News & Politics

Monticello’s Machiavelli: Power Lessons From Thomas Jefferson

A new biography by Jon Meacham argues Jefferson’s political acumen.

What is Jeffersonian power like? Meacham offers some answers. Photograph by William B. Plowman/Getty Images.

Jon Meacham won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, and his new book is made of the same stuff. In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Meacham captures the “mortal Jefferson” and describes how the Sage of Monticello learned to establish and maintain influence over our fledgling nation: “Broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously.” Here are a few excerpts that might help you achieve Jeffersonian influence over your own political sphere.

Convince opponents that you respect their ideas. “[Jefferson] immersed himself in the subtle skills of engaging others, chiefly by offering people that which they value most: an attentive audience to listen to their own visions and views. Politicians often talk too much and listen too little, which can be self-defeating, for in many instances the surer route to winning a friend is not to convince them that you are right but that you care what they think.”

Delegate your dirty work. “The Jefferson political style, though, remained smooth rather than rough, polite rather than confrontational. He was a ferocious warrior for the causes in which he believed, but he conducted his battles at a remove, tending to use his friends and allies to write and publish and promulgate the messages he thought crucial to the public debate.”

Appear unified abroad. “Much of Jefferson’s energy was spent striving to create international respect for the United States and to negotiate commercial treaties to build and expand American commerce and wealth. His mind wandered and soared, but in his main work—the advancement of America’s security and economic interests—he was focused and clear-headed. Countries earned respect by appearing strong and unified. Jefferson wanted America to be respected. He, therefore, took care to project strength and a sense of unity.”

Adapt to change. “ ‘Some men look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them, like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched,’ [Jefferson] wrote in 1816. ‘. . . We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.’ ”

Find a sweet spot between the real and the ideal. “Jefferson’s service in the Congress of 1776 left him thoroughly versed in the ways and means of politics. He had defined an ideal in the declaration, using words to transform principle into policy, and he had lived with the reality of managing both a war and a fledgling government. A politician’s task was to bring reality and policy into the greatest possible accord with the ideal and the principled. It was a task that Jefferson, at the age of thirty-three, had found that he liked. He had found out something else, too. He was good at it.”

This article appears in the November 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.