Jefferson was 'the best and the worst of us,' Meacham tells Festival of Ideas audience
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On the Fourth of July one summer in the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson received a letter from the French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte that would serve as the catalyst to cement the American president's legacy.
The French, languishing from a crushing failure to quell a slave revolt in Haiti and cash-strapped for an impending war against Britain, sought to sell the Louisiana territory to the Americans.
Jefferson jumped at the opportunity, and after spending some time writing an amendment that would hopefully give him the constitutional authority to make the 828,000-square-mile land grab, he decided to buy the territory in 1803.
It was a controversial decision at the time, but Jefferson was no stranger to controversy. He was a visionary, but he was no saint.
"He represented, in an elemental way, the best of us and the worst of us," Pulitzer Prize-winning author and presidential historian Jon Meacham told a near-capacity crowd at the Clay Center Tuesday evening.
Meacham, the author of "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power," spoke Tuesday as part of the David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas, an annual event co-sponsored by West Virginia University and The Charleston Gazette.
For inspiration, future presidents would look to Jefferson's resolve during the tumultuous times that book-ended the Louisiana Purchase.
Jefferson was an adept writer, and mastered the tactic of befriending his political foes in an effort to meet at the center of a controversial policy.
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend," Jefferson wrote to Alexander Hamilton in the spring of 1800.
"When he wrote, he mastered the written word, which gave him a level of control that others didn't have," Meacham said. "For Jefferson, writing, clarity of political expression, was at his core."
But like all heroes, Jefferson had flaws, Meacham said. He was perhaps at his worst when the issue was slavery.
Jefferson was a noted slaveholder, and though he fought against the expansion of slavery at one point in his political career, he backed off when he realized that he could not win the battle.
Jefferson felt that an antislavery stance would have been harmful to his political future, Meacham said.
But in the end, Meacham said, Jefferson will be known for his idealistic vision of America's future, and his influence on the country's politics, Meacham said.
"He was totally willing to commit to the idea of American greatness," Meacham said.
Reach Zac Taylor at Zachary.firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.