Jon Meacham: I'm not letting Thomas Jefferson off the hook

The Pulitizer-winner says he set out to restore the founder's reputation -- but slavery still complicates matters

Published November 17, 2012 11:00AM (EST)

Presidential reputations always rise and fall, but few have come off the pedestal quite like Thomas Jefferson.

As the journalist and historian Jon Meacham notes in "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power," the "DNA findings and subsequent scholarly reevaluation that established the high likelihood of his sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings -- a liaison long denied by mainstream white historians -- gave fresh energy to the image of Jefferson as hypocrite."

Meacham, however, a Pulitzer winner for his biography of Andrew Jackson, argues that perfection cannot be the standard by which presidents and politicians are judged. He suggests our best leaders must "transcend (their) constraints and overcome those faults in order to leave the nation a better, more just place than they found it." Jefferson, he writes, "did his best ... and his best left the world a definition, if not a realization, of human liberty that has endured, and gave America the means to ascend to global power."

By that standard, slavery is just one of the many issues Jefferson had to strike a political balance on. And it's a question which hangs over his book: How do we judge great men who nevertheless fell horribly short of greatness on the most important issues of their day?

In an interview Thursday afternoon, Meacham discussed how history should weigh Jefferson's contributions, the nature of political leaders and morality, and the advice that the third president might give to the 44th.

It has not been a good period for Thomas Jefferson's reputation. Science has confirmed his relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses of Monticello" made that family's story unforgettable. And recent high-profile biographies of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton have also elevated their subjects while criticizing Jefferson. It feels like your book is very much an effort to rescue and rehabilitate Jefferson. Is that right? Why take him on now?

Two things, really. One of my many character flaws is that I actually like politicians, and I believe in the possibilities of politics and in the utility of history to help us look forward by looking back. Not that there’s a roadmap in 1803 that’s going to tell us what to do about the fiscal cliff; I’m not saying that. But my philosophy, my view of it, is that the world is shaped and run by flawed human beings who are trying to do the best they can according to what George Eliot called “the dim lights and tangled circumstance” of the world. And if someone as monumental in our memories as Jefferson can be seen as someone trying to work out real problems in real time, making compromises, settling for half a loaf when you might want a full loaf, then I think that should give us a kind of confidence and a kind of hope that we can overcome the seemingly insuperable obstacles that lead us to think of politics as contentious and frustrating. Because they’re always going to be contentious, but they don’t need to be as frustrating as they seem to be right now. And I thought that Jefferson as a political figure had not been fully examined. And part of this was by design — by his design. The tombstone sends everybody off. I call it the Keyser Söze tombstone.

He doesn't mention his presidency at all. There's three things listed: writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and Virginia's Statute of Religious Freedom.  

Right. And none of them are about politics! Some people say, “Oh how humble.” But it’s not humble, that’s not what it is. What it was was a conscious effort to, I think, focus posterity on the things he believed would endure best. Those were his long-term stocks, and that’s where he put his chips, to mix metaphors, in the realm of ideas. And he’s right. Those are wonderful things. But for 40 years, the man was getting votes, cutting deals, writing committee reports, standing for president, carrying out diplomatic missions, you know, sitting on the floor of Congress and trying to make things happen. He was irresistibly drawn to it. And that tension in his own heart, between philosophy and politics, between Monticello and the political world? That’s biographical catnip right there.

I really want to talk about the way Jefferson dealt with slavery. You write that "he knew slavery was a moral wrong and believed it would ultimately be abolished. He could not, however, bring himself to work for emancipation." You make a point of saying in the book that he needs to be judged in the context of his times. But there were politicians of that era who did work for emancipation. And you've just praised his ability to compromise, to settle for half a loaf. But isn't this a moral issue where he should not be let off the hook so easily? 

Totally. The greatest failing of his life, and he is very much on the hook for this, is that he did not apply his essentially optimistic nature informed by a pragmatic skill set to slavery. And do you know why he didn’t do it? There are two reasons. One is: He tried as a young man and he lost. He tried as a lawyer, he tried a couple of bills in the House of Burgesses, he tried anti-slavery sections in the Declaration of Independence, and he prohibited — in 1784, this is very important, in 1784 he wrote a draft of the ordinance for new territories that would have prohibited slavery and it lost by a single vote. It’s a very important thing.

It failed by a single vote, and he has this marvelous line about — I think a representative from New Jersey wasn’t there, it’s always about New Jersey — and he wrote in his autobiography, “For the want of a single vote, God was silent in that awful moment."

So, here’s what happened: I think he decided to give up because he didn’t want to be defeated decisively and in public. The damnable thing about this is that if anybody was clever enough, as you just said, or skilled enough to have tried at least to have pressed ahead with more progressive legislation, it was him. And the fact that he didn’t is a thing for which he will be ever condemned by history, I think. And rightfully so.

Also: The solution he envisioned essentially involved expatriation -- freeing slaves but sending them back to Africa. 

But that was pretty common. That was not an extreme decision in the thought of the day. Another irony that I think is really interesting is that he couldn’t envision a biracial society even though he was creating one.

You mean in his personal life at Monticello? 

Yeah. And I struggled with this — and I wrote about this — but I think, like a lot of people, he thought that if he could be in charge, if he could be in control, it would be OK. He could control this (issue) — you know, it’s clear from his letters, that get more and more anguished, that he knows what’s going to come. And I think he knows that he’s going to come out of this badly. I think that’s why, partly, the tombstone has achievements about equality, freedom and enlightenment.

If he has this eye to history and is so concerned about his legacy, why not free all his slaves in his will, and not just the four Hemingses?

He couldn’t afford it. You know, he was broke. Horribly in debt. The family had to sell everything. I can’t remember if it was Fawn Brody or Annette Gordon-Reed who called it “the Monticello tragedy,” but, you know, a big irony in his life is this huge personal debt for a man who loved control but was willing to put his fate in the hands of his creditors. So he just couldn’t. This is where he’s human. Can’t excuse it, can sort of explain it.

He writes "all men are created equal..." 

He was a fairly astute man. I think he totally got it. I think it matters a lot, but the Hemings story was published when he was president. He knew what was going to be said of him because it was being said of him, has been said of him.

John Adams described the Hemings report as “the inevitable result of that foul contagion known as Negro slavery,” I think, or something like that. Jefferson knew — remember, he’s a national figure, so he’s spent time in New York, Philadelphia, Paris, Annapolis, Princeton. Being a slave owner, even then, made someone like Jefferson, who was so sensitive to appearances, made him quite nervous, in a way. But his whole life was suffused with it, so it was hard to (change). It’s a tragedy, you know. It’s so inextricably linked and he’s one of the few people on the planet who could have maybe fixed it, or helped to fix it. But he couldn’t, and he didn’t. There’s no way around it.

So what is the proper way for a historian to measure such a complicated life of both political successes and moral failures?

Well, you just said it. You assess what was accomplished, what was left undone, what was the moral awareness of the time, how compelling was that moral awareness, how consuming was it? I think he was a great politician, and he was surely the most successful politician, if you judge this against all standards in the getting and keeping of power.   

The other thing that I think has to be said here -- and it’s not to let him off the hook. He’s on the hook, but so is the country. Because 39 years after he dies, we got Appomattox. It took 600,000 casualties, a civil war and then another century before we had Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, so it’s not as if Thomas Jefferson was the only thing standing between slavery and abolition.

And I think what’s so interesting about him is what James Parton wrote about him in the 19th century: “If America is right then Jefferson is right. If America is wrong then Jefferson is wrong.” Nobody says that about anybody else. They don’t say that about George Washington, they don’t say that about John Adams, they don’t say that about Alexander Hamilton. Everybody puts so much on him.

Is that unfair given the magnitude of these issues? Are you suggesting we expect too much of these men? 

Of course we do! We expect too much of the incumbent president of the United States!

They were men before they were monuments. They would be totally uninteresting if they were monumental. Once you put somebody on the pedestal, they lose their capacity to teach. I don’t know about you, but I learn a lot more from sinners than from saints. History is the story of what really happened and why. Legend, mythology may be about when giants walked the earth, but that’s a different thing. That’s when you get into civic mythology.

But the point is that there is still a civic mythology around these men. It's usually these failings that are glossed over, especially by politicians who would, say, support Supreme Court justices who would hew specifically to the founders' words. The mythology is still a pretty big part of the national conversation.

Totally! Totally. But my feeble cause here is to understand these people for what they were because they’re more powerful and more illuminating because they weren’t perfect. If they were perfect, you know, great. Hang the picture on the wall and move on. But if they aren’t perfect and did important things, then you know what? Shit, maybe I can. Maybe you can.

Let's stay in the present day because you do suggest that we can learn something from what Jefferson went through, and the way he endured in the face of extreme partisanship. That certainly describes these times. How would Jefferson advise Obama?

Three things. I think he would say, “Don’t dilly-dally.” You have to grab the moments when you can, which is what he did with Louisiana. A lesson he learned the hard way, really, because of being governor of Virginia and not calling the militia out in time. You know, he understood the political clock moves even faster than the real clock.

The other is just the utility of compromise: Don’t give up your big principle, but, short of that, do what you can. Take what you can get and you can fix it. Jefferson said, and this is an important quotation, “The ground of liberty is gained by inches.” Another line is, “Whatever is practical must control what is pure theory.” I think that’s something.

I think a big one is—you know, Jefferson would probably write out a social calendar to get more of Congress down to the House. Jefferson, almost every night, had lawmakers over for dinner. He knew that being sociable, knowing each other, made mutual concession more likely.

Would he have counseled sharper elbows? Jefferson may have had people to dinner, but he never shied from hard-nosed partisan battle of his own. 

Totally. He was the founder of the first great opposition party. And he gave up his dreams of an amalgamation of parties, which he had hoped for. By the middle of his presidential term he knew that was hopeless. He blamed the Federalists, of course.

He abolished a bunch of federal courts. He knew his way around power! One of the things that he was so good at was, because he hated direct confrontation, people sometimes didn’t see him coming. I think President Obama is also pretty good at this, too.

Quickly: The state of magazine journalism. Newsweek, the magazine you edited for so long, is disappearing in a month. Has the time for the newsmagazine simply come and gone? And how do you judge what has taken its place.

I think these transitions are inevitable. They change with platform and they’ll be attendant content changes because one platform is not the same as another. And the economic climate facing those kinds of institutions is just tough, tough, tough.

My big issue would be that there remains a need for us to have common accent so we can have a common conversation. And it is true that in this climate it’s easier to violate Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s old rule that you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.

Fires burn brighter, and they also burn hotter. The political class is more easily roused, so yeah. It’s a tough time. And that’s why we need the most politically skilled people we can get, because there isn’t any other way to run these things.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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Books Jon Meacham The Art Of Power Thomas Jefferson