Is Thomas Jefferson to Blame for Today's Partisan Politics?

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. 

This 1903 engraving shows Thomas Jefferson and a commissioner preparing to accept the Louisiana transfer as Indians benevolently look on. (Library of Congress)

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."

But a more honest look at Jefferson's political career reveals a very different picture. Far from being a model of how to prevail in divisive times, Jefferson was the father of today's partisanship. You do not need to look hard for examples. From Jefferson's first days in the federal government as Washington's secretary of state in 1789, he began plotting against those who opposed him. At the time, his chief rival was Alexander Hamilton, Washington's treasurer, who began wooing the president with his arch-nationalist agenda. Quietly, Jefferson founded an anti-Hamiltonian newspaper, the National Gazette, with the sole aim of attacking Hamilton and his allies, the Federalists.

To be fair, Federalists had already created their own papers. (The idea of an independent press didn't exist then.) But it was less a party paper than an affirmation of the Constitution and the federal government. To launch the National Gazette, Jefferson secretly used funds from his government post. The paper itself provided a national forum for anti-Federalist views, leading directly to the creation of the Democratic-Republican Party. Meacham brushes aside Jefferson's secrecy and divisiveness, choosing instead to glamorize his moves as an artful illustration of power. Yet it's hard to get around the fact that Jefferson was instrumental in creating party politics. Moreover, he would use those same partisan tactics to leave a legacy of states' rights doctrine that would far outlast his lifetime.

Jefferson was never against a federal government, as Meacham rightly points out. But up until his presidency, he believed that the states should be the ultimate guarantors of personal freedoms. When John Adams, the second president, signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Jefferson feared the government was suppressing individual liberties. His solution was to go behind Adams's back and secretly draft the ur-text of states rights doctrine, the Kentucky Resolutions. It was a thoroughly partisan move, especially considering that Jefferson was, at the time, serving as Adams's vice president--a position then reserved for the second-place finisher. The Resolutions first drafted by Jefferson passed the Kentucky legislature in November 1798 and debilitated Johns Adams and the Federalist Party, which had largely supported the Alien and Sedition Act.

Jefferson's draft of the bill gave Kentucky the right to nullify federal laws the state didn't agree with. It was mostly a symbolic act, but the resolutions would come back to haunt the country. A couple of decades later, Southern Democrats from the extreme wing of Jefferson's party repeatedly invoked them to ignore federal law, and ultimately secede from the union. But you don't need to look beyond Jefferson's lifetime to see how deeply he embedded partisanship into politics.

Jefferson's 1801 election to the presidency gave rise to what historians call the First Party System. A tie between Jefferson and his fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr, whom both assumed would be vice president, was thrown into the House of Representatives for a final vote. In a highly partisan fight, Jefferson manipulated the Federalists, who largely supported Burr, making them believe that he'd keep their party officials in their already-appointed positions if they voted him into power. After he won, Jefferson did the exact opposite, purging Federalists from the national government.

The most significant example came in 1802. Early in Jefferson's first term, he tried to expel Adams's Federalist appointees from the national courts and tip the balance favor in the Democratic-Republicans. But rather than portray these maneuvers as partisan, Meacham praises them as "a monument to Jefferson's power." He barely gives any attention at all to the repercussions of Jefferson's audacious act. The Supreme Court rejected his attempt in the 1803 landmark case Marbury v. Madison, and its ruling established judicial review--empowering the judiciary to serve as a check on presidential power, not become a pawn of it.

Few can talk about Jefferson's presidency without discussing the Louisiana Purchase. It doubled the sized of the country, and was hard to refuse: America's population was exploding, and Napoleon offered to sell it for a pittance, at three-cents an acre. But not many historians today would assess the purchase without fully accounting for its political costs. Buying the land meant dealing with the Native Americans who already lived there, and figuring out whether to allow slavery in the new territory. For Meacham, the deal is an inspiring lesson in political power: "The story of the Louisiana Purchase is one of strength," he tells us, "of Jefferson's resilience in the face of his opponents."

In fact, Jefferson's naïve handling of the Indian population had disastrous consequences. Meacham acknowledges these but treats them as little more than a tragic footnote, not a sweeping error in judgment. The intoxicating promise of a vast new territory open to white settlement led Jefferson to think that Indians would want to assimilate. "Unite yourselves with us," he told a delegate of native leaders in 1808, "join in our Great Councils and form one people with us, and we shall all be Americans; you will mix with us by marriage, your blood will run in our veins, and will spread with us over this great island." His attempt to assimilate Indians was an abject failure, setting off a century of Native American wars that crystallized in Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy. It's a surprising elision for a writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 book, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.

And while elsewhere Meacham dutifully condemns Jefferson's failures on slavery, it's not mentioned at all in his chapter on the Purchase. On slavery, Jefferson sided with his party. The Democratic-Republicans dominated Congress, legalizing slavery in the new territory despite widespread Federalist opposition. Jefferson signed the bill into law.

Meacham is so wedded to celebrating Jefferson's political pragmatism that he can only see his weakness regarding slavery as an isolated moral tragedy. He overlooks the way it guided some of Jefferson's most important decisions, and ignores the fact that other politicians addressed it more successfully. Before the rise of party politics, for instance, George Washington was able to sign into law the Northwest Ordinance, explicitly barring slavery north of the Ohio River. It was hardly an act of courage; it continued to allow slavery anywhere south and implicitly sanctioned it where it already existed. Yet it also placed limits that Jefferson and the party system he helped create would make nearly impossible.

It's a bitter irony for Meacham to be publishing such a celebratory book while the country is now commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Many of the war's roots can be traced to Jefferson. When the political stakes were highest with the Louisiana Purchase, he could have prohibited slavery in the new territory, to say nothing of abolishing it when the states up north already had. Instead, he fell back on his states' rights philosophy. Any new state carved out from the territory should decide for itself whether to permit slavery in its borders, he believed, not the federal government.

Meacham seems unwilling to acknowledge that Jefferson exacerbated the slavery problem. He paints him as a noble leader who tried but failed to change the people's minds. "Jefferson was never able to move public opinion on slavery," he concedes. "His powers failed him--and they failed America." Yet Jefferson never tried very hard, and by placing the blame on the American people, Meacham forces us to accept Jefferson's failures as an inevitable part of the political process. That is the knot Meacham has tied us, and himself, in: an acceptance of the moral compromises that come with power.

The contradictions between Jefferson's idealism and his politics are no easier to embrace when cast as "pragmatic." If anything, it's Jefferson's idealism as a founding father that's worth glorifying -- his words about equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. The political career that Meacham believes is so impressive gives us far less to admire. Jefferson may have been a more forceful president than most realize, but his powers didn't fix America's most pressing problems. That failure was a direct result of Jefferson's politics, not simply a byproduct of the political process.

That is not a model Obama should be looking to, nor even Mitt Romney. But more importantly, Meacham's book reminds us of what's so futile about projecting our present political dreams into the past. You not only make your politics look oddly cruel, you make your history look bad, too.