News Column

Thomas Jefferson's Lessons for Politicians Wrestling with Fiscal Cliff

December 13, 2012

Joe Rutherford

Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian Jon Meacham on Wednesday invoked the political practices of Thomas Jefferson and suggested they offer lessons for politicians in both parties wrestling with the "fiscal cliff" and other issues.

Meacham was in Tupelo for a signing event at Reed's GumTree Book Store for his new biography, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" about the nation's third president and author of the Declaration of Independence.

Meacham, a journalist and frequent commentator in addition to his work writing and researching American history, told a large gathering that Jefferson would have used his preference for "socializing" with opponents to help create opportunities for dialogue leading to fruitful compromise.

He said Jefferson cannot be lifted out of context for 21st century problems, but Meacham said in an earlier interview with the Daily Journal that Jefferson probably would have approached the fiscal cliff issue in the same way as issues during his long political career in the early decades of the United States.

His willingness to cut a deal in direct conversations, Meacham said, was a cornerstone of his success.

Meacham told the audience squeezed into the bookstore, "If you want ideological purity, politics is not the place to go."

Meacham, also associate editor of Time magazine, said of the fiscal cliff talks, "Somebody has got to trust somebody."

The Chattanooga native and University of the South (Sewanee) graduate told the audience that America can produce another individual to equal Jefferson's stature and genius.

The great figures, he said, should not be seen as "historical anti-depressants. We have overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles ... and we can do it again" using the power of ideas and progress as did Jefferson and his peers.

Meacham also strongly criticized as "the worst in us" Jefferson's addiction to slavery and his maltreatment of Native Americans removed from their ancestral lands.

Meacham said Jefferson wasted expendable political capital in not moving toward freeing his own slaves and emancipation as national policy, leading to the Civil War and "600,000 American casualties."

Meacham, asked from the audience what his next writing topic will be, said, "I am under orders from my wife not to discuss it until after the first of the year."

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