Monday, May 20, 2013

1790s: Jefferson

A temporary break from my chronological exercise, I read Jon Meacham's new biography of the third president, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.

The author builds upon a theme of Jefferson's attempt to balance being an ideal visionary and a pragmatic politician.  This provides a format for explaining the inconsistencies contradictions in Jefferson's words and actions over time, especially from today's perspective.  While overly simple, it is a fair approach to Jefferson, who was a key player in over many years of dynamic change.  In fact, this same theme is probably applicable to most people who were influential or in power over any length of time in those eras--from Washington, to Adams, to Hamilton, and even later with figures such as Andrew Jackson (one of Meacham's other biographical subjects.)

The history lessons of elementary and high school do not capture the fragility of the country after the revolution, and can even give a sense of ultimate American destiny during the Colonial era.  The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are amazing documents that emerged and unified philosophies for building a nation, but the divide in opinion for how to apply them to actual governing was much wider and more fundamental than today.  Jefferson was able to lead the country forward during this time, adapting and changing as the situation warranted.  Comparing him with the other presidential biographies and political histories that followed over the next 100 years, he certainly is deserving his legendary status for his endurance and impact across eras.  And this was possible because of this balance of strong ideals and pragmatic action at a time that required someone with this possibility.