My colleague Jennifer Cole has a huge crush on Thomas Jefferson. (She claims it’s his legacy in the food world, but I think she has a thing for a guy with a quill pen.) She Google-stalked him, curious if in his younger days TJ happened to be hot. Turns out they didn’t make portraits of folks until they had made it. “So the 2-dollar bill is as close as I get to a pin-up,” she says. “But I am a fool for a Roman nose.”
I can no longer heckle Cole about her obsession, now that I’ve got my hands on Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, a buzz-worthy book by master biographer Jon Meacham. Ranked No. 1 on the American Bookseller Association’s December Indie Next List, this fresh biography—which debuts tomorrow—reveals what makes Jefferson so irresistible, in his time and in ours.
“Thomas Jefferson was at once the consummate Southerner and the consummate American, a man of contradictions with a sense of history,” Meacham told me via email. And those contradictions are what make TJ so intriguing.
Not only is Jefferson one of the most powerfully influential men in our nation’s history, he is an endearingly flawed and complicated guy whose heart gets him into trouble. He is a visionary, cerebral enough to pen the Declaration of Independence (John Adams told him, “You can write ten times better than I can.”) But at the same time, he is a hopeless romantic, a sucker for gardens who records the life and death of his flowers. He is charming and smart, flirtatious yet principled (well, mostly). He loves women, but loves his family more. He’s a thinker and a doer, with a philosopher’s mind and a leader’s command. He’s a good listener who knows the timeless truth that most people just want “an attentive audience to listen to their own visions and views.” And he has good taste: He is the original locavore and a founding oenophile without whom we might all be drinking Muscadine wine.
I dare you to find more talent than that in any Match.com profile.
Here’s why the lit world is buzzing about this book: It “speak(s) directly to the current moment, with its diminished faith in government and in the nation’s elected leaders,” as NYT executive editor Jill Abramson puts it in her very smart review. She counts Meacham a member of what she calls the “Flawed Giant School” of journalist/biographers who depict “figures of heroic grandeur despite all-too-human shortcomings.” And that’s what makes Meacham’s Jefferson so relatable, instead of unreachable.
The credit goes to Meacham’s serious chops. The executive editor of Random House and former editor of Newsweek, Meacham won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling Andrew Jackson biography, American Lion. He strikes a rare balance that will satisfy both historians (see: 174 pages of footnotes) and lovers of good storytelling (see: Chapter 22, about Jefferson’s “other” family).
But here’s why it should be on your nightstand: A good biography brings a dead character to life. A great one makes you feel as if you know the subject personally. This one gets you inside the heart and mind of one of the most complex, fascinating men of our nation’s past. It reconciles Jefferson’s political maneuverings with his philosophical struggles, but also shows how he handled the lifelong, universal battle between one’s heart and head. And it does so with a narrative that is as readable as it is intelligent.
“His life still resonates in remarkable ways,” Meacham says. “He was a politician operating in a ferociously partisan age, struggling to reconcile competing interests in an age in which America faced rapid transformation at home and evolving threats abroad.”
Now, what could be hotter than that?