Jonathan Yardley was the book critic of The Washington Post from 1981 to 2014.
In the spring of 1962, John F. Kennedy held a dinner at the White House for Nobel Prize laureates from nations of the Western Hemisphere. Opening his remarks, he rather famously said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Quite less famously, he continued, “Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”
That was April 1962, and that was how Jefferson was then viewed: as a man of astonishingly varied and sophisticated knowledge and accomplishments, a Founding Father to rank beside Washington and Franklin. Then, a dozen years later, came Fawn Brodie’s “Jefferson: An Intimate History,” an inquiry into Jefferson’s relations with his slaves, most specifically the possibility of sexual relations with the house servant Sally Hemings. It sold well for a work of ostensibly serious history, though it aroused passionate indignation among Jefferson loyalists in Virginia and elsewhere, and it set Jefferson on the downhill course he has followed ever since. As John B. Boles says at the outset of this magisterial biography:
“Jefferson’s complexity renders him easy to caricature in popular culture. Particularly in recent years, Jefferson, long the hero of small d as well as capital D democrats, has seen his reputation wane due to his views on race, the revelation of his relationship with Sally Hemings, and his failure to free his own slaves. Once lauded as the champion of the little man, today he is vilified as a hypocritical slave owner, professing a love of liberty while quietly driving his own slaves to labor harder in his pursuit of luxury. Surely an interpretive middle ground is possible, if not necessary. If we hope to understand the enigma that is Thomas Jefferson, we must view him holistically and within the rich context of his time and place. This biography aims to provide that perspective.”
To say that it does so is massive understatement. “Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty” is perhaps the finest one-volume biography of an American president. Boles, a professor of history at Rice University, has spent many years studying Jefferson’s native American South in all its mysteries, contradictions, follies and outrages, as well as its unique contributions to the national culture and literature. This biography is the culmination of a long, distinguished career. I admire it so passionately that, almost 2 1/2 years into a happy retirement, I had no choice except to violate my pledge never again to write another book review.
To his study of this deeply controversial man, Boles brings an ample supply of what has been so lamentably missing in the discussion over the past half-century: a calm insistence on separating truth (so far as we can know it) from rumor and invective, and a refusal to judge a man who lived more than two centuries ago by the moral, ethical and political standards of today. Boles admires Jefferson and maintains a sympathetic attitude toward him through this long, immensely satisfying narrative, but he does not flinch when Jefferson’s behavior and attitudes seem, according to 21st-century standards, offensive at worst, inexplicable at best.
Because the focus in recent years has been almost entirely on Jefferson’s attitudes toward slavery and his actions regarding the several hundred slaves who fell under his ownership, it is important to recall that there was vastly more to his long life than this. In Boles’s “full-scale biography,” Jefferson is presented to us “in all his guises: politician, diplomat, party leader, executive; architect, musician, oenophile, gourmand, traveler; inventor, historian, political theorist; land owner, farmer, slaveholder; and son, father, grandfather.” Without smothering the reader under mountains of detail, Boles briskly but authoritatively takes Jefferson from his birth in Virginia in 1743 to his death, at home in his beloved Monticello, on the Fourth of July, 1826, several hours before the death in Massachusetts of his old friend and occasional rival, John Adams, that other great Founding Father.
As Boles notes, the world into which Jefferson was born was so different from our own that we are hard-pressed to imagine it, yet it was out of this distant world that our own eventually emerged, and Jefferson was at the very center as the transformation from colony to nation got under way. He wrote the immortal Declaration of Independence, which gave voice to the convictions and hopes that impelled his fellow colonists into revolution. At the end of his life he said the Declaration was one of his three singular accomplishments, the others being the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) and the establishment of the University of Virginia a couple of years before his death.
He represented the new nation in Paris from 1784 to 1790, and while he was there delighted in and learned from the varied aspects of that city, whether musical or literary or architectural. In Philadelphia and New York, from 1790 to 1801, he participated in the formation of the new government and served a term as John Adams’s vice president, spending much of that term at Monticello, just as Adams spent much of his term at his Massachusetts home. He then sought and won the presidency in February 1801 in a breathtakingly close vote in the House of Representatives.
The accomplishments of his presidency are well known, most notably the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Lewis and Clark expedition to the far West, though his second term was less successful than his first. He lived for more than a decade and a half after it ended, and while he continued to be active in the public lives of his nation and state, he found his greatest pleasures in Monticello and within the bonds of the family to which he was utterly devoted. His wife, Martha, had died in 1782, pleading with him on her deathbed not to marry again, a request that he honored willingly but one that probably had much to do with his later escape into the arms of Hemings.
Thanks largely to the diligent research of Annette Gordon-Reed and the two books that emerged from it, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings” (1997) and “The Hemingses of Monticello” (2008), we now know almost certainly as much as we ever will about this essentially mysterious connection. We do know that Hemings “gave birth to five children,” that Jefferson “was demonstrably present at Monticello nine months prior to each of these births” and that one of her children bore an almost uncanny resemblance to Jefferson. Gordon-Reed “argues that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, as unlikely as it might seem, probably had genuine mutual affection,” which if true can only leave us all the more puzzled by “his failure to emancipate his own slaves or work actively to end slavery completely.” Boles writes:
“Activists in Jefferson’s time . . . much less the abolitionists who emerged soon after his death, could not accept such a patient approach; nor can modern readers. Jefferson’s willingness to wait tells us a great deal about his character and also about his era, his race, and his class. As a wealthy white man, he saw little need for urgency; he believed, rather, that in God’s good time, emancipation would somehow be effected. In no other aspect of his life does Jefferson seem more distant from us or more disappointing.”
Disappointing, to be sure, but also understandable. He was a creature of his own time, not of ours, and at the end of this superb, utterly riveting biography, Boles strikes exactly the right note. He describes the “simple obelisk” erected over Jefferson’s grave at Monticello and then says: “It was a simple marker for a man of vast accomplishments and complexities, the supreme spokesman of America’s promise. Ironically, today he is often found wanting for not practicing the principles he articulated best. Yet Jefferson, despite his limitations, more than anyone else was the intellectual architect of the nation’s highest ideals. He will always belong in the American pantheon.”
By John B. Boles
Basic. 626 pp. $35