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Historian Jon Meacham on Thomas Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson was a legend in his own time, and since then hundreds of books and articles have been written about him, so you might not expect to see more, but historian Jon Meacham,  who was featured in Ken Burn’s documentary about the  Roosevelts, is coming to Virginia to share a whole new view of Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson may have wanted history to see him as a philosopher and an educator.   The epitaph on his grave doesn’t even mention the presidency.

“You know, he said he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Virginia statute for religious liberty and founder of the University of Virginia.”

But Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, thinks that was a brilliant political move.  He must have known it would force people to talk about the fact that he was also president, and in his book, Meacham describes Jefferson as a brilliant politician.

“Building coalitions of opinion, making compromises and doing all of the political things that we dislike because they’re messy and involve a certain level of give and take .”

Jefferson might have made a rotten politician today.  He didn’t like glad-handing or even speaking in public.

Jon Meacham

“He was not a good speaker, but it wasn’t an era where you gave big political speeches.  You know the largest gathering any politician would have spoken to would be a legislative assembly.”

On the other hand,  Jefferson was a quick and compelling writer, and in his day that carried a lot of weight.  While previous authors have glorified the sage of Monticello, Meacham paints a more realistic portrait.  He says, for example, that Jefferson – who wrote All Men Are Created Equal but refused to free his slaves – was a hypocrite.

“Of course he was a hypocrite.  I don’t many people who aren’t.  He was a human being.  He was capable of great good, and he was capable of for us unimaginable  moral compromises and depravity.”

But his political perspective would influence generations of politicians from John Adams to Ronald Reagan.  Meacham will speak on October 3rd at UVA.  Free tickets are available at the university’s box office.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief