Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wiencek: "Meacham Has Fallen Under the Jeffersonian Spell"

Henry Wiencek's review of Jon Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is up at The New Republic. It is not a positive review. A taste:

But at times Meacham simply hands the book over to Jefferson, allowing the narrative to devolve into a pastiche of quotations from Jefferson’s papers, stitched together chronologically, with Meacham interposing only light, talk-show-level commentary. This is understandable; with so much seductive Jeffersonian prose to quote, Jefferson’s biographers run the risk of becoming little Jeffersons, making his perspective theirs. The problem, as Joanne B. Freeman has pointed out in her reading of Jefferson’s political memoirs, is that Jefferson did not shrink from depicting his “personal perspective as objective history.”

In his notes, Meacham concedes that “a vapor of duplicity,” as Charles Francis Adams wrote, beclouds this founder. But Meacham hastens to reassure us that Jefferson would never tell a lie. If his language seemed to deceive, the deception must be in the ear of the listener: “He hated arguing face-to-face, preferring to smooth out the rough edges of conversation …” Thus, Jefferson gets a pass for lying to Washington when he sought to deceive the president about his deep involvement in the propaganda wars raging in the newspaper : “Jefferson had been dishonest …preferring to mislead Washington rather than force a confrontation.” This was power politics at its dirtiest—and most fascinating—yet Meacham gives it only cursory attention, perhaps because, as he admits, Jefferson’s financial ties to the propaganda hounds reeked of “the smell of the stables.”

For those interested in recent debates over how to interpret Jefferson, see the following:

My series of posts on David Barton's The Jefferson Lies.

My posts on the response to Wiencek's Master of the Mountain here and here and here and here and here.  (These posts include links to reviews of Wiencek's book by Annette Gordon-Reed and Jan Lewis).

Paul Finkelman's New York Times op-ed, "The Monster of Monticello."