Jefferson and Lincoln in the Same Week

Jefferson Biography This past week was Presidents Week for me. It started on Wednesday night when I heard Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Andrew Jackson, American Lion and Franklin and Winston, talk about his new biography of Thomas Jefferson at Town Hall in Seattle .

I’ve seen Meacham interviewed by Charlie Rose and as a panelist on the Sunday morning talk shows, but seeing and hearing him in person was an unexpected treat. He was funny, irreverent, erudite, and consummately in charge of his subject matter. On television he always seemed a bit wonk-ish and stiff, but up close he was confident, relaxed, and very engaged with his audience. He obviously liked and admired Jefferson but was equally clear that this was a deeply flawed individual. As the author of the Declaration of Independence he wrote that “all men are created equal,” but in his private life he was a slave owner who fathered several children by his slave, Sally Hemmings. For various reasons he could not summon the courage to advocate for their freedom and equality.

It is an interesting coincidence that Meacham’s biography appears at nearly the same time as another controversial biography of Jefferson by Henry Wiencek entitled Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and his Slaves. I haven’t read Wiencek’s book. Its scholarship is serious and acknowledged, but the New York Times reviewer and others have suggested that it is a hatchet job by “a man so blinded by his loathing of Thomas Jefferson that he can’t see contrary evidence right before his eyes.” Mr. Wiencek focuses on the obvious character flaw and lack of courage while failing to acknowledge the brilliant thinker and founder of the republic. Jefferson knew the difference between right and wrong. In the end he chose not to stand and fight to bring an end to the national disgrace.

"Lincoln, on the other hand, was willing to risk his Presidency during the height of the Civil War to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and secure passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in order to bring an end to slavery. It was a remarkable act of courage and Steven Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals tells the story as if it were a fictional thriller. Daniel Day-Lewis will undoubtedly win an Oscar for his portrayal of Lincoln, but the rest of the cast, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, and Sally Fields as Lincoln’s tortured wife are also Oscar-worthy. I saw the film on Friday night and was immediately drawn into the complexity and differences between Lincoln and Jefferson.

It was an interesting juxtaposition that allowed me to encounter both Jefferson and Lincoln in the same week – Jefferson, whose principles and vision created the republic and Lincoln, whose principles and vision held it together when it was tested. Both were great men. There is an argument, and I accept it, that Jefferson could not have facilitated the end of slavery. He addressed the problem in the Virginia House of Burgesses but was not taken seriously, and one of the early drafts of the Declaration of Independence contained language about the end of slavery but it was stricken. His last mention of ending slavery was in the Ordinance of 1784 in which he proposed the abolition of slavery in the states created after 1800, but that provision was defeated by one vote when the Ordinance was approved. After 1784 there is no record of his support or advocacy for abolition. Had he tried it would probably have ended the American experiment before it had a chance to come together.

I love both books and movies, and this week has given me hope that serious art and literature is alive and well – in Seattle and across the US. At a time when Congress and the President seem to be fiddling while the country burns, Meacham assured me that in other even more trying times the republic endured. Keep the faith. We will get through this.


  1. I read and enjoyed “Team of Rivals”, but for my money (2 cents worth) the book to read on Lincoln is David Donald’s biography, published maybe ten years ago. If Lincoln wasn’t one of my heroes before the reading, he entered the pantheon immediately afterward. I read the book twice, one of the few so honored. Donald is a Harvard prof, but despite that (am I prejudiced against pointy-heads?) writes superbly. It compares favorably with McCullough’s “Truman”, another superb presidential bio. We’ve yet to see the flick.

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