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posted: 11/17/2012 7:33 AM

Two views of Thomas Jefferson

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  • Henry Wiencek's new book "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves."

    Henry Wiencek's new book "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves."

  • Jon Meacham's new book "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power."

    Jon Meacham's new book "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power."

Bloomberg News

The title of Jon Meacham's new book may be "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power," but make no mistake: This is a full biographical treatment of perhaps the most charming and unknowable of the founders. Impeccably researched and footnoted, it's a model of clarity and explanation.

Unlike its subject, "Thomas Jefferson" is not stylish. Meacham distills, and explains, and explains, and explains. Consider this not untypical passage, on the death of Jefferson's mother:

"Already immersed in the most difficult and fearful of political enterprises -- revolution and the creation of a new form of government -- Jefferson was brought face-to-face with one of the deepest personal crises a man can experience. In their parents, children ideally have sources of protection and comfort and love. Parents can also be sources of irritation, fear and anxiety. Their deaths thus represent both loss and liberation."

And yet this kind of approach -- methodical, one might say leisurely -- may be ideal, because so much about Jefferson is necessarily speculative. Meacham again and again couches his sentences with constructions such as "The likely truth is that" and "It is also possible."

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Jefferson was apt to write or say just about anything.

"He was always in favor of whatever means would improve the chances of his cause of the hour," according to Meacham, a former editor of Newsweek. "He was not intellectually consistent, but a consistent theme did run through his politics and statecraft: He would do what it took, within reason, to arrange the world as he wanted it to be."

It's also hard to paint a definitive portrait of the man because half his life was lived in the shadows. Meacham writes, "Jefferson maintained a decades-long liaison with Sally Hemings, his late wife's enslaved half-sister who tended to his personal quarters at Monticello. They produced six children (four of whom lived) and gave rise to two centuries of speculation about the true nature of the affair.

"Was it about love? Power? Both? And if both, how much was affection, and how much coercion? Jefferson's connection with Sally Hemings lasted from about 1787 to Jefferson's death in 1826 -- almost forty years." This was a relationship most historians couldn't bring themselves to consider until recent times.

The darker side of life at Monticello is the subject of Henry Wiencek's new "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves." Meacham candidly admits that Jefferson "was to embody the slave-owning interest" in all his major postings and into his old age, then moves on.

For Wiencek, Thomas Jefferson is all about slavery, its economics, its brutality, its tragedy. Which leads us to the biography-reader's inevitable dilemma: What was the subject really like?

Meacham can imagine sitting down and enjoying a glass of claret with the brilliant Renaissance man familiar to us all.

Wiencek finds Jefferson a much sadder case, a man seduced and corrupted by the dollars and cents of slavery. His Jefferson is unredeemed and unheroic. To understand the third president in context, stick with Meacham.

• "Thomas Jefferson" is from Random House (759 pages, $35). "Master of the Mountain" is from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (336 pages, $28).

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