When President John F. Kennedy hosted all living recipients of the Nobel Prize in 1962, he told them, I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
Not surprisingly, Jon Meacham used this quote in the introduction to his biography Thomas Jefferson, the Art of Power (Random, $35).
Im fascinated by politics and how human beings, with all their shortcomings and flaws and failings, manage to leave the world a little better off than they found it, said Meacham, who appears Thursday at Broward College in Davie. And Jefferson is clearly in that category, an American president who clearly had failings, but in the end, I think, bent history in a positive direction.
Meacham obviously admires Jefferson the author of the Declaration of Independence, the first secretary of state, the second vice president and the third president of the United States. But he doesnt spare the president from criticism for failing to free his slaves and for his almost 40-year-long liaison with a slave woman that produced six children, four of whom lived. Yet he does believe that Jefferson was a creature of his times.
I think hes a hypocrite and I also think hes human, said Meacham, a former editor of Newsweek who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his biography of Andrew Jackson. In my mind, his views on slavery are the central tragedy of his life. He knew slavery was wrong, but he chose not to do anything about it.
As a younger man, he had a chance to reform the institution. He lost each time, either as a trial lawyer or as a young politician. And so he gave up, which was a very un-Jeffersonian thing to do.
So the question for a biographer is, what do you do with that? Do you consign someone who is so clearly capable of such terrible failure to oblivion? I dont think so. I think we have to take these figures from the past and afford them the context of their times, without absolving them.
Q. The subtitle of your book is The Art of Power, yet Jefferson only had executive power for a few years of his life eight years as president and a few years as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War. Why did you use that subtitle?
My argument is that he was in political office more or less constantly from 1769 to 1809. He was a political figure who arguably was the most successful politician of his time. For 40 years, you had as president either Thomas Jefferson himself or a self-described Jeffersonian as president, with the exception of John Quincy Adams. To my mind, Jefferson does embody the art of power, which I define as projecting an image of where the country should go while simultaneously possessing the mechanical skills to bring that image to fruition.
Q. Thomas Jefferson almost didnt become president. In 1800, he was tied in the Electoral College with vice presidential candidate Aaron Burr, and the House of Representatives had to pick a winner. If Jefferson hadnt become president, do you think he would still have such an exalted place in American history?
I think that if he had not become president the course of the country itself might have been different. It was only the fourth presidential election. If in fact the man who won the majority of the votes had been denied the presidency because of maneuvering in Washington, you had a lot of people in Pennsylvania and Virginia and elsewhere who were talking about sending troops to Washington. And so, I think we could have had a kind of civil war. If he had not been president, I think he still would be in the collective memory as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the first secretary of state.
Q. Do you consider Jefferson to have been a great president?
I do. He doubled the size of the country [the Louisiana Purchase] without firing a shot. He came through the crisis of 1800 while arguing successfully that the will of the majority should prevail. He built West Point. He created a culture in Washington in which lawmakers actually spoke to each other. He wasnt perfect, but I havent found a president who was.
Q. During the 1790s and early 1800s, there was a great deal of feuding between Jeffersons Republicans [the ancestors of todays Democrats] and the Federalists of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, which is similar to the situation in Washington today. Are there any lessons from Jeffersons time that can be applied today?
I think President Obama is beginning to follow a kind of Jeffersonian example here. One of the things that Jefferson did is that he had dinner every day that Congress was in session with members of Congress. Im not suggesting that social contact is the road to political Valhalla. But it is a political fact, and Jefferson believed this, that things tend to work better when people know each other, when people hear the principal on the other side making a case for something.
The other point, and I think its very hard for members of Congress to understand this in this age of political purity, but you have to be willing to depart from dogma. If you want to be totally philosophically consistent all the time, politics is the last business to go into. I dont believe political choices by and large are as stark as political rhetoric portrays them to be. Sometimes they are civil rights, slavery, war and peace. But often theres a lot of ambiguity, and I think what Jefferson mastered in his 40 years in political life was an ability to be comfortable with that ambiguity in many ways.
Sam Jacobs is a Miami Herald editor.