Jon Meacham, "Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power": Authors at Google

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 06.12.2012


MALE SPEAKER: So good afternoon, everyone.
We're extremely thrilled to welcome Jon Meacham back to
Google for his encore appearance.
We had him previously for his Pulitzer Prize winning book,
"American Lion, the Biography of Andrew Jackson." And today,
he returns to us going further back in the pages of time to
his new work on Thomas Jefferson.
Jon takes a look at this great American polymath.
A lot of things are happening during that time.
There is uncertainty about France and Britain, not to
mention all the work that Thomas Jefferson did as a
scholar and a statesman.
And so we continue to look towards the examples of the
past to highlight the present time as well.
And so we do have a Q&A mic that you can use for any
questions you may have.
Just be sure to speak up onto it.
And then please join me in welcoming Jon to Google.
So thank you very much.
JON MEACHAM: Thank you all very much.
I just realized I am going back in time.
So that's sort of troubling.
My next J president could either be, I guess, Andrew
Johnson or Lyndon Johnson.
I'm running out of them as topics.
But I'm delighted to be here.
Jefferson would have loved Google.
He would have loved the whole idea of it.
It would have absolutely appealed to both his love of
adventure and discovery and also his love of control in
the sense of being able to manage masses of information.
And so I think this is a fitting place
to talk about him.
I want to talk about his intellectual work and how that
informed his political work, because he didn't see the two
as different.
He saw them as contiguous regions with
a very porous border.
And in the sense that we have lost the sense, the feeling
that politics is informed by the life of the mind.
I think in the popular conversation, they're seen as
very different things.
There's politics, and then there's culture, and
intellectual work, reason, depending on what state you're
in, is a different thing.
And so I want to talk about what both these things meant
to him, how they're connected, and then a couple of thoughts
about what we can learn about him.
It's almost impossible, except here to explain how exciting
Jefferson's world was to him.
He was the first of the first political generation of
people, trying to create an experiment in self-government
after the Enlightenment--
after Gutenberg, after princely and priestly
authority had both given way.
For at that point, they didn't know--
we know how the story turned out, they didn't.
So in the sense that he came of age in the middle late 18th
century, a student of Enlightenment ideas, both the
Scottish Enlightenment and the European Enlightenment.
He was very lucky in having a professor at William and Mary
in Williamsburg, which as you all may know is the alma mater
of Jon Stewart.
So when I mentioned to Jon that they were co-alumni, Jon,
in his inimitable way, said was he baked
as often as I was?
And the answer is no, just in case you're
keeping score at home.
But he had a teacher named William Small, who was from
Scotland and totally got the Enlightenment force, the idea
of the scientific revolution.
Jefferson overlapped with him for only two years, a very
fortuitous two years.
And so he comes blazing out of the 1760s.
He was born 1743.
He comes blazing out, believing that this is a whole
new era in human affairs.
We always believe that it's a whole new
era in human affairs.
It's just we're not always right.
He was right, and we're in the midst of one too.
Because what's going on here and around the world in terms
of a digital world is as significant and as creatively
disruptive as Gutenberg.
We haven't worked out what it all means yet.
But what's happening, I think, is of a scale with what
happened to make Jefferson's world possible.
And so, what fell to Jefferson was to try to manage the
political implications of this incredibly disruptive
For century upon century upon century, priests and kings had
held authority, and individuals were to take their
orders, salute, and move on.
Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Washington, Madison, Franklin,
that generation of Americans was the first to really be
able to engage in an experiment in self-government.
And this is where they're connected, and I
think it's so important.
Jefferson didn't believe that the republic could survive
unless we were reasonable creatures and we cared
somewhat about each other.
We didn't have to love each other.
It wasn't a kumbaya kind of thing, But we did have to have
a sense that your fate and my fate are somehow linked.
Because if we don't have that sense, then there's very
little likelihood we will give up the mutual concessions of
opinion that we need to make a republic work.
And if we don't give up those mutual concessions of opinion
to make a republic work, then we better hope the king we get
or the hereditary aristocracy we get agrees with us all the
time, because that's the only alternative.
Without sociability, which is the fancy
word for saying this--
I was in LA the other night and did a conversation with
Bill Maher at the LA library.
He was late, because he was at choir practice, because of his
ferocious religious beliefs.
But I started a sentence, saying, well,
And he said, don't never say that again as an adverb,
whatever you do.
But in terms of sociability and cultural connection,
Jefferson believed that citizenship, more than
leadership really, that citizenship was the highest
virtue in a republic, because a republic was only as good as
its citizens.
And it seemed sort of banal to say it that way, but the
experience of Rome suggests that it's not banal, that it
actually is very hard to make these things work.
And it required constant attention, constant
cultivation, constant nurturing of social ties and
the life of the mind in terms of putting reason in the place
of revelation.
Because without our being able to think for ourselves, we
were going to fall back into superstition and absolutism.
And that was Jefferson's great terror.
I argue that we can't really understand the American
Revolution and the early republic if we don't see the
conflict with Great Britain between 1763 and the end of
the French and Indian War and the end of the War of 1812 as
a 50-year war with Britain.
Sometimes hot, sometimes cold, sometimes explicit, sometimes
implicit, but it was a defining drama.
And without seeing that, I believe, and without trying to
feel the things they felt with this possibility that Britain
would come back--
which they barely lost the first time, so there was quite
a good reason to think this--
without understanding that, it's like trying to understand
Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter,
Reagan, and George HW Bush without reference to the
Soviet Union.
It's just an overarching fact of their lives that because of
the way we think historically sometimes, we simplify the
storyline for obvious, necessary narrative reasons.
But for them, it was messy, and it was scary.
And Jefferson lived in mortal fear of this loss of the
American experiment.
He and John Adams, in particular, really saw the
American Revolution almost as a child of theirs.
It sounds very odd that they would have a
child together, I guess.
But it was an organic living thing.
They had given birth to it.
They'd nurtured it.
It was in an unruly adolescence.
You can play with this metaphor all afternoon.
Now we're aged and bent.
Whatever you want to do.
But it was a living thing.
They were in constant conversation
with it, what it meant.
They disagreed fundamentally about the
direction it should take.
But they respected each other's principles, even if
they disagreed about each other's opinions.
And that was, I think, what the thinking behind
Jefferson's first inaugural in which he says, every
difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.
We're all Federalists.
We're all Republicans.
And it was a plea for, not a bipartisan Valhalla, where you
wouldn't pursue it as hard as you could, the political
vision you believed in, but you did acknowledge that the
warriors on the field or the gladiators in the arena were
all men-- and they were men at this point-- men of principle
who were trying to preserve the existence and perpetuate
the life of the Republic.
There was not as much of-- what we've seen in the last 20
years or so in the United States of hardcore political
bases that wanted to delegitimize the winner of an
election, which we've seen from 1992 all the way through,
was something that would have been quite foreign and quite
disturbing to Jefferson.
Because he understood that men of goodwill could, would, and
should disagree.
But they should not question each other's
patriotism and motives.
This is not to say that this was a wonderfully placid era.
The American founding sometimes, I fear, is a little
bit like a historical antidepressant.
We don't like what's going on now, so we read about the
founding, and we feel slightly better about the country.
Partisanship has been an intrinsic element of the
American experience.
And so, if we remember Jefferson, the life of the
mind, the culture mattered, reason mattered, sociability
mattered, all for politics, then let's move to the
political side.
So that's where Jefferson is in terms of
the life of the mind.
The life of politics was always going to be contentious
and always going to be frustrating.
And I'm going to start in 1790--
and you've got to love a life where you can say those words
in that order--
1790, Jefferson comes back from France.
He becomes the first Secretary of State.
He and Alexander Hamilton go at each other's throats.
And they are daily pitted, as he put it, daily pitted in the
cabinet like two cocks, just fighting, fighting, fighting.
And Washington was tired of this.
And he wrote a letter to both men, saying, "how unfortunate
it is that while we are surrounded on all sides by
insidious friends and avowed enemies that we should be
riven by internal dissensions that are harrowing and tearing
our vitals." "That are harrowing and tearing our
vitals." It's a very un-Washington phrase.
A, because it's memorable.

There's one thing.
He had many virtues.
Eloquence was not one of them.
But it was a sense--
he really believed that their arguments were going to spill
over and wreck the whole thing.
This is how well it worked.
Jefferson wrote back about Hamilton, the illegitimate
child of Nevis, saying that "I will not suffer the slanders
of a man whose history, from the moment at which history
can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against
the liberty of the very country that has not only
taken him and given him bread, but heaped its honors upon his
head." So it was not a successful intervention for
Hamilton said that Jefferson was a fanatic in politics and
an atheist in religion.
And an anonymous letter writer wrote to Jefferson, "You ought
to get a damn kicking, you redheaded son of a bitch."
So this has been going on a while.
The question becomes, how do you manage partisanship?
How do you marshal it and not let it become so corrosive
that the whole cart tips over?
Jefferson saw it as a historical phenomenon.
He said that men have been divided into parties over
differences of opinion, of whether the interests of the
many, or the interests of the few should predominate since
those questions convulsed Greece and Rome.
So he was going all the way back and
thinking all the way through.
So what was his solution for this?
It's a combination, in my mind, of compromise and
On the compromise point, short of abandoning the life of the
nation, Jefferson would compromise any principle.
The great example being 1803 when the Louisiana Purchase
becomes a possibility.
He learns about it on the 2nd or 3rd of July.
He realizes that immediately they were going to have to go
to the country and get a constitutional amendment to
authorize doubling the size of the country.
That wasn't in the enumerated powers.
And he drafts the amendment.
We get to about August 21, so six, seven weeks later.
And Jefferson gets another letter, saying that Napoleon's
rethinking this deal.
And suddenly, in what I think of as Jefferson's Claude Rains
moment, he's shocked, shocked to find out that anyone would
think we needed a constitutional amendment.
He totally dumps that idea, expands the executive office
in ways that his head would have exploded if Washington,
or Hamilton, or Adams had done this.
But like a lot of small government people, he was
perfectly fine with big government as long as he was
in charge of it.
I'm sure there are no examples of that in our own lives at
all, where expedience becomes central.
So he compromised, he cut the deals, because he believed
that politics was ever unfolding.
And that's the idea of citizenship that I think is so
important and a key part of the legacy.
He said that men are not participators in politics only
at elections, but every day.
And that if one participates every day, then they would
rather have, as he put it, "their heart ripped out of
their bodies than submit to a Bonaparte or a Caesar." So the
sense that we should all be politically engaged, we should
all be following this, we should all be participating in
the larger story of governance is a very Jeffersonian idea.
And it argues for a kind of compromise and a sense of
forbearance among citizens that has been lost, I think,
to some extent.
One of our problems now, as a kind of sclerosis, in
Washington, but it's a sclerosis that is derived from
the fact that the bases of each party believe that any
compromise with the other side is a total capitulation.
And because of the means of communication--
you can have congressmen reading Twitter feeds.
And that is a sign of the apocalypse, I think.
Because if you're going to be that hooked into what everyone
thinks, then you have very little chance to form your own
judgment and to form a reasoned judgment, if you're
going to be a cat on a hot tin roof to that extent.
So I think that that's an important element of what
we've lost in recent years, because of the technology.
All the benefits, obviously, is that it makes everyone's
voice and the ability to participate, to be a
participator, ever more easy, ever more real.
And that's absolutely essential.
But it needs to have some element of forbearance in it,
or it becomes a case where you have two armed camps that are
quite well fortified and nobody in the middle.
Jefferson's belief in the virtues of compromise were not
such that the middle way was always the right way.
I'm not arguing that compromise is a
virtue in and of itself.
Sometimes the deal you get is the deal you don't want.
The American experience with civil rights and race is the
great example where the middle way was not the right way.
There was a right and there was a wrong, and we should
have been stronger and more dedicated to pursuing the
right earlier and more assiduously.
But six times out of 10, seven times out of 10, the practical
constraints of history suggest that taking the deal that you
have at that moment and then working on it later
is the way to go.
Jefferson said, "the ground of liberty is gained by inches."
So for all of the sweeping rhetoric, for all of the sage
of Monticello, for all of the great achievements on the
tombstone, the author of the Declaration of Independence,
the Virginia statute for religious liberty, and the
founder of the University of Virginia, all those things
about the life of the mind, and equality, and the liberty
of conscience, all of that is part of the Jefferson legacy.
But it's also one of the great acts of misdirection, because
it sends us in the opposite direction of his political
career and what that teaches us.
I think it was quite on purpose.
I think he was quite conscious that he wanted us to talk
about his ideas and not what he had done for 40 years.
Because what he did for 40 years was going to be more
controversial, and it was going to make
him look like a Paul.
And the last thing he wanted to look like was a Paul, even
though he was one.
And so I think one of the reasons I wanted to do the
book was to try to recover the politician whom Jefferson
himself tried to hide.
He hides in plain sight on so many things, and his political
career is one of the great examples, and slavery which
we'll talk about in a second.

Understanding his political skill and the fact that he was
irresistibly drawn to the work of politics when he could have
done almost anything, this was a man who--
if you had to get a hand dealt to you in the last 300 years,
being a rich, white Virginian in the middle of the 18th
century is pretty damn good.
That's not a bad way to start.
And you owned people.
They're dedicated to doing whatever you say.
You can borrow endless money from England, and no one
apparently ever calls you on it.
Jefferson was one of these aristocrats.
It was like Winston Churchill.
Never had any money, and yet always had terrific
champagne at dinner.
I don't understand how this works.
I can't get that deal, but they did.
He had every opportunity to retire to Monticello, to be a
man of science, to be a philosopher, to be an author.
Irresistibly he was drawn again and again back to the
political arena.
And I think that's a good thing.
Until we find another way to work these things out, which
is not on the horizon, we need people who are willing to
suffer the slings and arrows of our own anxieties and our
own unhappinesses with politicians to go into the
arena to build something.
And he clearly saw that this was a moment in human history,
both because of the Enlightenment and because of
the Revolution being what I think of as an embodiment of
the Enlightenment in many ways, was a
unique historical moment.
To create something that would then be subject to the
perennial forces and perennial shortcomings of human
experience, very conscious about all
those elements of it.
And he was the one figure in my view at the founding period
who did justice to both sides of that equation.
There were great politicians, and there were great thinkers.
Jefferson, with the possible exception of Benjamin
Franklin, was the one who straddled those two worlds and
brought them together in a way that tangibly changed the
course of the world.
The idea that individual destiny should be controlled
by an individual was a raw, new, untested idea.
And Jefferson articulated it as an ideal and
fought to make it real.
And for that, he repays our attention, I think.
The great hypocrisy and the great failing of his life was
his inability, his self-imposed inability to
apply these formidable political skills to doing
anything about slavery after 1784.
Jefferson's born in '43.
He's elected to the House of Burgesses in 1769, to the
Continental Congress in 1775.
He stays in the Confederation Congress in the 1780s.
On four or five occasions, through those years, he tried
to reform slavery.
And he was defeated publicly and decisively each time.
And there are two things politicians hate more than any
other, and that's being defeated publicly and
And in 1784, he drafted a Northwest Ordinance that would
have prohibited the spread of slavery west.
Sound familiar?
It lost by a single vote in the Confederation Congress.
A delegate from New Jersey was late.
And Jefferson said that "in that moment, Heaven itself was
suffered an awful silence, and the fate of millions yet
unborn hung in the balance." Very eloquent, very charming,
much like all of Jefferson.
Yet, yet, yet he continued to be a public figure.
He was the Secretary of State, the Vice President, and the
President of the United States, and the senior
statesman in the United States for the next 40 years.
And for those 40 years, he never returned to the task of
emancipation or colonization, any kind of reform of slavery.
My view is that it's because he simply could not imagine a
world without it.
His first memory was of being a child on a pillow being
handed up to a slave on horseback to be taken on a
family journey.
One of the last things that we know that happened to him is
he was in his alcove bed in Monticello and was
uncomfortable and was trying to signal to his white family
what to do to fix it.
And no one understood except an enslaved butler who moved
the pillow and made him instantly comfortable.
So from the beginning to the end of his life, his life was
suffused and made possible by slavery.
It's the central hypocrisy, it's the central
tragedy of his life.
Someone like me can't have it both ways and say he was a
master politician.
Then from 1800 to 1840, for 36 of those years, either Thomas
Jefferson himself or a self-described Jeffersonian
was president.
You can't salute that political experience and that
political achievement and not hold him to account for
failing to apply those skills to slavery.
He clearly knew it was a moral wrong.
His letters clearly show it, and yet he just tied himself
into ever smaller knots about it, because he did not believe
that his generation could solve it.
It was a very un-Jeffersonian thing to do, to give up hope.
In every other sphere of American life, he was the
architect of a politics of optimism that every great
American leader has drawn on to achieve
power and to govern.
Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan--
all of those figures talked about the price of present
pain and sacrifice being of use to make a better world for
tomorrow and that that was the American destiny and the
American way.
It may sound homiletic.
It may simple-minded.
But it has been an incredibly important central factor in
moving the cause of reform forward throughout two and a
half centuries now of American life.
So Jefferson is not indicted.
He's convicted before the bar of history on slavery.
One thing I would urge us all to think about is that, as
Arthur Schlesinger used to say, "self-righteousness in
retrospect is easy, also cheap." So our wagging our
finger at the past might make us feel better for a moment.
But to my mind, the moral utility of history is to look
back and realize that if one generation's accepted practice
was another generation's clear evil, then we are probably in
the midst of a very similar drama right now.
So what is the issue, the moral issue of our time--
or issues, plural, of our time--
that 20, 30, 40 years from now someone is going to look back
and say, what were they thinking?
What were they doing?
To my mind, on a personal level, it's climate change.
A compelling moral case has been made.

Largely for economic and cultural reasons of
convenience, we've declined to do anything about it, which is
kind of what Jefferson was doing with slavery.
So using the failures of the past to try to raise our own
moral antenna, I think is one way of making something out of
those failures and those shortcomings.
And I always learn more from sinners
than from saints anyway.
So I want to give Abraham Lincoln the last word, because
he had such a good box office last week.

Harry Truman once said that "heroes always know when to
die." Getting killed on Good Friday, if your name is
Abraham, was really smart stagecraft.
That was good.
Here's what Lincoln said about Jefferson in 1859 about that
all men are created equal.
He said, "all honor to Jefferson, to the man who in
the concrete pressure of a struggle for national
independence had the coolness, forecast, and capacity"--
"the coolness, forecast, and capacity"--
"to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an
abstract truth, applicable to all men and at all times that
today and in all coming days it shall be a rebuke and
stumbling block to the very signs of reappearing tyranny
and oppression." Not a bad legacy.
Thanks very much.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for coming.
JON MEACHAM: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: With the fiscal cliff looming, I'm curious if
you'd like to talk about Jefferson's view on debt and
deficits, taxes, and how his position may have helped or
hurt him during his presidency.
JON MEACHAM: Oh, it's great question.

When he became president, he thought there were too many
taxes and too many judges.
And he wanted to get rid of both.
And did a pretty good job on the judges front.
He did a pretty good job on abolishing internal taxes.
He did not leave the treasury in a very good place as the
War of 1812 came along.
So it was not a brilliant public policy moment.
But like a lot of presidents, he overreacted to the excesses
of his predecessor.
So believing that Adams and Washington had taken the
country too far in a Federalist direction, he
proceeded to take it too far in a Republican direction.
The answer being somewhere in the middle.
He abhorred public debt, because he believed that that
was the way to create-- does this
sound familiar to anyone--
create a financial class of people who would speculate
without creating anything, and devise financial instruments
and a culture of what was called stock
jobbing at the time.
A culture of stock jobbing that would possibly put the
country in the--
weaken the country by weakening this economy and its
potential national security.
That turned out to be fairly prescient as it turned out.
This level of debt, none of those guys could get their
brains around it.
And we can't rip them out of context in any event.
I think the lesson of Jefferson, for this moment, is
to take what you can get as quickly as possible, if you're
the president.
One thing that's really important, I think, is a
second term president has one clock, and everybody else in
the system has another.
And a second term president's clock is
ticking toward history.
Everybody else's clock is ticking
toward the next election.
So every other stakeholder in the system has a reason to
look at what's politically palatable, except the
president who can actually take a long view
for the first time.
Because second term presidents have all
fought their last election.

I think one of the reasons second terms often feature
some stumbles are presidents take that second term victory
as a vindication.
It's very clear when you talk to former presidents--
nobody knows how to keep score better than former presidents.
They know who the one-termers are, and the second-termers.
It's very, very competitive.
Surprise, surprise.
But I think that if the president doesn't keep in mind
that his clock is ticking fast and his political capital is
diminishing by the day, any--
and I'm trying to ban this phrase--
kicking the can down the road.
How many cans can we kick?
It's a terrible--
we use it too much now.
But anything that delays the full reckoning weakens his
ultimate position.
And so if I were advising the president, I would say take
Boehner by the scruff of the neck right now, and try to get
what you can in the lame duck session.
Because it ends fast.
Yes, sir.
AUDIENCE: I'm intrigued by the subtitle or the tag line on
the book, "The Art of Power."
JON MEACHAM: We did it for search optimization.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, exactly.
JON MEACHAM: Just kidding.
AUDIENCE: I'm wondering if you could share--
JON MEACHAM: Not many places where you make a search
optimization joke.
AUDIENCE: Nor where people will laugh.
AUDIENCE: So intrigued by this notion of the art of power,
and wondering if you can share an anecdote about Jefferson's
application of power as applied to statecraft and how
that might be different than predecessors or successors.
I think Louisiana is the great example, because he--
my definition of the art of power is that the greatest
leaders can articulate an ideal and inspire people to
want to pursue it, but can also bring that ideal as close
to reality as possible.
And that most people can do one or the other, and the
great politicians are the ones that can do both.
And that's why there's so few, because they're two very
different skill sets.
Painting a picture of what we should be is a job for people
who are eloquent, and far-seeing, and somewhat
detached from reality.
Because it helps to be in an intellectual off-site in order
to overcome your own limitations
and envision a future.
Politicians who are just deal makers are just the guys who
know how to get a bill through markup.
I can't even remember what markup is.
But legislative mechanics are also highly tactical,
pragmatic guys.
It's the two who can do it.
And Franklin Roosevelt's the great modern example, I think.
President Clinton is too in some ways.
There's something poetic that his middle name is Jefferson
in the whole sweep of things.
But what he did in Louisiana is--
and we forget how big a deal this was.
By adding Louisiana to the United States, it transformed
the country politically and culturally instantly.
New England knew this, because New England immediately drew
up articles of secession.
Because they realized they were going to be outnumbered,
and it wasn't going to be pretty with the
South and the West.
And so, there was opposition to this.
There was a sense that, wait a minute, if we do this, it's
going to transform us more quickly than we're ready for.
And by the way, Mr. President, Mr. Republican, you don't have
the power to do it.
And he just swept all that away.
Grabbed the initiative and did it when he found out Napoleon
was rethinking it.
And I'm convinced, because I'm a biographer, that the roots
of that decision lay back in his failed wartime
governorship of Virginia.
He was governor for two years during a
time of British invasion.
He failed to call out the militia in time to repel
Benedict Arnold and General Cornwallis.
The British almost captured him.
He was about five minutes ahead of them at Monticello.
Could easily have ended up in the Tower, facing treason
charges if they caught him.
And he was censured for it.
He was attacked for it forever.
To the end of his days, he was seen as a coward.
The flight from Monticello, it was called.
What would they have had him do has been my question.
But he decided then, in what I think of as his Scarlet O'Hara
moment, that he'd never be hungry again, that he was
never going to be caught flat-footed again.
And so Louisiana became the great
political moment for that.
The declaration itself is an example.
The embargo is an example.
They're all the way through his political life, but I
think that's the most vivid one.

In the beginning of your remarks, you made a call to
action to each of us to get involved politically each day.
AUDIENCE: So I wanted to relay some personal experience this
week, again, talking about the fiscal cliff, where I have
some thoughts on policy.
And I called into my congresswomen and to my
And basically, the pattern was the same in each of these
three cases.
Basically, hello, blah, blah, blah.
I asked to speak to the legislative aide dealing with
tax and budget issues.
They put me on hold for a few moments.
They come back.
They say, well, can you tell me which group
you're calling from?
And I say, I'm a voter.
I'm a constituent.
AUDIENCE: As if, that's like embarrassing.
I knew that was the wrong answer, right?
And so then they go away for a longer period of time, and
they come back.
Well, the legislative aide is not in the office,
or busy, or et cetera.
Can I take your remarks?
And then I try to give my remarks, but they're not
really up to speed on what's going on with legislation,
blah, blah, blah.
So this is not something that's just
happened this week.
It's happened repeatedly.
AUDIENCE: Whenever I call in.
If I write in to my senators or congresswomen, I get back a
few months later a letter that has me wondering what issue it
was that I originally wrote about four months ago.
AUDIENCE: And if I had the same exact opposite opinion as
what I had, I could read that letter and still feel the same
exact way about what their response was.
In other words, there was no value in it whatsoever.
So the question is, how do we get involved in democracy in a
daily way that has an impact?
Because as I see it, it's really more about TV.
It's more about propaganda.
And it is about these big groups and money.
But I'm wondering how people in this room get involved.
JON MEACHAM: Well, sorry.
Go ahead.
All yours.
I totally get it.
The fact that you get a letter four months later is better
than I would've thought.
So that's a good sign in some ways.
I think it does come down to an organizational principle.
The idea that one person can call and make an impact is,
you've run into it, the practical obstacles to that
are seemingly insuperable.
So it puts us into a question of, all right, so we need to
organize ourselves into groups, into what Burke called
little platoons.
And then we do that, and then the groups, because of the
nature of groups, become more reflexive.
Because the people who are going to be running the groups
are going to be very devoted, right?
They're not going to be kind of volunteering.
They're going to be thinking about all this stuff.
So then do those groups then become part of the base that
becomes reflexive and becomes part of the problem?
I totally acknowledge that organic chain, and I think
that that is inevitable.
I do think that there are the means of organization in terms
of political pressure to put on representatives is such
that there are two kinds.
There's the money and the big corporations, and then there's
the rest of us.
And the rest of us have to fight with the same means that
the corporations do insofar as we can, and that's
And so, clearly President Obama understands this.
The Obama campaign, I should say, understands this.
If the stories about their technological capacities--
but you all would know much more about than I do--
if the stories about their ability to find voters who are
inclined to be with them, if they can't figure out a way to
use that technology to turn that into a useful army of
folks to email, to call, whatever it is.
Because they do keep--
I will say this.
Your Congresswoman, who is it by way?
AUDIENCE: Ann Eshoo.
I was hoping it was the speaker,
because that'd be fun.

They will get a count at the end of the day about calls,
pro and con.
That's absolutely quantifiable.
But I think it has to be organizational, and I think
it's kind of vital.
Otherwise, it's going to be totally run by the other.
And so at least we should all try to become the
other along the way.
Does that make sense?
AUDIENCE: I agree with your set up and your view.
What I struggle with is I don't see any path from your
remarks and where we are now to basically get to where we
have an impact.
So if I think that, for example, on fiscal cliff, that
we should raise taxes, the 39.6--
do exactly what Obama ran on, which he seems now to be
moving away from maybe--
and not this idea that we give up all the tax deductions,
where's my group for that?
JON MEACHAM: I would imagine that emailing and applying
pressure to the House, which is what we're supposed to do,
would have an impact.
I think it's going to happen, so if that's what you really
believe, well done.
I think it's going to happen.
I don't know.
I'm not Ralph Nader, so I don't know.
Thank God for everyone, including Ralph Nader.
So I don't really have an action plan for that.
But I do think that if we don't keep thinking about this
and talking about it, we're going to be in a worse place.
AUDIENCE: Well, thank you.
JON MEACHAM: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: If you come up with--
JON MEACHAM: I'll do it.
You're the man.
AUDIENCE: Write another book.
JON MEACHAM: I'm going to call you.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
JON MEACHAM: Wait a minute.
You're the Google guy.
You're supposed to do this.
What are you talking to me about?
I still kill trees for what I do.

AUDIENCE: So I've always been fascinated by the Declaration
of Independence in particular--
JON MEACHAM: A good thing to be fascinated by.
AUDIENCE: In particular a section at the end, where
Jefferson writes, and I'm paraphrasing, when a
government no longer represents the interests of
its people, it's their right and it's their duty to
overthrow it.
That's always struck me as a pretty remarkable thing, the
part where it's your duty as a citizen to overthrow a
I'm curious if he ever expounded upon that in his
later writings or political philosophies.
JON MEACHAM: That's a great question.

One of the issues about writing 22,000 letters
eloquently over 80 years is that you come down on almost
every side of every issue.
It's like the Bible and Winston Churchill.
You can quote them on both sides, too.
He had these flights of revolutionary--
lower case R--
revolutionary rhetoric, particularly
when he was in France.
And then again, there was a big surge of it during the
period when he was trying to protest the Alien and Sedition
Acts in the late 1790s in what he called
the Reign of Witches.
And so there are documents from both those periods where
that's where there's lines about the tree of liberty
requires the blood of tyrants and patriots.
It is its natural manure.
Those kinds of quotations that both right wing extremists and
left wing extremists have used in past years to justify
certain courses of action.
They date from these two periods.
So he definitely believed that because he was doing it right
at that moment that there was an inherent right of
Raises an interesting question about was there an inherent
right of secession.
According to his Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, which he
and Madison wrote, that was an intellectual path to
nullification and secession, which honestly, I think is a
case that can be made.
The great triumph of Jackson during nullification, and
ultimately Lincoln, and Daniel Webster, was creating this
case for union that really flew in the face of the actual
strict letter of those documents.
And I think it's one of the great political achievements
of all time.
And thank God they did.
But Jefferson's devotion to the idea that institutions had
to be reformed, institutions, if they weren't reformable,
needed to be overthrown, was a consistent one.
AUDIENCE: There is a lengthy and often combative sort of
historiography around Thomas Jefferson.
A lot has been written about him.
JON MEACHAM: There is?
I was misinformed.
AUDIENCE: I'm sure you ultimately know.
I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about where
your perception falls on the line of that sort of
historiographical background.
What I wanted to do was recover
the political Jefferson.
My sense is that, particularly in the last 20 years, he has
been seen as either a hopeless hypocrite, as opposed to just
a hypocrite, in terms of race, or a fundamentally duplicitous
politician who had no real principles.
And the former is very much, it's quite self-evident in the
historiographies, as you say.
The latter is more subtle, but all too real, I think.
We've been in this golden era of great biographies about the
people around Jefferson--
Washington, Hamilton, Adams.
And necessarily, those books have spent more time on
Jefferson's flaws than his virtues for various
understandable narrative reasons.
And I thought that left a place to have a conversation
about Jefferson as politician as opposed to duplicitous
politician insofar as that's redundant.
So that's an issue.
But I think the critical thing for me was could I present a
compelling portrait of what this man did
every day for 40 years.
Because again, he didn't want us looking at this too hard.
I'm convinced that's why the tombstone is the way it is.
He understood history.
He understood fame.
The 18th century sense of fame was really reputation.
He knew we'd be talking about him.
He and Adams exchanged 158 letters in his retirement.
And if you think those are the first draft of those letters,
I mean, they're ciceronian.
And I just don't think they were dashing them off.
Hey, LOL.
That just wasn't--
You hear that one about Hamilton?
I also like to point out that my guy
didn't get shot in Jersey.
Let's keep that in mind, too.
So historiographically, I hope that this is Jefferson the
politician, and a man who's failings are universal in many
ways to the nation.
Because Jefferson's tragedy is also America's tragedy.
One final thing on this.
James Parton, who was the first--
Henry Randall was really the first biographer, and then
James Parton was the second, 1860s or so, 1880s.
And Parton wrote that "if America is right, then
Jefferson is right.
If America's wrong, then Jefferson's wrong."
That is one hell of a burden to put on any one person.
No one says that about Washington.
No one says it about Hamilton.
No one says it about Adams.
No one says it about Madison.
But we do say it about Jefferson.
And why is that?
I think it's because he's such a vivid human
figure to us still.
He's the one founder I can imagine having a drink with.
I can't imagine having a drink with John Adams.
I mean, it'd be fine.
But I really think that Jefferson lives on in our
imaginations, because we intuitively know that he
articulated the promise of the best we could be, but
was far from it.
And I think when we're being honest with ourselves, we're
all kind of like that.
JON MEACHAM: Thank you.
When you think about our role as citizens today and
confronting the political challenges that we face now,
how do you see digital technology
helping or hurting that?
And like is there something that--
JON MEACHAM: There is going to be a new plan in a few days.
JON MEACHAM: Right here.
AUDIENCE: Is there something that we should be building?
JON MEACHAM: Well, that's a great-- yes.
That's a great question.
Is there a public square beyond the inadvertent one
that the internet creates?
Is there some place where digital democracy can
contribute to the good as opposed to what I think it
tends to do now, which is reinforce preexisting biases.
I'm speaking in vastly oversimplified terms.
But one of the things that the digital revolution has made
possible is you can get in contact.
You can make yourself heard anyway, whether it's in
comment sections, or Twitter, or Facebook, whatever it is.
Every man is a pundit now.
And that's great.
But with power comes responsibility.
And so as FDR once said, simply screaming from the
rooftops doesn't help us a whole lot.
So is there a way to harness this amazing tool to create,
what one would argue, could be a more
constructive political dialogue?
I would hope so.
And I think we're not even halfway through this, right?
These are the first moments of this.
And so I think you all--
I don't mean to preach at you-- but you all have a hell
of a responsibility here.
I mean, this is Google.

Some guy last night in Seattle asked me where he could find a
particular letter of Jefferson's, and I thought he
meant the idea.
No, he meant the letter, the actual one he'd written.
And so I said, well, I don't have the date off
the top of my head.
He said, well, do I have to Google it?
I said, well, if you have to ask, then yes you do.
That's a key thing.
So you're a verb.
So you're one of the key cultural landmarks of the age.
So I think that there's an enormous responsibility there
to try to figure out how do you use this immense sea?
How do you channel it into productive ways?
So I should be asking you all this, is my point.
AUDIENCE: Real quick.
So Jefferson's hypocrisy and his Machiavellian tendencies
are very well-documented.
Is there any sense in the letters with Adams anytime
later in his life, taking stock of his political career,
any point in which he says, wow, looking back, I really
maybe went a little bit too far at times?
I regret some of my actions.
I'm sorry, John, for all the backstabbing.
Any sort of kind of taking stock and realizing there are
some things I would have done differently?
JON MEACHAM: Yes, but.
I think the resumption of the correspondence in 1814, 1815
is, in fact, that.
It's as close as Thomas Jefferson was ever going to
get to saying I'm sorry.
And I don't know if you've ever tried to make a
politician apologize, but it doesn't work out very well.

And do y'all know the story of the reunion very quickly,
because it's like high school.
Benjamin Rush the Patriot physician from Philadelphia
tells Adams--
he's been trying to broker this and get them back
together for years.
And so he tells Adams that Jefferson is really desperate,
desperate to go out with you.
And he tells Jefferson, well, man, Adams really
wants to ask you out.
And so finally, somebody writes somebody.
So that was a very careful dance.
And I think that the resumption of that
correspondence was a sign that the passions of the 1790s in
particular, which is where most of this
happened, were receding.
Adams always tried to introduce the kinds of
questions you're asking about.
Tried to refight a lot of those political battles.
Jefferson resisted it.
He said we should not be like Priam and buckle on the armor
of party once again.
And so that was his sense of closing the door.
He mused in very interesting ways about
the nature of politics.
The line I quoted earlier, I think, men have separated
themselves into parties over differences of opinion between
the interests of the many and the interests of the few.
That was a later insight.
But it was more implicit.
And I would leave you with this.
I think the fact that he wrote an epitaph for himself that
fails to allude to what he did for 40 years is a sign that he
understood that this was always going to be a
contentious topic.
And politics is always going to be that.
And so one of the reasons I do this is I hope by pointing to
the past and pointing out that things have been pretty tough
before, that it kind of lowers our collective
blood pressure a bit.
And I think if our blood pressure is a little lower, I
think we make slightly better decisions.
So thank you all very much.