Updated Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 07:01 AM
'Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power'
by Jon Meacham
Random House, 759 pp., $35
Thomas Jefferson's timing was perfect. He came of age as tensions between England and its restive North American colonies were rising. A brilliant Virginian state legislator at 25, he authored the Declaration of Independence at 33, then helped lead the Revolution that inspired it.
He was governor of Virginia at 36. He served as an American ambassador to France, then secretary of state to President Washington, then vice president to John Adams before finally ascending to the presidency itself in 1800.
His life is a riveting story of our nation's founding — an improbable turn of events that seems only in retrospect inevitable. Few are better suited to the telling than Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "American Lion," his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson.
After the Revolutionary War ended, the colonies struggled with fundamental issues. How strong should the central government be? How much power should the central government or the nation's chief executive hold? In a world still filled with monarchies, how should an elected president be regarded?
Jefferson played a key role in shaping the new democracy. He feared those who would make the American president a monarch, or establish a Senate with lifetime tenure (like the House of Lords), or — worse — reunite with Britain.
Jefferson was elected president in 1800, in a hotly contested election that yielded a tied Electoral College vote between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, throwing the election to the House of Representatives. After months of turmoil, the House elected Jefferson, who served two terms. (Neither candidate, apparently, thought it appropriate to involve the Supreme Court — that would take another 200 years and another close election).
Jefferson abandoned Washington's ceremonial sword and pretensions of grandeur, shocking Washington by padding around the White House in slippers and clothing deemed too casual for his office.
Jefferson was concerned that French possession of New Orleans (a city of enormous trading significance) threatened American security interests.
To address that risk, he dispatched an envoy to Paris to discuss the possible acquisition of the city. He was astonished at Napoleon's response: offering to sell not only the city but the entire Louisiana Territory, including the vast Mississippi watershed not already incorporated in the United States.
Jefferson was thrilled and seized the opportunity. Though he acted without congressional authorization, contrary to his distrust of expansive executive power, it was simply too good a deal to pass up.
Meacham's writing is captivating; indeed, the book unfolds like a novel, with events cascading one after the other. He provides fascinating detail, as we read over Jefferson's shoulder Napoleon's offer and share with him the shock and joy of the unexpected development. Meacham puts the rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton, Burr and Adams into philosophical and historical perspective, but without the unnecessary clutter that so easily could destroy the book's narrative flow. It's no small task to survey 50 years of fundamental change, shifting alliances and political infighting, balancing context with focus. Meacham makes it all look easy.
Meacham discusses Jefferson's slaveholdings and his relationship with Sally Hemmings, with whom he fathered several children.
Although he notes that DNA evidence has demonstrated paternity, he mentions only in passing the central role that slavery played in Jefferson's life and prosperity. It's the only disappointing failure in an otherwise brilliant full-length biography of one of the most influential founding fathers.
Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He was buried in his family graveyard at his home in Monticello. But he left behind a vision and legacy that, more than almost anyone else, framed our American democracy.
Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.
Jon MeachamThe author of "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Prime tickets are $35 and include a copy of the book and admission to the event. General-admission tickets are $5. Tickets are available through brownpapertickets.com.
REMBRANDT PEALE / AP