It is easy to see why such a life, with its grand sweep and many events so central to American history, took up so many volumes by Henry Adams and then Dumas Malone. Meacham wisely has chosen to look at Jefferson through a political lens, assessing how he balanced his ideals with pragmatism while also bending others to his will. And just as he scolded Jackson, another slaveholder and champion of individual liberty, for being a hypocrite, so Meacham gives a tough-minded account of Jefferson’s slippery recalibrations on race, noting, “Slavery was the rare subject where Jefferson’s sense of realism kept him from marshaling his sense of hope in the service of the cause of reform.” In 1814 Jefferson wrote, “There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity.” This wasn’t true. Jefferson “was not willing to sacrifice his own way of life, though he characteristically left himself a rhetorical escape by introducing the subjective standard of practicability,” Meacham observes. In fact, his slaves were his most valuable possessions. He also believed emancipation would precipitate a race war. The only solution was for free blacks to be exiled to another country. These were the reasons, or excuses, that underlay Jefferson’s justifications of slavery, though they were not his ideas alone. Lincoln, too, considered expatriation a viable solution to the slavery problem.
more from Jill Abramson at the NY Times here.