For those who want to read more about author Jon Meacham and his new book, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” here are some of the highlights of the phone interview with Meacham that took place on Monday, Nov. 26. Although he lives in New York City, he was in Los Angeles at the time of the interview as part of a promotional tour for his new book.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author will be at Off Square Books at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 12, to talk about his new biography on Jefferson and sign copies. He has made several trips to Oxford in recent years.
Meacham mentioned that he always enjoys coming to Oxford and Mississippi because, while he grew up in Tennessee, he has many family connections to Oxford and Mississippi. For instance, he has two cousins who live in Oxford and work at the University of Mississippi, Ellen Meacham, a journalism professor at the Meek School of Journalism at UM, and Kate Meacham, who provides marketing services for the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
Meacham also noted his wife is a Mississippian, so he has that link to the state as well. Or, as he put it: “I married a girl from Mississippi, so I feel like an honorary in-law or something.”
EAGLE: How did you approach writing about someone such as Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation’s Founding Fathers. Obviously, many others have written extensively about him.
JON MEACHAM: “Have they? I was misinformed. I wanted to recover Jefferson as a politician and I believe that much of his legacy in the popular mind has been based on his ideas and his intellectual achievements, all of which were formidable. But for 40 years, he was a working politician in some of the most tumultuous years of the republic. And so I wanted to try to walk with him through those political battles to see whether his experience was, in fact, illuminating and informative for us. And I believe that it was.”
EAGLE: As you did your research, did you have access to any new materials? Tells us how you went about your exploration into the life of Thomas Jefferson.
MEACHAM: “I went through the folks at Princeton (University), who were great with their sharing of the Jefferson papers and they shared transcripts of letters that weren’t coming up in previous volumes, so I had access to those. I had some archival success in London and then Paris. It’s always interesting to know what foreign observers have to say. One of the things I did is, I went and stayed in Monticello over night. I wanted to get a sense of what life was like, in so far as one could, in the great house. So I really wanted to give as human a portrait as possible and offer my interpretation to the great conversation about Jefferson.”
EAGLE: The details you include in the book are just fascinating. For instance, at the very beginning of the book you note how Jefferson started each day at Monticello by soaking his feet in cold water. So regular was this routine that a groove had been worn into the floor. That sounds like a detail that you could only get from staying in the house. Did you actually stay in Jefferson’s bedroom?
MEACHAM: “Exactly. I did. I slept on the floor.”
EAGLE: So what was that like?
MEACHAM: “It was fascinating. I just wanted to hear the clocks and see the sunrise. And being at Monticello is as close as we are going to get to having a conversation with Thomas Jefferson, so being there was a great privilege.”
EAGLE: Another one of these little details you included in the book took place on July 4, 1776. The day the Declaration of Independence was ratified, Jefferson noted that he bought several pairs of ladies’ gloves and thermometer. Something so ordinary makes this momentous day in our nation’s history seem somehow more realistic.
MEACHAM: “Such details humanizes the great moments in history. I think we think sometimes of history as trumpets and great battles and flapping flags, but sometimes it is ladies’ gloves.”
EAGLE: In the book, you mention how Jefferson seems almost obsessed with Britain. He appears to have been constantly concerned that Britain was trying to undermine the United States during the earliest years of its formation. Jefferson almost comes across as being paranoid about the British.
MEACHAM: “Jefferson was conspiracy minded about the British’s designs on post-revolutionary America. But I think it was Nixon who said, ‘Even paranoids have enemies.’ But, it is an easy argument (for Jefferson) to win because the British did come back with the War of 1812. We had to have a ratifying conflict, so clearly those fears were not totally unfounded.
“But that is an important point and that is one of the insights I had not seen framed that way — that America had a 50-year war with Britain between the years of 1763 and 1812. (Not talking about Jefferson’s concerns about the British) would be as though we can’t really talk about Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon without talking about the Soviets. It was just a consuming drama.”
EAGLE: Even though Jefferson spent so much of his life in politics, your book notes how frustrated he became with the process. At various times in his career as a public servant, he says all he wants to do is leave the world of politics and return to the safety and comfort of his home, Monticello, and his family.
MEACHAM: “He was totally tiresome about that. He was always saying, ‘if only I could get back to Monticello.’ But every time he got there, he was immediately trying to figure out how to get back into politics. That is, to me, part of what made him so fascinating. He was irresistibly drawn to the political arena. He found it exhausting, debilitating, frustrating — all of which it was and is. But he couldn’t help it. That is a key part of his character that isn’t as widely appreciated as it should be.” (December 6, 2012)