Pulitzer Prize winner and author of “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” Jon Meacham spoke to a sold-out crowd recently at Grand Valley State University’s Eberhard Center on the topic of partisanship. He spoke about how partisanship has been an integral part of the history of the United States and how it actually serves the country, not endangers it.
Susan Ford Bales was a special guest at the event and introduced Meacham, and he began his talk by discussing her father, Gerald R. Ford, and George H. W. Bush, noting the political courage each showed during his presidency and relating it to Jefferson.
Meacham noted Ford’s political courage in 1974 when he famously pardoned Richard Nixon, a move that most likely cost him re-election. He said the elder Bush showed that same courage when he turned his back on “read my lips, no new taxes” after running hard on that platform, also closing the door on his re-election. Meacham said that the country needs people in government to do that today.
Meacham then set the stage and context for the 1790s and created a portrait of Thomas Jefferson and his political peers, who often did not agree and fought hard along partisan lines.
“Partisanship is a perennial of life,” Meacham said. “It is a perennial force in the democratic experience.”
He noted that a breakdown in partisanship would mean an absolutist society, a society where many people are forced to pretend to hold the beliefs of those in power. Instead of wishing for a non-partisan society, we should be learning how to live in a partisan society. Meacham reminded the crowd that the United States government is a republican experiment in self-government.
Meacham said that while the United States has had presidents that were visionaries and presidents that were “legislative mechanics,” it is rare to find both of those qualities in one leader. That is the distinction of greatness, and it is the mark of endurance. He challenged the audience to make a list of leaders who have had both of those qualities.
Meacham believes that Jefferson was one of the few men to have both of those qualities and that is why he is remembered today, despite his downfalls.
His downfalls, according to Meacham, are another reason why Jefferson is so remarkable. Consciously or intuitively, people recognize the best and worst of themselves in Jefferson.
“The ones that resonate are the ones we see in daylight,” Meacham said about man’s flaws and Jefferson in particular.
Therefore, he said, people admire Jefferson and are drawn to him and that period of history when America began focusing on the individual rather than authority. It was the great American political experiment; the manifestation of this new idea of choices and not being trapped by circumstances into which people are born.
Meacham said that Jefferson understood better than many that in order for the experiment to work, people had to like one another and believe that everyone’s fates are tied together. If not, why would citizens pay taxes for services they aren’t directly benefiting from? Why would someone pay taxes for someone else’s child to attend a public school or for health services they are not presently gaining from?
Jefferson believed fully that the rising tide of opportunity would lift everyone, benefitting society as a whole, said Meacham.
In the political arena, getting the opposing side to like leaders a little bit could lead to support on the margins.
“And politics is decided on the margins,” Meacham said.
Still, where Jefferson faltered the greatest, according to Meacham, was in fighting slavery. Though he apparently did make efforts early in his life, those efforts were defeated, and he gave up, never to try again.
“We can’t let him off the hook,” Meacham said.
He concluded his remarks by pointing out that there have been many moments of crisis in the American experiment and that the way the country has gotten through them was to open its arms wider.