By David Whitford editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- Thomas Jefferson, Jon Meacham writes, "is the founding president who charms us most." Not just us. He charmed his contemporaries, too, and not only but definitely also the ladies. One of my favorite stories in Meacham's masterful and intimate new biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, is about a visit Jefferson made to the Washington home of newspaper publisher and fellow Republican Samuel Harrison Smith. Smith's wife, Margaret, whose own leanings were toward the Federalists, spent a few minutes alone in the parlor with the gentleman caller, not yet knowing who he was.
At first, she was "somewhat checked" by his "dignified and reserved air," Mrs. Smith later wrote, but the feeling quickly passed. "There was something in his manner, his countenance and voice that at once unlocked my heart," she recalled, noting especially "the interest with which he listened" to her. When she discovered that the tall, handsome stranger was none other than "Mr. Jefferson," Mrs. Smith "felt my cheeks burn and my heart throb … And is this the violent democrat, the vulgar demagogue, the bold atheist and profligate man I have so often heard denounced by the Federalists? Can this man so meek and mild, so soft and low, with a countenance so benignant and intelligent, can he be that daring leader of a faction, that disturber of the peace, that enemy of all rank and order?"
Meacham, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his last big presidential biography, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, is mainly interested in how Jefferson wielded power, and perhaps what today's leaders -- in business as much as government, I'd add -- might learn from his example. We live in partisan times, to be sure, but we can hardly conceive of how deep the political divisions were in Jefferson's America, and how much was yet unsettled. We no longer debate the relative merits of an elected presidency versus a hereditary monarchy. We don't fret about the possibility of a military coup, or an invasion by a foreign power. We all agree that slavery is evil; and certain red-state secession petitions aside, we can be reasonably sure that the union will survive. (Or at least we're no longer worried, as Jefferson was right to be as late as 1804, that Federalist Massachusetts, despising the "evils of democracy," could go its own way and take the rest of New England with it.)
Jefferson was willful, ambitious, and demanding. He did not take kindly to being crossed by his inferiors, be they man or beast. ("The only impatience of temper he ever displayed," a grandson recalled, "was with his horse, which he subdued to his will by a fearless application of the whip on the slightest manifestation of restiveness.") But underlying all his political maneuverings was an uncanny "political instinct," Meacham writes, "to fight only those political battles he believed he could win now."
For the author of the phrase, "all men are created equal," slavery posed the ultimate political dilemma. A slave owner himself, Jefferson nevertheless tried several times to nudge his countrymen forward; he favored emancipation coupled with deportation. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson denounced the slave trade. He knew that history was on his side. ("Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free ...") But he came to understand that now was not the time for emancipation, and not just because Georgia and North Carolina were violently opposed. "Our Northern brethren," Jefferson wrote, "also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for though their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others." Bowing to reality, and as much as he hated to be edited, especially by groups, Jefferson allowed the offending passage to be struck.
"He liked quiet but he could not stand silence," Meacham writes, which, until I read that, I assumed was a strictly modern, iPod-enabled neurosis. When he wasn't playing the violin (often accompanied, before her early death in childbirth, by his wife Patty on the piano), or humming to himself, Jefferson surrounded himself with singing birds. His favorite was one he named Dick, who lived with him in the White House, and according to the same Mrs. Smith, "was the constant companion of his solitary and studious hours." Dick used to follow the president upstairs at naptime and "pour forth its melodious strains" from its perch on the couch.
The Jefferson that emerges from these pages is a figure we can almost imagine Jon Stewart interviewing, respectfully and with reference to "the rights of man," on The Daily Show. Jefferson was a news junkie ("He had to know everything"); an entertainer ("constantly, handsomely and with a purpose," believing "sociability was essential to republicanism"); a tree-hugger ("The unnecessary felling of a tree, perhaps the growth of centuries, seems to me a crime little short of murder"); and an atheist, who for that reason alone could never win an election today. "And the day will come," this founding father wrote, "when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." Yes, well, all in good time.
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