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Thomas Jefferson: 5 new books

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by artist Mather Brown

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by artist Mather Brown (1786). Photo Credit: AP Photo

The bronze figure of Thomas Jefferson rises 19 feet in his Pantheon-style memorial in Washington, D.C. It suits the third president's oversize life. And it underscores the ongoing debate about his stature, examined in five new books about him.

Jon Meacham's "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" (Random House, $35) is an engaging, textured picture of this complex, paradoxical leader and the republic he helped forge.

"Jefferson's finished work was the creation of an imperfect but lasting democratic habit of mind and heart," he writes.

Meacham, the former Newsweek editor and current editor and executive vice president at Random House, earned a Pulitzer Prize for "American Lion," his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson.

Here, he delivers a full, evocative, pointed one-volume account of a man who "spent much of his life seeking control over himself and power over the lives and destinies of others."

Whether discussing Jefferson the intellectual and visionary or the very pragmatic politician; the ardent bon vivant or the self-sufficient farmer, the eloquent voice of freedom or the slave owner, Meacham's lengthy narrative moves at a brisk pace.

"The real Jefferson was like so many of us: a bundle of contradictions, competing passions, flaws, sins and virtues that can never be neatly smoothed out into a tidy whole. The closest thing to a constant in his life was his need for power and for control."

He got both, especially when establishing and wielding extraordinary presidential authority. Meacham considers his political accomplishment "without parallel in American life," in the name of popular government for the new nation. Jefferson turned ideas into action.

Meacham covers Jefferson's personal affairs, too, including fathering children with slave Sally Hemings. He publicly assailed miscegenation. But on his little mountain, his Monticello, slaves were assets on the books, their futures ordained by him.

"Rendering moral judgments in retrospect can be hazardous," Meacham says. "It is unfair to judge the past by the standards of the present."

In "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), Henry Wiencek rejects that. The historian writes an indictment of the slaveholder. Forty percent of Virginians were slaves in Jefferson's time.

Jefferson tried, but failed, to include anti-slavery language in the Declaration of Independence. Later, he came up with repulsive theories about the inferiority of blacks and "rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached." Jefferson "constantly moved the boundaries on his moral map to make the horrific tolerable to him."

Wiencek, citing a "scribbled note," states Jefferson made a 4 percent profit on the birth of black children. Slaves backed an equity line he obtained from Dutch bankers. "The small ones," preteens working in his nail factory, were whipped. And he'd cut already paltry rations to slaves, even as a grandchild purchased food for Jefferson from slaves.

"Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America" (Quirk, $19.95) chronicles how Hemings accompanied him to Paris to learn French cuisine, which the president adored. Thomas J. Craughwell's book is a fascinating, curious, lively lagniappe, complete with recipes. For the record, Jefferson loved veggies.

Lavishly illustrated, "A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden at Monticello" (Yale University Press, $35) by Peter J. Hatch is all about vegetables. Hatch is director of grounds and gardens at Monticello, which he deems "an Ellis Island" of introduced plants: 330 varieties of 99 species of vegetables and herbs. He offers a taste of history, a study in restoration and a mirror on Jefferson, his harvest and the slave labor that yielded it.

In addition to the garden, Jefferson's passions contributed to the development of at least four sciences in the United States, including geography, climatology, scientific archaeology and paleontology. These are the topics of "Jefferson's Shadow: The Story of His Science" (Yale, $30), a refreshing, wise, far-ranging inquiry by Keith Thomson, professor emeritus of natural history at the University of Oxford and executive officer of the American Philosophical Society.

Thomson sees Jefferson as "a wonderful tinkerer, fascinated by inventions of every sort." He saw science as essential to the young nation's future, particularly in the "practical applications of science to societal problems."

After about 2,000 pages, the portrait of Jefferson you take away remains full of push and pull, often hard to reconcile. But, about a mile away from Jefferson's statue is another 19-foot sculpture of another American president, seated in a Greek temple. It's incomparably moving. And it clarifies plenty.


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