Learning from a Presidential Biography

What might an incoming president learn from a biography of Thomas Jefferson? Much indeed.

Study and learn from history.


Jefferson didn’t come to the American Revolution as a blank slate. He had studied the successes and failures of Britain’s seventeenth-century anti-monarchical Cromwell revolution and subsequent restoration of the crown. He studied both the political philosophy and the practical political lessons of the era.

Invite your political opponents to dinner.
Jefferson was courteous to everyone, including those of other political persuasions. When he met them in person, he inevitably charmed them, focusing conversation on what was of interest to his guests. He made a habit while President of inviting groups of those from the other party to dinner, allowing personal relationship to inform political discussion.

Be curious about everything.
Jefferson wanted to know all he could about architecture, science, theology, agriculture, art. All this culminated in his final years when he founded an institution to educate others in all these disciplines and more, the University of Virginia.

Be willing to set aside political doctrine for the good of the country. Jefferson came into the presidency opposing those who advocated a stronger executive branch of government and especially those who supported a return to monarchy. While he never wavered on the issue of monarchy, he was quite willing to expand executive initiative and powers, notably in his pursuit of the Barbary pirates and the purchase of the Louisiana territory from France.

Jon Meacham’s


readable biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, offers all this and much more. Meacham also doesn’t flinch from exploring epic contradictions in Jefferson. The author of freedom owned hundreds of slaves with one, Sally Hemings, bearing him several children. While he made a few efforts here and there against slavery in his career, when opposition emerged, he easily set those efforts aside.

Also the man who sought to be in charge of his political and physical environment was constantly under the pressure of creditors, much of it due to his own excessive expenditures. Indeed everything he owned, including Monticello, had to be sold on his death to meet his debts.

Why these inconsistencies? Meacham never explicitly identifies that Jefferson was a Southern Patrician. He was raised as defacto Southern aristocracy in Virginia and imbued deeply the culture of superiority over others layered with charm and grace. From this emerged both his overbearing debt (to sustain his class standing) and acceptance of slavery.

A couple other quibbles: Several times Meacham builds up to some key event but never fully resolves it. After pages of discussing Jefferson’s courtships, Meacham skips over the wedding which we don’t learn the date of until his wife dies. Likewise we never exactly learn how the efforts against the Barbary pirates were settled. Finally, not Meacham’s fault, after gentle use of my trade paperback edition, pages began to fall out.

Is history worthwhile? The cost of ignoring it is great. As Steve Turner says, “History repeats itself. Has to. No-one listens.”

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.