This is the third of five biographies of Founding Fathers that I shall read and I am now feeling well-versed on the period during the Revolutionary War! It is therefore impressive that Meacham was able to cover that period while still appearing fresh and different for me. Meacham’s biography is a clear account of Jefferson’s life, providing excellent analysis of a character which frequently seems conflicting and even contradictory. He also does so briefly, as the book is barely over 500 pages long (with more notes and further reading than I have previously seen in a book of this length, this gets inflated to 800 or so on Amazon and Goodreads). Moreover, Meacham does not seek to whitewash or apologise for Jefferson’s position on the issue of slavery, something which I felt Chernow did in his treatment of Washington. Meacham possibly asserts more than he can safely assert on the matter of Sally Hemings, only acknowledging that there is an academic debate in an end-note (my tendency to avoid endnotes unless they are flagged in the main body of the text means I would have missed this, were it not for Steve at bestpresidentialbios who points it out).
Jefferson is a fascinating subject for biography. Highly intelligent, well-educated, and well-read, Jefferson avoided open arguments and public debate. He much preferred to write. Thus, while he drafted more than one important document for the nation, he left it to others to defend them politically. Although he was he fervent defender of states’ rights, Jefferson significantly expanded the role of the presidency while in office; as far as I can tell, this was borne more out of a desire to get things done (such as the Louisiana Purchase) than out of any deeper philosophy regarding the role of the executive. And while he publicly decried slavery, not only did he have more slaves than most other presidents, he also failed to free them in his lifetime or after his death: this is hard to explain away as a product of his times when a number of his contemporaries were doing so.
As a person, I got little impression that Jefferson was particularly likeable. He seemed prickly and arrogant, and prone to disagreement. But he was clearly a highly intelligent and complex individual and Meacham captures this well. He also communicates a sense of Jefferson’s personality through his writing style, something I felt was present in Chernow but not so much with McCullough: it’s an unusual skill and a testament to Meacham’s craft.
My only real criticism of Meacham’s style is that he sacrifices storytelling for individual point-making. Although he covers events in chronological order, he does not connect them, meaning I consistently felt as if I were jumping from place to place and time to time. Being educated in the UK, I have had little knowledge of American history imparted to me at school or university and I suspect this contributes to me preferring a more narrative style as my brain struggles to keep up when the topic is unfamiliar. As a consequence, there were a couple of occasions where I had to put Meacham down and look up what was being referenced. This is unlikely to be a problem for anyone with a working knowledge of the history of this period and is not really that big a hindrance for those who share my ignorance. However, I suspect I have made the right choice in opting for Remini’s biography of Andrew Jackson instead of Meacham’s Pulitzer-winning American Lion. Nonetheless, this is an excellent biography.