson wanted to be famous and admired from the very first day. In fact, you quote one letter in here, let me find it, where’s writing about his salaries in France. He writes to Monroe, “I will pray you to touch this string, which I know to be a tender one with Congress, with the utmost delicacy. I’d rather be ruined in my fortune than in their esteem.”

JM: Yeah.

HH: And I thought that was very revealing, Jon Meacham.

JM: Isn’t it? Yeah, I did, too. You know, fame, for them, meant reputation, not necessarily celebrity, although they’re obviously connected. And he believed that we would still be sitting here talking about him. I mean, that was very much his anticipation. You don’t, one of the things, I think, about the Adams-Jefferson letters is anyone who thinks those were the first drafts?

HH: Ha.

JM: I think are crazy, because these brilliant, Ciceronian essays about things…and they knew that we would be writing about it. They knew that we would be talking about it. Monticello itself, one of the fascinating things, and I had not seen this point made elsewhere, and so I made it, you know, Jefferson is one of the few politicians, the only politician I know of who commemorated, memorialized his enemies in his own house. He had…

HH: The bust.

JM: …the bust of Hamilton, a bust of Adams, many portraits of Washington are still there. And I think it was because Jefferson was building a national culture. He had cast himself in the role as a translator of old world culture into the new world. But when you go through the house, and you see the Lewis and Clark artifacts, and you see the portraits of the other great founders, many of whom, with whom he disagreed, I mean, I promise you, if you go to Jimmy Carter’s house, there’s not going to be a bust of Ronald Reagan. There’s not going to be a bust of Everett Dirksen in his opponent’s house. So it was a remarkable sense of national history, and of national story.

HH: Do you think he was an order of magnitude smarter than all but say Hamilton?

JM: And Franklin.

HH: And Madison, of course, too. You’ve got some pretty smart characters running around in this period of time. But was Jefferson head and shoulders over them?

JM: What I think, Jefferson was a little bit like Bill Clinton in the sense that he was, when he focused on something, and when he immersed himself in an issue, whether you agreed with him or disagreed with his conclusions, you knew he had absorbed the essential facts of the matter. Jefferson, I think, was one of the great crammers of all time. You know, he would become interested in something, he’d buy a bunch of books about it, he would read it, he would become a semi-expert on it. In many ways, he was the ultimate liberal arts graduate.

– – – –

HH: I’ve got to go back to that one…how did you organize this, Jon?

JM: Well, I went…the papers were critically important. The Jefferson Papers Project, based at Princeton under the editorship of Barbara Oberg, is one of the great scholarly projects in American history. I believe they’re on Volume 40, and it’s 1802. And so it’s as thorough as it can be. So the papers are there if you have the wherewithal to stick with them. And then they were very generous in giving me transcripts of papers that have not yet been published in their series. So that was important. The other thing that’s important about biography that’s actually somewhat easier than writing broad, narrative history, is chronology is your friend in biography, because you want to experience events as your subject experienced them. So if you simply know, if you have their calendar, if you have their memorandum book, if you have their letters, as we do with Jefferson, then you can walk through those days in a way that actually makes you feel, I think, if you’re doing it right, that you’re with them, because we know how the story turned out. They didn’t. And the critical thing, the hardest biographical thing, I think, is suspending one’s sense of how it all ended, and then reading back into the unfolding events, a kind of nature of everything being foreordained. Nothing is foreordained.

HH: It’s still a remarkable achievement. Before we run out of time, I want to throw into the presidency, beginning with the election of 1800, and the fact that, as you just said, he didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Aaron Burr turns on him, it goes through these many, many, many ballots. And it’s, distance is working against him, intrigue is working against him. Remarkable way to begin a presidency, and sort of a lesson to us all that these are not terribly tumultuous political times compared to that.

JM: Well no, there was 37 ballots in the House, and yes, you had the vice presidential candidate basically leaving himself open to being elected president. You had the governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia preparing to send the militias to Washington. You had in what I think is a little noted point, and I made as much of this as I thought was responsible, this brief movement to make the secretary of state/chief justice, John Marshall, the acting president for a year until they could settle everything. I think that, as much as anything else, was part of what drove a wedge between Jefferson and Marshall. When we think about…

HH: Oh, that was interesting. Go ahead.

JM: Sorry, oh hell…

HH: The family intervenes in the interview, but that’s okay.

JM: That was the family. That’s Mary Meacham, age 8. And God knows what. Don’t do anything on the phone. Sorry. You should have seen Jefferson’s children when the phones were going on. It was awful. It was awful.

HH: But Marshall was his great nemesis during the presidency, and during the Burr trial, and allowing the subpoena to be issued. But you think it goes back to his making a play for the presidency?

JM: I think it certainly didn’t help. Let me put it that way. Jefferson, I mean, remember. This is what he’d done. From 1769 until 1809, 40 years, he had almost perpetually been in public office, or thinking about it. This was the second time he’d run for president in what had been the only, and there had only been two elections in which anyone besides George Washington had run. So this was not a man who was uninterested in the office. There’s actually a wonderful exchange where Madison pretty clearly, in 1796, Jefferson has, at least in conversation, said to Madison, you know, if I come in second, and under the rules at the time, become vice president, I’m not so sure I want to do that. And Madison writes a letter saying it will be very important to you and to the country for you to accept the second place, even if you don’t come in first.

HH: Yup.

JM: So this is a ferociously competitive man, a man who wanted to direct the destinies of the country, because he believed he was best suited to do it. He believed that the fate of human liberty, I mean, it sounds sort of remarkable to say it in that sense, but he really believed that we were the world’s best hope, as he called it. Lincoln later said we were the last best hope. But for Jefferson, we were still the world’s best hopt.

HH: He never recoiled fully from the slaughter of the French Revolution, did he? At least you don’t communicate that, almost a necessary evil on the road to that liberty you’re talking about.

JM: He believed, you know, I think he had a harder time tearing himself apart from the reign of terror, because he had seen with his own eyes, and felt with his own fingers, what it could have been. That is during the storming of the Bastille, in the early days of the revolution, before things went terribly wrong in the reign of terror, he was there. And they were very much involved. And I think if he had been away, my own theory, if he had been in the United States watching the whole thing, then it would have all been more clinical. But I do think that he was very slow to recognize the excesses of the revolution. I will say this, and I believe this as strongly as I believe anything about Thomas Jefferson. His interest, his consuming interest, was the survival and success of the United States. And the French foreign minister says, and I put this quotation on one of the spreads in the book, that the American minister to Paris, Thomas Jefferson, is chiefly interested in what is good for his country. And his opinions about the French Revolution are interesting, but they’re not dispositive, because he never made, and I defy anybody to find a decision he made as secretary of state, as vice president, as president, that was pro-French without it also being, in Jefferson’s view, good for the United States.

– – – –

HH: I want to thank Jon Meacham, my guest this hour and last, for spending so much time talking about his new book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power. Let me close with one of those funny things. Readers get struck by different things, Jon, obviously. And I made a note, I can’t believe that Jefferson said nothing when Hamilton was killed. I was thinking of Churchill. When Neville Chamberlain died, he went to the floor of the house, broke down in tears. It was his great adversary. He didn’t have much respect for Chamberlain, but he nevertheless understood him to be a patriot. That’s what I didn’t get, one of those things about Jefferson, that there might have been a cold part in his heart for anyone who opposed him.

JM: Totally right. It was one, I was disappointed twice on that front. One was when Hamilton died, and the other was when Washington died. You wish, you know, biographically, I was sort of hungry for the letter, the tribute, the oh, though we disagreed, we were fellow warriors in the cause of liberty. Nothing. Later in life, some warmer words, but you’re right. There was a very cold place, particularly on the Hamilton question. You know, the politics of New York were very complex. John Adams, if it makes any difference, was meaner. He called it a public frenzy that the grief for Hamilton was such that somehow or another it would have ongoing political effects. But you know, Thomas Jefferson, and the reason I think all these men are interesting, was flawed and sinful. And that was one of the things where he did not do what he ought to have done. And I wish he had. I will say this, at least the reconciliation with Adams gives us some model of civility through the ages. But even that was too hard, really, when you think about it. When you really think about what separated them, it was, they were probably overreacting. At the same time, in Thomas Jefferson’s heart and in his mind, he really believed that these men were not as devoted to the cause of liberty and the cause of the country as he was.

HH: In his defense, he did keep the promise of Paris vis-à-vis Sally Hemmings and her children. Where do you go next, Jon Meacham? We’ve lot less than a minute. What do you do after you’ve done Jackson and Jefferson?

JM: Well, I have an ongoing project of writing a biography of George Herbert Walker Bush. We’ve been talking for a long time, and doing interviews. It was supposed to be published after, as only President Bush could put it, he was paws up. I’m happy to report, from the word from Houston, is that this latest crisis is heading in the right direction, and that he is on the mend. So we just need to, I’m going to go see him in a couple of days…

HH: Oh, I look forward to that. Oh, that’s very interesting. They say they put the harps away.

JM: Yeah.

HH: Jon Meacham, congratulations, magnificent book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power.

End of interview.


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