A new biography of the third president paints him as a model for our times. In fact, his rigid ideology prevented him from solving some of the nation's most serious problems.
Every few years a biographer seems to think there's something extremely timely a founding father can teach us. For our current age of partisan gridlock, Jon Meacham thinks Thomas Jefferson has crucial lessons to impart. In his new book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Meacham tells us that Jefferson wasn't only a brilliant politician, but a founding father who would have been horrified at today's ideological rigidity.
"Jefferson's political leadership is instructive," Meacham writes, "in part because he found the means to endure and, in many cases, to prevail in the face of extreme partisanship." In Meacham's telling, Jefferson is less the contradictory figure he's usually made out to be than a tough-minded "pragmatist" (a word we see over and over) who jettisoned his ideals for the sake of political expediency.
The book is timed for its release right after the election. And while the focus on Jefferson's strengthening of the federal government makes it seem like a policy brief for Obama, there's enough in it for Romney to like. Meacham tells us that Jefferson always valued conservative creeds like "American liberty and American strength," and in his eight years as president he even cut the national debt. In the epilogue, Meacham quotes Reagan ("himself a visionary with a pragmatic streak") who praised Jefferson for recognizing that "man had received from God a precious gift of enlightenment, ...a gift that could extract from the chaos of life meaning, truth, order."