Thomas Jefferson - Jon Meacham
Jon Meacham won the Pulitzer for his life of Andrew Jackson, American Lion; his new biography, Thomas Jefferson (Random House, $35), reads like another prizewinner. With access to his subject’s unpublished letters, Meacham explores the wide range of qualities that he believes made Jefferson the most successful political figure of America’s early years. Among the founder’s many attributes, Meacham focuses especially on the wide-ranging, inquisitive mind that led Jefferson to become an inventor, astronomer, and gardener— to name just a few of his pursuits. Meacham’s Jefferson is a true Renaissance man, and one whose idealism successfully achieved workable form with The Declaration of Independence. As the nation’s third president, his most important responsibility was to ensure the safety of his country, a duty that reinforced his desire both to acquire and to maintain power.
Brigham Young - John G. Turner
Joseph Smith founded the Mormon Church in 1830, declaring it different from other sects in that it received God’s ongoing revelation. But Mormonism also echoed the Pilgrims’ quest for religious freedom and was part of the country’s later westward expansion, with all its privations, vigilantes, and conflicts with Native Americans. In his powerful account of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young (Harvard Univ., $35), John G. Turner not only profiles a unique and complex individual, he also chronicles events deeply rooted in the American mythos. Young converted to Mormonism in 1833; in 1844 he assumed leadership after Smith’s assassination. The Church, one of many recently sprung up and struggling, was fractious, impoverished, and besieged. Yet by 1852 Young had resettled some 20,000 followers in Utah. Strong-willed and as attentive to economic as to spiritual well-being, Young was complex and contradictory: a saint, he often used benevolence to manipulate. Governor of Utah Territory, he was at odds with the federal government—to the point of treason. Fiercely devoted to Smith’s vision, he was also domineering, profane, and belligerent. Turner has a sure command of this material, lucidly navigating Mormonism’s intricate doctrines and hierarchies.