Thomas Jefferson was the closest thing to a philosopher-king we have ever had in the United States. Jon Meacham’s eminently readable and balanced new biography aims to recover the “mortal Jefferson,” both philosopher and politician, who blended the two roles in a way that reveals something to us of “the art of power.” Jefferson the wielder of power emerges more clearly in the book than Jefferson the thinker, and this is not surprising. As Meacham shows, when ideas contended with power in Jefferson’s life, the exigencies of the latter generally won out, as Plato himself would have expected.
This mortal Jefferson was in awe of his towering father, a wealthy and industrious planter who died when Thomas was 14, but who left his son with an image of command that nourished his own need for mastery. The future president studied history, classics and French as a boarder with a private tutor before enrolling at William and Mary, where, one gathers, he made more of his college experience than perhaps any undergraduate who has ever lived. He read widely under the formidable Dr. William Small, a force for the dissemination of Enlightenment thinking in Virginia’s colonial capital.
He also participated in the social life of the city far beyond what one would expect of a college student, acquiring a priceless extracurricular education in politics at the dining room table of Small’s friend and Virginia’s royal governor, Francis Fauquier. A third influence was George Wythe, with whom Jefferson later studied law and learned how to live in grand style. There and elsewhere Jefferson seems to have imbibed a typical cocktail of Enlightenment ideas—Meacham notes more than once Jefferson’s professions of special admiration for Bacon, Locke and Newton—that in turn led to his repeated denunciations of “kings and priests.”
Jefferson does not seem to have expressed a desire to see the last of the former strangled with the entrails of the last of the latter, as Diderot did; but he did evince an occasionally disturbing indulgence for the excesses of Diderot’s revolutionary followers. He wrote to a friend in 1793 that although he deplored the deaths of innocents in France’s revolutionary violence, “rather than it [the revolution] should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.”
Meacham marks this statement as “hyperbole,” and it may have been, along with Jefferson’s oft-quoted view that the “tree of liberty” needs periodic watering with the “blood of patriots and tyrants.” But if it is a fair indication of the political implications of Jefferson’s philosophical views, it forces us to ask just how seriously we should take Jefferson as having united philosophy and political power.
As for the philosophy itself, one must also bear in mind that in the 18th century the modern distinction between philosophy and natural science had not yet been made and that Jefferson’s philosophical interests were often enough a voracious curiosity about scientific developments and about anything related to his own practical concerns as a farmer and amateur naturalist. He was no speculative thinker. The closest he got to this was his famous deism, which is not much illuminated by the story Meacham relates at one point of a young Jefferson’s disappointed response to God’s failure to grant his prayers for the shortening of the school day. Jefferson’s own religion may have included a belief in the afterlife, perhaps even with rewards and punishments proportioned to one’s earthly deeds, and led him to famously abridge the Gospel so as to express his admiration for Christ’s moral teachings, while leaving aside claims to divinity and miraculous works.
More closely related to Jefferson the politician is an intriguing subsidiary theme of Meacham’s narrative concerning Jefferson’s constant fear of British conspiracies. He read of these matters through the lens of 17th century English political thought, the ideas that informed political discourse during the English Civil War era, itself rife with fears of conspiracies that might bring England under the rule of an absolute monarch who would in turn reverse the effects of the Reformation in England, perhaps in league with the French and Spaniards.
Jefferson’s principles on any number of questions were, in their translation into political action, much subject to practical compromise. He was often willing to appeal to traditional Christian ideas when the politics of the moment demanded it, for example during the darker days of the Revolutionary War. His theoretical opposition to slavery met an immovable obstacle in the prejudices and political alignments of the day. These ideas led him to abandon his own reformist efforts early on in his career and coexisted with ownership of more than 600 slaves during his lifetime. His opposition to the Federalists’ elevation of the power of the national government and the presidency itself did not stop him from using those powers to the fullest, especially in the case of the Louisiana Purchase.
The goal of preserving the union as a modern, independent bastion of republicanism authorized considerable compromise of republican values and proved resilient against the angry protests of purists like Jefferson’s kinsman, John Randolph of Roanoke. These collisions of theory and practice often produced Jefferson’s finer moments as president and offer us matter for reflection as we contemplate both the trappings and burdens of empire.