‘Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power’ By Jon Meacham

Did I need to read another Jefferson book? Probably not. My fifth in the last two years, though the first traditional biography (the others being guided by conceits or else by Christopher Hitchens and so read to understand him rather than Jefferson).

No. What I need to do and what I have started to do is read Jefferson’s own writings.

It’s a good biography, don’t mistake me, but my interest is in his thinking and as the founder or spiritual godfather of a certain Americans intellectual tradition, not in his use of power. Though, it should be noted that I am not sure that this book actually does all that much to explain Jefferson’s view of the art of power. I think it was settled upon more because it was a cool title than a genuine descriptor of the book’s unique contribution. But an important though not unique note: …we see that Jefferson the practical politician was a more powerful persona than Jefferson the moral theorist. [478]

In terms of things I gained from the reading, I did appreciate hearing Meacham’s perspective, such as his defense of Jefferson’s behavior as governor of Virginia for a few years during the Revolution.

PS – Happy Father’s Day, everyone.

Williamsburg & Yorktown

A lovely bookstore on the Yorktown riverfront. I bought a copy of Jefferson’s selected writings.

From the Yorktown Battlefield visitor’s center; according to tradition, the campaign table of General Lord Cornwallis.

The Yorktown Victory Monument

The rather martial foyer of the Governor’s Palace

I just enjoyed seeing a book edited by the notable leftist historians, Eric Foner, in a government building in the Age of Trump (not that Foner does not deserve his place; his multivolume history of Reconstruction is still the gold standard).

My continued dialogue with the idea of Jefferson

The Charlton Coffeehouse is my favorite stop in Colonial Williamsburg. When I asked about this (initially thinking that Mr. Mercer might have been engaging in some civil disobedience), the “player” turned out to be quite knowledgeable and told me about how Mercer was accosted and assaulted by an angry mob and then submitted this the next day; she also told me about another, similar incident involving a tax collector in Pennsylvania.

The coffeehouse

Outside the Governor’s Palace

Inside the Governor’s Palace

We visited Colonial Williamsburg and made a brief stop in Yorktown to visit the Yorktown Battlefield and to, ahem, check out a bookstore. I have continued to read (and feel conflicted) about Thomas Jefferson and was disappointed that the Raleigh Tavern wasn’t open, because it featured prominently in Jefferson’s life while studying in Williamsburg, including being where the Virginia House of Burgesses met after being officially dissolved by the Royal Governor.

Riddle Of The Sands

My father explained that The Riddle of the Sands was about sailing, as he watched the seventies film version (with, of course, Michael York). I didn’t understand much of pay attention much at the time, but the memory stuck with me.

Without actually reading the book or watching the movie, I became more aware of it.

It was an early book that premised the idea that England’s future enemy was not it’s traditional foe, France, but a rising Germany. It was also an early version of the modern spy story.

A sailing enthusiast becomes convinced that a german yachter tried to get him killed by leading him down a dangerous coastal waterway, so he recruits a college friend to investigate was the Germans could be hiding, the titular riddle (the area is filled with sand bars and shifting sand islands). There is a British traitor, disguises, and a lot of dangerous sailing – which he manages to make exciting (there is no violence or fighting, but plenty of tension).

I will admit that I skipped the very end, which is a brief treatise of how England could secure her coasts against a German invasion using small, light boats arriving unexpectedly from that sandy coast, but I can’t imagine it’s very relevant now.

Hitchens On Paine

I felt a little bad reading this because I have a nice, inexpensive copy of The Rights of Man which I have never finished and here I am putting the cart before the horse and reading about it before actually reading it. I suppose that makes me like most readers of this book but, to be honest, I have always thought I was better than most people, at least as regards my reading habits, if not morally and hygenically.

We read Hitchens, of course, for Hitchens, regardless of the ostensible focus, but we can see the appeal: a polemicist and pamphleteer in the Enlightenment tradition who made a widely recognized contribution to the course of human events. In dedicating the book to the then president of a post-Saddam Iraq, he must have been hoping, somewhere, that one day he might be recognized in some small way as contributing to a similarly successful product, even if the years appear to have only proven him more wrong on that particular adventure than it seemed even when he wrote this.

I had never heard it before and won’t vouch for its provenance, except to express my belief that Hitchens would have made a good faith effort to examine its sources, but I love the anecdote about William Blake, the mystical poet, warning Paine, the (small ‘r’) republican pamphleteer, that he was in danger of arrest, inspiring the latter to immediately cross the water to revolutionary France.

Learning about Paine’s career was the fascinating. My own knowledge, prior, was rather thin. While no substitute for a biography by a professional biographer or historian, I am not likely to read one, so I’m glad that I got this brief look at his career.

‘Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson’ By Gore Vidal

I was forewarned regarding Vidal’s dislike of Hamilton, but was surprised by his frequent dismissal of Jefferson (though I loved his depiction of the third president in Burr) and his seeming affection for and interest in John Adams (though the McCullough biography was still within a couple of years of peak popularity, so maybe he felt compelled).

No one in their right mind reads a history by Vidal in order to know history. Understand more, perhaps, but not to know it, if that distinction makes any sense to you. And I know enough, I feel, to know what to distrust and what might offer some new understanding.

But I have always found Vidal’s obsession with American politics vaguely surprising. It makes perfect sense and he was, really, a frustrated politician, in many ways, in addition to the family history. But his public intellectual style and Brahminic accent, not to mention his long time home in Italy, he always felt like someone who should have spent the life of his mind with Cicero rather than Washington.

Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson And The Empire Of Imagination

I, uh… I am not sure what the second half of that title is doing there. While I am sure that Jefferson was imaginative, that’s not really what this book is about (and most folks, including the authors, do not consider Jefferson to be an original thinker). And while you could make a strong argument for Jefferson having helped create an American Empire (the Louisiana Purchase and also the war against the Tripoli pirates).

But the first part makes a great deal of sense, because the authors’ main line seems to be that Jefferson saw himself and the world through the lens of an agrarian view of the family, with the patriarch at the head. Even democracy was a democracy of small patriarchs. It’s well understood that the Founding Fathers were deeply invested in protecting the rights and political prerogatives of landowners, so this isn’t that different, but the emphasis on family – and most especially on the role of the head of the family – is where they make their mark.

If you read my last post, you know I am struggling with Jefferson right now.

So also, I think, are Gordon-Reed and Onuf.

They want to praise Jefferson, but like Antony to Caesar, they seem rather to have ultimately come to bury him (yes, I know, a literal reading, rather than a true understanding of Antony’s intent in that speech).

They cannot get beyond his hypocrisy, because their unearthing sees it everywhere in his ideas. Even worse, they see him as being less and less committed to even the idea of ending slavery as time went on.

Like many writers, they view his time in Paris as crucial. But they see a sort of reaction wherein Jefferson reinvented himself in his mind as uniquely American (and also invents an image of America) that pushes him away from criticism of slavery, because he saw many European thinkers as inherently critical, so he wound up dropping the subject within himself.