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'Jefferson' is a complex, balanced account of the Founding Father

Historian John Boles takes a noticeably less adulatory tone than past biographers yet goes surprisingly easy on Jefferson when it comes to slavery.

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Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty
By John B. Boles
Basic Books
640 pp.

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“He endures because we can see in him all the varied and wondrous possibilities of the human experience,” Jon Meacham wrote in his 2012 book "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power," laying things on with downright eulogistic fervor, “the thirst for knowledge, the capacity to create, the love of family and of friends, the hunger for accomplishment, the applause of the world, the marshaling of power, the bending of others to one's own vision.” Meacham's book took note of Jefferson's shortcomings – as indeed any biography of the man could scarcely avoid doing – but it was fairly openly intended as a celebration of America's third President and the author of the Declaration of Independence. 

Historian John Boles takes a noticeably less adulatory tone in his intensely satisfying big new book Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty, advocating the confrontation of Jefferson's shortcomings directly. “How can one make sense of such apparent contradictions?” he asks. “Surely not simply by picking and choosing one side or the other of these various binaries – aristocrat or democrat, unqualified lover of freedom or unrepentant slaveholder, true wine lover or snobbish dilettante.” The result of this aim is to present readers with a more complex and balanced account of Jefferson than any written since Willard Sterne Randall's "Thomas Jefferson" a quarter of a century ago.

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Boles tells the story of this multifaceted Jefferson with a great deal of energy and discernment, taking readers through all the well-known stages of the man's life, from young lawyer and farmer to author of the Declaration to keenly observant European traveler to his tenures as Minister to France and Secretary of State to his election as the country's second vice-president and its third president. Boles does a particularly skillful job at weaving Jefferson's correspondence and other writings into the busy tempo of his year-to-year life, creating a fascinating dialogue on the page between the reserved and often diffident public man and direct and provocative private writer. 

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Especially vivid is the book's retelling of the great political battles that marked Jefferson's two terms as president, the party strife between Republicans and Federalists that would prompt Jefferson himself to lament “Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.” As Boles makes clear, in the midst of all these squabbles over precedence and place-seeking, Jefferson somehow managed to retain an impressive degree of mental balance, presiding over a booming economy and a rapid expansion of US territory. The impression Boles creates, of a very skilled politician who hated politics, is quite convincing. 

Less convincing – in fact, downright mystifying – is our author's persistent reluctance to assess Jefferson squarely on the subject where he needs it the most: slavery. Jefferson was a lifelong slaveholder who fathered five children with his slave woman Sally Hemings. He wrote eloquently about the inalienable right of all men to liberty, but he bought and sold men, women, and children like livestock for his own personal gain. “Nothing about Jefferson upsets modern readers more than his failure to emancipate his own slaves or work actively to end slavery completely,” Boles writes. “How can we explain these failures?”

Boles's own attempts to explain these failures are his excellent book's besetting weakness. Time and again, he introduces bizarre semi-justifications and rationalizations to soften the brutal reality of Jefferson's callous racism. In Jefferson's absences from his home estate of Monticello, we're told, his overseers whipped his slaves “despite Jefferson's theoretical opposition to the practice.” Theoretical opposition? Given the violent nature of an age when teachers whipped schoolboys and husbands could legally flog their wives, we're told, “contemporaries may have viewed the whipping of slaves as more benign than we can today.” Benign? Contemplating relocating slaves to the West Indies in 1824, we're told, Jefferson started with children and even babies for economic reasons. “Perhaps surprisingly for a relatively benevolent slave owner,” Boles writes, “Jefferson deemed the cruelty of separating infants and toddlers from their mothers insignificant in comparison to the great and lasting good of emancipation.” Benevolent? In "Notes on the State of Virginia," Jefferson writes in explicit detail about how Africans repulse him, and Boles asks, “Surely Sally's beauty must have caused him to rethink those hateful passages, even though she was a mulatto.” There's no hint that he ever rethought a single word. 

As a wealthy white man, Boles writes, Jefferson was content to resign the eventual resolution of the whole issue of slavery to the slow workings of time and changing generational attitudes, adding: “In no other aspect of his life does Jefferson seem more distant from us or more disappointing.” And it's a strength of Boles's book that he's willing to allow himself to be disappointed by his hero – plenty of Jefferson biographers haven't risked even that little. This undercurrent of disappointment isn't strong enough, but it nevertheless shapes a more complicatedly human Thomas Jefferson than readers tend to see.