Since Joe Akerman’s death several years ago, my ‘intellectual pusher’ has been my dear friend and mentor Jargo Clark. Now in his 97th year, Jargo regularly approaches me at our weekly Rotary Club meeting with this familiar phrase, “Have you read (fill in the blank)? Can I loan you my copy?” Even if I wanted to (and I don’t), I wouldn’t ever turn down Jargo’s offer; his friendship means that much to me.
His most recent addition to my reading list is Jon Meacham’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning biography, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.” Jargo wanted me to know that Meacham is a Sewanee man because the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee is a famous Episcopal Seminary from antebellum days. The University of the South is very dear to Jargo because his late son and namesake William was a Sewanee graduate also.
Jefferson (1743-1826) was a true renaissance man; every bit the equal of Leonardo De Vinci three centuries before. Compare if you will his political resume alone with the current occupant of the White House over a public career that spanned four decades, he was a Virginia Burgess; member of Congress; governor of Virginia; ambassador to France; the first secretary of state; the second vice president; and the third president (1801-1809).
It was Jefferson who is often quoted as saying, “that government which governs the least, governs the best,” but he ran his presidency much differently as Meacham suggests in this title, “The Art of Power.” He was a strong president and decisive leader. Not long in office, he had an opportunity to purchase the Louisiana Territory from Napoleonic France and dissuade Spanish incursions into the territory. He jumped at the opportunity, then detailed his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis to form the Corps of Discovery to find a passage across the continent and scientifically document the new land. This act alone doubled the size of the United States, forever cementing Jefferson’s legacy.
But politics aside, he accomplished so much more. We best know him as the author of the Declaration of Independence, literally the ‘birth certificate’ of our nation. While serving in the House of Burgesses, he wrote the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom which served as the model for our tradition of religious liberty. After his presidency, he founded the University of Virginia, one of our nation’s great public universities. These are lasting testaments of his contribution to the America we know.
In a 1962 quip at a dinner for Nobel Prize laureates, President Kennedy said: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Jefferson engaged in a life-long quest for knowledge. Books on so many subjects were his intellectual refuge. In fact after his death in 1826, his personal library of some four thousand books became the foundation for the Library of Congress, perhaps the greatest single library on earth.
Jefferson was known for his partisan battles and political enemies. First, it was Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist brain trust who argued for a stronger central government. Next, his Revolutionary ally John Adams argued over political differences like sedition. He split with his vice president Aaron Burr and helped shuffle him out of political power. And he argued with his cousin John Marshall over the power of the judiciary. Jefferson honored Hamilton after his death in the duel with Burr and, in old age, healed the breach with Adams. The two Founding Fathers exchanged more than three hundred warm and thoughtful letters in the final years of their long and glorious lives.
Providentially, Jefferson’s life on earth ended on the 50th anniversary of his greatest literary triumph, the Declaration of Independence. Both he and fellow founder John Adams died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826. Interestingly, Jefferson was a poor public speaker, but he made up for that shortcoming by being a brilliant writer. His words committed to paper are a lasting legacy. There is a reason why his bust is one of four carved into Mount Rushmore.
Jefferson’s greatest political ally was his northern Virginia neighbor James Madison. Madison was always loyal to his political mentor, serving him as Congressional Speaker and Secretary of State before succeeding him as fourth president. Another student of Jefferson was James Monroe who succeeded Madison in the White House. As in so many things, Jefferson’s legacy far outlived his life.
Jon Meacham’s best seller is well worth the read and I recommend it to you. Thanks Jargo. While I have never visited Jefferson’s home Monticello (little mountain) in central Virginia, I want to do so now more than ever.