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Thomas Jefferson: Politics And Power

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham on lessons from the politics of Thomas Jefferson. What we can learn now.

Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale (1805)

Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale (1805)

Thomas Jefferson wrote the radical document at the heart of the American experiment.  The Declaration of Independence.  “All men are created equal.”  And he kept slaves.  He argued mightily against a too-powerful central government, and he led the federal government as the nation’s third president.

He was a planter, a scientist, an historian, an Enlightenment-smitten philosopher, and – says biographer Jon Meacham – a surpassing politician.  With a flexibility that our politicians today could use.

This hour, On Point:  Thomas Jefferson, the philosopher politician.

-Tom Ashbrook


Jon Meacham, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, his new book is “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The Washington Post “In ‘Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,’ Meacham, despite his subtitle, accomplishes something more impressive than dissecting Jefferson’s political skills by explaining his greatness, a different task from chronicling a life, though he does that too — and handsomely. Even though I know quite a lot about Jefferson, I was repeatedly surprised by the fresh information Meacham brings to his work. Surely there is not a significant detail out there, in any pertinent archive, that he has missed.”

The Wall Street Journal “For Election Day, we asked some leading historians and bestselling biographers what the Founding Fathers would have thought about this year’s presidential campaign between President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney.”

Excerpt from “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power”

Excerpted from THOMAS JEFFERSON: THE ART OF POWER by Jon Meacham Copyright © 2012 by Jon Meacham. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Jefferson in Paris (Main Suite) by Richard Robbins

Concerto No.1, Spring by Antonio Vivaldi

Adagio – Allegro – Adagio by Arcangelo Corelli

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  • Matthew

    What mistakes made by Jefferson in his first term did he learn from and do better in his second term that President Obama could learn from now?

    • anamaria23

      It is reported that President  Obama does meet with historians regularly to examine other Presidencies for insight into the handling of complex national issues.

      • http://www.audiomind.us/blog AUDIOMIND


        • anamaria23

          The full list is available by Googling “President Obama dinner’s with historians”

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Everyone is flawed, so what were Jefferson’s greatest personal failings and how did he compensate for them?

  • Wahoo_wa

    I don’t really see an issue with Jefferson’s words in the Declaration and his ownership of slaves.  Being created equal but finding one’s place in society through circumstance and opportunity are basic aspects of the human condition.  Quoting Tiberius Jefferson stated “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”

    - Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, (discussing slavery and the Missouri question), Monticello, 22 April 1820

    • TinaWrites

      “Finding one’s place in society…are basic aspects of the human condition”  WHICH truly enlightened societies HAVE been able to tackle better than Jefferson or us now:  Sweden, Denmark, Norway, I’m not sure about Finland; and NOT Denmark:  they got lured by American ideas and quickly saw their mistake!  Sorry that I say this so often, but it is just narcissistic for us to go back to our Founders instead of looking to countries that HAVE solved the problems of inequality pretty well.  How we love to indulge in major efforts of wasted time.  Jefferson was a hypocrite, and his ideas did as much as direct violence to hurt and adversely affect people of color for centuries to come.  Go away Hypocrite!  Fade out of our View!

  • Shag_Wevera

    Can anyone recommend some good reading on TJ?

    • Ray in VT

      Annette Gordon-Reed’s works on Jefferson and Sally Hemmings are supposed to be good.  Joseph Ellis, who wrote a very nice work on Washington, wrote American Sphinx: the character of Thomas Jefferson, and there is a new book coming out by Henry Wiencek called The master of the mountain: Thomas Jefferson and his slaves that I would very much like to read.  Wiencek also wrote An imperfect god about Washington and slavery that I thought was quite good.

  • JGC

    Mr. Jefferson, we need you now more than ever!

  • http://www.facebook.com/otis.sockpuppet Otis Sock-Puppet

    Jefferson would have disapproved of Jefferson-worship, at least post hid being around to enjoy it.

    Related: did Jefferson have anything to say about the Great Awakening, or was he blissfully unaware of that horrid turn away from decent, Enlightened, values?

  • WardCheney

    Please ask your guest about Jefferson’s record concerning, and known attitudes towards, Native Americans.

    I’ve heard that Jefferson wanted the lands where indigenous peoples lived and hunted for the new country and that he considered the natives expendable.

    Is Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, responsible for the passage that describes Native Americans as “…the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions…”?

  • sickofthechit

    Could some of you please start circulating the idea that those whose
    homes are made useless by Hurricane Sandy should be able to stay in
    Foreclosed Properties?  I think we could all agree that the Banks owe us this at a minimum. May not solve the problem, but it would for a few
    families.  Thanks, charles

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Relevance to Thomas Jefferson, a man who died in 1826.

  • ttajtt

    wisdom use to society experiment on us.  psychology – they want to know all what where when that happen$.   computer head games.  

    what good i have to say is, in his garden did he grow marijuana  hemp.   what was to say of it then.  “The Drugs” of today are not used like of recreation then.   Medical Mary came from spice trade way, right.  not man made like meth, over 3000 years of history, hundreds or so before america out lawed it.  what of it then? society children old, how many grown hemp for cloth, food… 

    what was it like then. 

    • Wahoo_wa

      Um…have you been smoking this morning?

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         I suspect ttajtt of being a random word generator.

        • Steve__T

           He’s an Injured Vet have some respect.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QMDZ3LH5U2B4GAT7J2HS4TCP6E Jim

    not to mention, he is a scientist and diplomat.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Can we still take political lessons from the Founders?  Absolutely.  Only a few of our current politicians come close to their intellect and vision.

  • Wahoo_wa

    YAY! UVA!  WAHOO WAAAAA!  Sorry I had to do that.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    We have to keep in mind that this like rehashing the memory of a memory of a memory – and then interpreting it through the lens of today instead of the lens of the time it occurred.

    In short it’s pretty pictures, and we may learn something from our interpretations, but I question how much we can “see into the mind” of people like Jefferson.

  • TinaWrites

    Thomas Jefferson:  the Ultimate Hypocrit  – with centuries of consequence for peoples of color!!  

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Read his words and look at what they created.  That it took us time to live up to those words only shows how hard it was to see their meaning.

  • Emilio Santini

    What does it mean with the pursuit of power ?
    Power for the sake of power or power to send the new world in the right direction?

  • Yar

    In the Deceleration of Independence Jefferson wrote:In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. 

    I was given a wonder gift this morning as ten geese flew directly overhead just before sunrise,  they were bathed in the morning light and I could even hear the rush of air from the downbeat of their wings.  It is the gift to a farmer, up before the sun and outside to see the gifts of nature.  It is the education of the world by God.  We have lost much of this as our leaders come from business instead of men of the soil. 

    The eye of an architect, the measure of an engineer, the ear of a musician, and the personality of a writer, all from a farmer.  Yes, Jefferson’s wealth gave him time to pursue the arts and develop his skills.  His contribution is legendary and made possible through the sweat of slaves.  Yet, I believe his roots in farming gave his appreciation for the soil and sun as the source of energy.  
    I want to focus on the rights and responsibility of the right to petition.

    I am trying to address this on the local, state and national level.
    Our local Library is under threat, from a petition.

    Petitions to secede from the union for many states (including my state of Kentucky) are on the white house website.
    Talk about Jefferson and the role of petitions.

  • TinaWrites

    The mobs he feared were probably the poorer whites who could not compete in the Slave Economy that Jefferson was so entrenched in.  They were furious with the Planters for this and this caused their riots.

    • TinaWrites

      I meant to add:  The Planters were quite afraid that the poorer Whites would finally see that the Blacks (they weren’t thinking about the misplaced Native Americans) and they should be allies.  Some scholars think that fostering racism against Blacks was one way that the Planters dealt with this threat of an alliance of Poorer Whites with less good land and less land with the Blacks, enslaved and the Free People of Color (a very dreaded class, especially by the Planters!).

  • Yar

    Our lives today are still made possible by slaves.  Look in a Foxconn factory, or follow a tomato picker in Florida.  Slavery is alive today.  Ask the 12 million undocumented workers in America about how they are enslaved by not having papers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pamela.keats Pamela Keats

    You should go to booktv.org and view a recent lecture on Jefferson.  There is new stuff come to light — he actually “grew” slaves, once he realized that slave were his most valuable asset.  He had a nail factory — a forge — in which slave children were made to work and were whipped regularly.  He freed none of his slaves (except maybe one) in his will.  All were sold on the front lawn to pay his debts — wives separated from husbands, children from parents.  His level of hypocrisy reaches repulsive depths.  He also authored a law in Virginia that said if a white woman married or consorted with a black man she was removed from the protection of the law — you could then do whatever you wanted with her.  

    • 1Brett1

      Thanks for the link, Pamela.

  • Dick Johnson

    Doea Meacham mean some of the same things that Robert Caro does when analyzing the art of power, i.e., building political bridges, gathering a cinstituency, collecting positions of authority, managing publicity, bribing enemies, putting the squeeze on when needed, etc.  And how close does this come to Machiavelli, after all?

  • Zach Silvia

    Great Show today! I’m an archaeologist and historian of Rhode Island history and one lesser known fact about Jefferson that I think goes under the historical radar, but of immense significance for understanding Jefferson’s relationship to the slave trade, is that after outlawing the trade of Africans for rum and molasses, Jefferson actually granted a special presidential pardon to the DeWolf family (friends of his) of Bristol, RI to allow the trade to carry on through the former port of this town. I believe this was in the later part of 1807 or early 1808. Perhaps Jefferson did this to benefit a family friend, or perhaps he just did not feel so strongly about abolishing the trade. I always felt he only abolished the slave trade to promote slavery as an American industry that did not require the inefficiencies of human trafficking from Africa, as he was primarily concerned with economic growth within the new nation. Any thoughts?

  • terry7

    What do you think Thomas Jefferson would have thought about the relationship between money and speech, more specifically about Citizen’s United?  As we approached the recent election, I was disheartened by the smug, arrogant certainty of the 1% – that because they had, and were willing to spend, millions of dollars to buy the election, that they could lock up the government for the foreseeable future.  How would Jefferson have come down on this?

    • 1Brett1

      Good questions…

    • Steve__T

      Actually and unfortunately, this would not be the first time the rich have bought a president or congressmen or senators or Judges. I’m sure he would want both parties arrested tried and hung. As long as none of his friends were involved.

  • MamaMinistry

    The question Tom posed, “What do you think of when you think of Jeffersonian Democracy?” in part is answered, or embodied in microcosm, in that description of Jefferson and Hamilton doing battle in Washington’s cabinet each day. Opposing, well-thought-out, coherent philosophies, represented by well-spoken, principled philosopher-leaders, proposing and hashing out reasoned responses to the challenges of complex national problems. I look forward to the return of THAT type of political discourse as our present-day Republicans, I pray, reformulate a COHERENT, reasoned conservative argument in response to our country’s and our world’s very real, lived challenges in a globalized economy and fast-changing climate.

  • mhollis

    The one grand bargain that Jefferson and Madison agreed with was the assumption of the national debt by the Federal Government. I think that today, Republicans, especially theTEA Party ones, want to go back to the time when the national debt was assumed by the states. 

    Madison’s structure of the National Debt effectively ended the debt crisis. Jefferson was suspicious of banks because he was a net debtor all his life and didn’t trust banks (they set prices on commodities he sold, then goods he bought). But as President, he did not dismantle Madison’s system of federal debt management.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marguerite.rosenthal Marguerite Rosenthal

    Echoing Pamela, below:  Henry Wiencek has written a book, excerpted in the Oct issue of the Smithsonian, which details Jefferson’s cruelty and exploitation of his large slave population.  I suggest you have him on to help correct the record.  The book is called Paradox of Liberty.  I think Meecham rather glossed over Jefferson’s treatment of his slaves, something that certainly compromises his legacy as the father of the phrase, “All men are created equal,” and previous work by Gary Wills has shown how  Jefferson’s advocacy for the 3/5 clause in the Constitution greatly benefited the slave states’ dominance in the  Congress–then and now.

    • Ray in VT

      I think that the new book by Mr. Wiencek is Master of the Mountain.

  • Davesix6

    Fascinating discussion, enjoyed this segment immensely Tom. Thank you. Our founders were no doubt a diverse group of insightful, humanly flawed, courageous people, who sought true, lasting freedom and struggled to define it. Hopefully we who have inherited this freedom will continue that struggle. And I believe we are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1182393752 Kate Mortimer

    I would echo some of the previous comments about Jefferson and his attitude about slavery.  The speaker/author seems to be perpetuating the conception that Jefferson was a “Great White Father” to his slaves when recent research and publications indicate that he viewed his slaves as an economic investment. I would also refer readers and listeners to the recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine, November 2012 issue. Very informative.

  • Potter

    Good show… thank you!

  • 1Brett1

    I have often wondered, especially in my many visits to Monticello, just how much Jefferson either was at internal odds/conflict with his far-reaching (for the times) philosophy and his daily life, or how much he presented his own mind with countless justifications. It’s a notion unanswerable. One can look at his actions and at certain ideas he championed, but that doesn’t quite get at his internal struggles. His need to make Monticello into the vision he had for it, and to leave a large legacy, did seem to trump all other concerns; which, they are somewhat in contradiction, especially when one looks at how Washington, for example, ostensibly handled those same “internal” struggles.

  • pjm19606

    Like all the forefathers, Jefferson was filthy rich and though he attempted numerous reconciliations, his wealth came first and resulted in the creation of a constitution which protects the wealthiest. We do not have a Democracy in the US, we have a Republic because Jefferson and others understood 2 things about Democracy which caused them to avoid creating one: 1. that in a Democracy, majority rules and 2. that in no Democracy in the history of Man have the wealthy ever constituted a Democracy. For these reasons, our Republic has managed to do such astounding things such as elect a president without a majority of the popular vote (G. W. Bush 2000).    

    • Wahoo_wa

      Jefferson was hardy “filthy rich”.  He struggled with debt his entire life because he cosigned a loan for a close friend that was defaulted on.  When he died Monticello and many of his belongings were sold.  Monticello itself was constantly in need of repair, with portions rotting as other portions were added or repaired.  I’m sorry but your invented narrative of Mr. Jefferson’s life has little to do with reality.  http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter10/jefferson.cfm  
      Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4 of the Constitution would also refute your claims that the Constitution only protects the rich.

      • Wahoo_wa

        You may also wish to read this article: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2148646?uid=3739696&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101373372481
        Some of the founding fathers were wealthy however their wealth was less than that of their Loyalist neighbors.

      • pjm19606

        I said “forefathers” You said, “Jefferson”. knitpick all you want, the forefathers WERE filthy rich for their time. If they were not, they would never have made the transatlantic voyage….with their slaves, no less. Puleeeeze!

        • Wahoo_wa

          Again….you’re perception is not entirely accurate.

          • pjm19606

            Suit yourself. Then why don’t we have an actual Democracy in the US? Democracies inherently distribute wealth evenly but, as none exists, neither you, nor I can point to examples. I, however, as both a US and Swiss citizen can point to the fact that Switzerland IS the closest approximation of Democracy left on Earth and where wealth distribution is no where near as skewed as ours in the US.

          • Wahoo_wa

            The United States was never conceived as a Democracy but rather a Democratic Republic.

          • pjm19606

            I guess you can’t read. That is what I said. The US was NEVER a Democracy. But you better also let your Right wing politicians know!

          • Wahoo_wa

            Actually I think you wrote “Then  why don’t we have an actual Democracy in the US?”…am I wrong?  Why would we be a democracy if we were never conceived as such?  Why would you pose a question that implies we were conceived as a  democracy when clearly that was not the case?  You seem to imply that something was taken from us or that we have been deceived.  Personal attacks are not necessary either.

          • Wahoo_wa

            I’m also curious…if the United States is so bad and Switzerland is so much better, why do you maintain dual citizenship?  You must receive some benefit from US citizenship and the cultural and material benefits of that citizenship to maintain citizenship.  It’s irrelevant to the discussion but I am just curious.

          • pjm19606

            It it decidedlymore expensive there and I would be there if my French and German skills were native rather than just fluent.

          • Wahoo_wa

            I see.

        • Wahoo_wa

          Oh….and I don’t think there are any founding fathers that were not born in North America.  So therefore, the statement “If they were not, they would never have made the transatlantic voyage….with their slaves, no less.”  is grossly inaccurate.

          • Wahoo_wa

            If you want to go back further I suggest researching those who came  here on the Mayflower.  Rich is not a word that I would use to describe them.  ….and wealth had little to do with survival in colonial North America.  The Mayflower Compact (predecessor to our own Constitution) was also a document drafted for the common good.

          • pjm19606

            I can tell, I am talking to a wall! Good Day!

  • bobthewriter

    I was grinding my teeth after listening to your author talk for an hour without mentioning Sally Hemmings. I know you tried to nudge him a couple of times. Still, it was disappointing enough that I have no interest in reading his book. SOS (and that does not signal a cry for help.) I usually do enjoy your show.

  • http://www.audiomind.us/blog AUDIOMIND

    What are the two greatest strengths and two weaknesses you think that Jefferson exhibited?

  • ExcellentNews

    Jefferson was the ultimate liberal and rational humanist. No wonder the fundamentalist right and left hate him so much.

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