Which Thomas Jefferson do you want to read about: the ruthless slave owner or the great American president and man of ideas who shaped history with his elegantly drafted Declaration of Independence?
If the latter’s what you’re looking for, then Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is your book. Fresh off the success of American Lion, his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Andrew Jackson, Jon Meacham has delivered another one of his patented hagiographies. His is a big, grand, absorbing exploration of not just Jefferson and his role in history but also Jefferson the man, humanized as never before — fishing for speckled trout; surprising a beloved granddaughter with a silk dress; keeping vigil by his dying wife’s bed. If the book has a flaw, it’s that Meacham’s Jefferson is cast in an overly golden light. The author does concede that the man who wrote, ”We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal” meant ”all white men, especially propertied ones.” But though he devotes a fair amount of space to Jefferson’s early attempts to abolish slavery, nowhere does he examine the harsh realities of Jefferson as slave owner.
That’s what historian Henry Wiencek does so well in Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. ”Throughout Jefferson’s plantation ledgers there runs a thread of indicators … that the Monticello machine operated on carefully calibrated violence,” he writes, citing example after example of slaves beaten, whipped, sold, and sent to work at Jefferson’s nail factory at the age of 10 or 11. It’s a compelling and utterly damning portrait. Yet if Meacham has given us a Jefferson viewed through a gauzy filter, then Wiencek has applied a strictly modern filter to the man. The real truth likely lies somewhere between the two books: Jefferson was a man who dreamed and wrote of a better world — and aspired to it — but, mired in his own age and time, could never achieve it. B+