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Thomas Jefferson: Why He’s Still Relevant Today

A new book on the founding father highlights the conflicts that all politicians face

Photo: Getty Images

Jon Meacham, former editor-in-chief of Newsweek, is no stranger to producing big biographies of monumental men: He’s written about Andrew Jackson (winning a Pulitzer Prize), FDR and Winston Churchill. But he’d long regarded one revered figure as his Mount Everest: Thomas Jefferson. He began his research in 2009, and this month, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Meacham’s examination of Jefferson’s political life, will be published. The author spoke to DuJour about what he learned about our third president. 

I’ve heard that Barack Obama prompted you to write this Jefferson biography. Why?

I published my Andrew Jackson book right after the 2008 election, when suddenly we had this cool, cerebral president who affects to dislike politics but is pretty good at it. Obama’s rise made someone like Jefferson more interesting to look at. Jefferson was another conflicted figure who seemed to share our own era’s ambivalence of politics. I wanted to show folks that we can hate politics all we want, but attacking it and waving it away isn’t getting us anywhere. Our greatest presidents, if only right for 15 minutes, also had glaring failures. There is a utility to understanding that. We shouldn’t expect too much from our politicians nor think they are not capable of delivering anything.  

What do you think that Jefferson would make of the Tea Party?  

He would have understood the impulses behind it. And he would argue that his friend and neighbor James Madison was right: The republic is full of conflicting and contending interests. Jefferson very much wanted to be a small-government president, like Ronald Reagan. But like Reagan, he had a different view after he got into office. Conservatives always become more liberal when they get the job and liberals become conservative, and Jefferson understood that fluidity. He was not sitting at a university thinking big thoughts but spending his days as an intensely practical politican.

How do you reconcile the fact that such an enlightened person as Jefferson was silent about slavery?  

Jefferson and slavery is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of his life—and it’s the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the American nation. With that issue, Jefferson did something he almost never did: He gave up. One of the ironies was that a multiracial society already existed at Monticello, however he did not envision a multiracial society like the America of 2012. 

Did you find any surprises in your research?

I really believe that Jefferson had more of a tragic sensibility than has been appreciated. He’s often portrayed as a hopeless optimist. But he was a student of stoicism, of The Iliad. He understood we only do the best we can.