What I Learned From “Thomas Jefferson” by Jon Meacham

Date Read: 05/15/2018

How strongly I recommend it: 8/10

In this magnificent biography, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston brings vividly to life an extraordinary man and his remarkable times. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power gives us Jefferson the politician and president, a great and complex human being forever engaged in the wars of his era. Philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power.

Thomas Jefferson hated confrontation, and yet his understanding of power and of human nature enabled him to move men and to marshal ideas, to learn from his mistakes, and to prevail. Passionate about many things—women, his family, books, science, architecture, gardens, friends, Monticello, and Paris—Jefferson loved America most, and he strove over and over again, despite fierce opposition, to realize his vision: the creation, survival, and success of popular government in America. Jon Meacham lets us see Jefferson’s world as Jefferson himself saw it, and to appreciate how Jefferson found the means to endure and win in the face of rife partisan division, economic uncertainty, and external threat. Drawing on archives in the United States, England, and France, as well as unpublished Jefferson presidential papers, Meacham presents Jefferson as the most successful political leader of the early republic, and perhaps in all of American history.

The father of the ideal of individual liberty, of the Louisiana Purchase, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and of the settling of the West, Jefferson recognized that the genius of humanity—and the genius of the new nation—lay in the possibility of progress, of discovering the undiscovered and seeking the unknown. From the writing of the Declaration of Independence to elegant dinners in Paris and in the President’s House; from political maneuverings in the boardinghouses and legislative halls of Philadelphia and New York to the infant capital on the Potomac; from his complicated life at Monticello, his breathtaking house and plantation in Virginia, to the creation of the University of Virginia, Jefferson was central to the age. Here too is the personal Jefferson, a man of appetite, sensuality, and passion.

The Jefferson story resonates today not least because he led his nation through ferocious partisanship and cultural warfare amid economic change and external threats, and also because he embodies an eternal drama, the struggle of the leadership of a nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world.

Basically as I go through any book that I read, I underline interesting ideas/quotes/paragraphs and then later come back through the book to get the lessons gleaned from these underpinnings and try to figure out what they mean to me and apply them to my own life.
Here were the most interesting lessons in the book for me:
*Be Productive: Jefferson wrote out a schedule for his daughter to follow every day that was insanely prolific, it looked like this:
From 8 to 10am, practice music
From 10 to 1, dance one day and draw another
From 1 to 2, draw on the day you dance and write a letter the next day
From 3 to 4, read French
From 4 to 5, exercise yourself in music
From 5 till bed-time, read English, write, etc.
What an insanely prolific day of learning, thinking, and creating!
*Question All Assumptions: Jefferson believed that the ability to reason and question everything around you was one of our greatest gifts as humans. He once told his nephew “fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.
*Make Friends With Your Enemies: Jefferson constantly entertained and hosted dinners. These dinners always had a purpose though, and he would invite all sorts of lawmakers, diplomats, and cabinet offices over. He knew it was a lot more difficult to oppose or vilify someone you had broken bread and drunk wine with.
*Leaders Win Through Respect: We all know those parents who have to bully their kids in order to get them to listen. They have to threaten them with taking away their cellphone or no dessert. Jefferson’s house was the opposite. One of his granddaughters said “he never had to raise his voice. Their sense or authority and respect for him was so complete it was unnecessary to utter a harsh word or use a threat, he simple said ‘do’ or ‘do not’ and that was that.” That’s how real leaders lead, first they gain respect, then trust, then there is no need to coerce anyone into doing anything.
*Empathy is Powerful: All of Jefferson’s grandchildren talk about his uncanny ability to read their minds and figure out what they were going through or what they wanted in that moment. “His sense of the needs of others was part of his nature, he could enter into the their feelings, anticipate their wishes etc.” said one of his granddaughters. This is immensely important for a leader of any kind, we need to be able to turn off our own minds and enter into those around us, anticipating what’s going on with them.
*Stop Giving Away Your Time: Jefferson hated being a politician as much as he loved being one. The main reason being just how much time it took up. The curious polymath had tons of hobbies and when in office he felt like everyone else owned his time with their wide-ranging requests and scheduled meetings. He once said after leaving office “he loved the ineffable luxury of being owner of my own time once again.”
*Combining Ideas Is Important: Jefferson loved the spirit of ideas and innovation. He said “the fact is that one new idea leads to another, that to a third and so on through a course of time, until someone, with him no one of these ideas was original, combines all together and produces what is justly called a new invention.”
*Morning Routines Are Necessary: Thomas Jefferson would be proud of the modern-day biohackers trying all sorts of new experiments to perform better each day. He kept the same morning routine day in, day out waking up very early at “first light” and immediately plunged his feet into a basin of cold water while he gathered his thoughts for the day.
*Balancing Thought & Action: Some people are great executors, but that’s all they can do, they lack the vision to see the whole for themselves and can only act on commands given to them by others. Others are great thinkers, brilliant visionaries but can’t execute on their own plans. Jefferson was both, he was part-philosopher, part-politician finding the perfect blend of thought and action.
*Curiosity Gives You Incredible Energy: You know the feeling when you’re doing something you’re seriously excited about, you never worried about becoming ‘tired’ you just power away as the hours fade. This was Jefferson’s entire life. Curiosity is a muscle you build up by exposing yourself to a bunch of different things over time. Jefferson was a philosopher and scientist, a naturalist and a historian. He rode horses, design dumbwaiters at Monticello, studied paleontology, astronomy, botany. He loved music and gardening, he searched and found the best French recipe for ice cream, and the best dressing for his salads. HE had two shepherd dogs, and spoke 6 spoke languages (English, Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish.) Feel tired yet? Try something new and expand your curiosity and over-time you can have the incredible energy of someone like Jefferson.
*Stoicism Is Needed: After a fire at his family home, Jefferson once wrote “the most fortunate of us all through life frequently meet with calamities and misfortunes which may greatly afflict us” and “to fortify our minds against the attacks of these calamities and misfortunes should be one of the principal studies and endeavors of our lives.” Start with Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic, Seneca’s Letter To A Stoic, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and Epictetus’ Discourses to get started with stoicism.
*Education Over Everything: Jefferson valued his education over all else. He said that given the choice, he would take the classical training his father arranged for him over the estate his father left him.
*Getting The Most Out Of Your Reading: Just like I underline and make these notes for each book I read, Jefferson had a “literary common place book” where he would put down ideas, quotes, and lessons he got from reading. It’s the most efficient way to read so you’re not wasting your time forgetting half of those important lessons and making it easier to incorporate those lessons buried in the books you read into an easily organized system you can look back on.
*Find Mentors: Jefferson constantly found other people to look up to. He told a grandson “Under difficulties, I would ask myself—-what would Dr. Small or Mr. Wythe or Peyton Randolph do in this situation? What course in it will ensure me their approbation?” You can ask yourself the same questions with people you look up to that you’ve never even met, just ask yourself what they would do in this situation.
*Listening Is Powerful: Jefferson became a great conversationalist by offering people that which they value most: an attention audience to listen to their own views. He knew in many instances the surer route to winning a friend is not to convince them that you’re right, but that you care what they think. Everyone wants to believe what they have to say is fascinating. A grandson said “his powers of conversation were great, yet he always turned their to subjects most familiar to those with whom he conversed, whether laborer or mechanic etc.”
*Go Beyond The Intellectual: Most people can get really good at consuming and regurgitating facts, but it takes a special scholar of life to be able to take facts in and then use those facts to actually change how they felt, Jefferson was one of those people, never content with simply learning something unless he could apply it to change his life like when he used all the stoicism he learned to help get over his wife’s death.
*Politics Changes Constantly. Life is forever in motion, we think the world is one way today, then tomorrow shows us how foolish our views truly were. This holds especially true in any form of ‘political life’ whether that be office politics, business politics, government politics, family politics, or the politics of your son’s soccer game, Meacham says “Jefferson understood a timeless truth: the morning’s foe may well be the afternoon’s friend.”
*Is It Worth It? Thomas Paine said “those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.” Whether it be starting that new career, that new business, or a family the new blessings require a lot of work so before you make the commitment ask yourself if it’s what you really want and then if the answer is yes, never bitch about the fatigues of supporting the blessings you’ve gained. Freedom, family, money, career success, are all blessings that will require a lot of sweat to keep going.
*All Great Life’s Have Ups and Downs: Jefferson’s wife had died, and everyone around him had thought his leadership of Virginia a complete failure, he entered a dark mood. This is usually the point in which the hero in a story goes up or goes down, do they feel bad for themselves and sink lower and lower or do they realize that a great life has both huge highs and huge lows and that in order to keep their sanity they must remain even keel even when the outside is shifting so violently. He came to terms with this and moved forward, writing George Rogers Clark who was also facing criticism “If you meant to escape malice you should have confined yourself within the sleepy line of regular duty.” He chose advance over retreat.
*Travel Is Immensely Important: Jefferson was in France and got into some serious shopping. Buying over sixty paintings, all sorts of china, silver, and wine. And he found a new innovation—-“phosperetic” matches. This shows us how traveling to new areas, allows us the chance to mingle with completely new objects, ideas, people, and experiences. It opens your world even more than a book.
*Argument Solves Nothing: Jefferson said “I never yet saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument. I have seen many, on their getting warm, becoming rude, and shooting one another.” Think back to the last time someone started yelling at you and arguing with you over a view you held, there’s no way they changed your mind no matter how valid their point. Think about this when trying to discuss things with others, use subtler, less aggressive systems to try to convince someone of your view, and more importantly make sure you show them and their ideas adequate respect, no matter how ‘foolish.’
I hope you can apply some of these lessons to your own life.

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