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November 13th, 2012
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Unearthing the 'fundamental flaws' of a founding father: Jon Meacham on his book 'Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power'

Just days after reelecting President Obama to office, we look to the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. The founding father who penned the Declaration of Independence is revered by many, but there is another less flattering side to him that has fascinated biographers.

A new book written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historia Jon Meacham, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power," takes a deeper look at Jefferson as a politician. Meacham joins Soledad O’Brien on “Starting Point” today to discuss the potentially hypocritical side of Jefferson and offer lessons for today's politicians.

Meacham says Jefferson was a seducer and describes him as a “terrific retail politician.”

With “wonderful eyes, women tended to swoon for him,” Meacham says. “He was able to make people fall in love with him without knowing quite why.” As a brilliant writer, Meacham says Jefferson “was an architect of really the politics of optimism.” Meacham compares Reagan, Clinton, the hope and change themes of 2008 to Jeffersonian politics.

Meacham relates the government in Jefferson’s era to the government today.

“He governed in an intensely partisan atmosphere,” Meacham says. But he was also a contradictory person himself, especially on the subject of abolishing slavery while owning slaves of his own. “He was fundamentally flawed,” Meacham says, “and could not imagine his world without slavery. As a young man, he tried four or five times, in law and in politics to reform the institution, and failed decisively and publicly each time.”

Meacham says politicians in his experience dislike two things: “failing decisively and failing publicly,” and he therefore deems Jefferson “quintessentially a political figure” for giving up on reforming a system he had attempted to reform as a young man.   

As a final note, Meacham says there is something to learn from the mistakes of Jefferson and the founding fathers. “They were men before they were monuments,” Meacham says. “And if we put them on a pedestal, I think it forecloses their capacity to teach and it keeps us from being able to learn as much from them. If flawed people can do the good he did, then maybe we can too.”

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. charles

    As an American of African descent I can think of no other country that I'd rather be a citizen of than this one. however I am quite disappointed when it's history is widely taught with so many omissions as it pertains to Native Americans and my race and our experiences. So when Newt Gingrich and his wife tells only the glowing Attributes of the Forefathers without making any references to lets say all the treaties that have been broken with the native Americans and the contributions that were made by both groups, i feel excluded and cheated.

    November 14, 2012 at 10:32 am | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Frederick

    The humanity of our founding fathers is lost on both leaders and voters alike. I lived during Reagan's administration and barely recognize the way some politicians describe him today. I am excited to read this new book based on the best quote I've seen in a while: “They were men before they were monuments”.

    November 13, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse | Reply

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