Great Britain’s hold on its small colonies hugging the Atlantic shoreline was constantly being tested in the mid to late 18th century. A number of remarkable men, all at or near the height of their powers, led the separation from the British rule. Only two or three men made the difference in this intense struggle. Thomas Jefferson was certainly one of these.
This superb biography of Jefferson has so many assets: it is relatively brief; it covers most of the important aspects of this complex man’s remarkable life; it leaves us with undiluted admiration for an extraordinary man; and it creates a tension, so much a part of America’s post-Revolution history, between the two major parties that struggled for early supremacy in the opening days of the American republic’s history.
Many other historians have surveyed the same ground but few have captured the essence of Jefferson’s personality -- deeply thoughtful, hopeful for the future of the society that was being created, eminently fair but stubborn and occasionally searing, a marvelous friend but a relentless enemy. John Meacham makes a great contribution to understanding the nation’s early story in this history.
The scope of the book is vast, covering all of Jefferson’s life, a life lived during the period of time when important events occurred back to back, crowding together from the Revolution to the early days of Washington’s presidency, the struggle between the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Republicans, led by Jefferson, the early expansion of the country westward across the North American continent, the arguments with Great Britain. Jefferson was on center stage for most of this. His instincts were clear and sure: liberty, personal freedom, fairness, stubborness and unyielding when under attack.
In such a crowded life, the historian is faced with making choices. I would have wanted a fuller account of the election of 1800, which Jefferson barely won, defeating Aaron Burr by only two electoral votes; I would have liked to have had a more extensive discussion of his relationship with Sally Hemmings, whom he treated reasonably well but never was treated as an equal – a strange footnote to Jefferson’s life which, at least on the surface, was all about freedom and equal rights and the equality of mankind. The discussion of the country’s growing prosperity that enabled it to deal with British attempts to limit the success of the country could have been more extensive.
In such a complex life, any historian, including Mr. Meacham, has to make choices. In my opinion, this is a very successful work of history in painting a full portrait of a complex and extraordinary man.
Review undertaken by David H. MacCallum