As I mentioned in a previous post, Thomas Jefferson feels like an enigma to me. I've read a number of books on the man and he remains a more elusive subject than any other president about whom I've read. Given that elusiveness, I was excited to read John Boles's new biography, Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty.
As Boles notes in his introduction, he is trying to demystify Jefferson for his reader. His goal is "to humanize and contextualize Jefferson without either deifying or demonizing him." On a number of levels, he succeeds at this task. In particular, I feel like I saw a more flesh-and-bone Jefferson than I have in previous incarnations. When the future President hurts himself trying to leap over a fence attempting to impress Maria Cosway, I felt his pain and embarrassment. And yet Boles runs into the same issues many Jefferson biographers struggle with--how to deal with the deeply complicated issue of slavery and Sally Hemings.
One of the great strengths of this book is the engaging imagery Boles employs to make Jefferson come to life. In showing us Jefferson on his tour throughout Europe, Boles presents a genuinely endearing image of the man. He writes, "If there was a wall around the city, he walked it with his map in hand; if there wasn't, he sought out the largest church or cathedral, not to admire it but to climb the steeple for a bird's-eye view of the entire city." Perhaps I'm partial as a history nerd, but Jefferson the travel nerd is quite the charming sight!
A similarly engaging and, in many ways, more powerful moment occurs when Boles shows Jefferson getting back to work after the tragic death of his wife. "The dark spell of grief and even self-pity had been broken. He rediscovered what excited him about life...It was as though he, now more mature and resilient, had been reborn to a life of learning and public service...Once again, after a two-year absence, Jefferson was in harness." I was particularly struck by the way the paragraph builds and takes us from the depths of depression into the light of action.
As much as I enjoyed this book, I found Boles stumbled when discussing Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings. I imagine that it's a very difficult needle to thread when trying to hold up Jefferson as a great American while also confronting this relationship fairly. Unfortunately, I think Boles missed the mark.
Too often, he made excuses for Jefferson. In one section, he qualified the fact that Sally was significantly younger by connecting this to larger social views on relationships. "Men of that era often courted and married women of fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen years of age...It was not deemed inappropriate for men to take wives thirty or more years their junior." This is undoubtedly true, but it is deeply problematic to suggest that Jefferson was courting Sally. She was his slave and, thus, the power dynamic was not remotely the same as a man attempting to marry a younger woman.
In Boles's telling, this relationship takes on romantic tones that are unsettling, to say the least. He writes: "Clearly they now trusted one another, and she must have sensed that with him, she and any potential offspring would have the best life possible...It is possible, if not likely, that she also expected a degree of tenderness, care, and support from Jefferson." In a later passage discussing her willingness to come back with him from France, he writes: "That she decided to return to Monticello with Jefferson rather than remain in Paris suggests that she found him attractive too." This depiction gives Hemings far more agency than she likely had and overlooks the fact that Jefferson owned her and her family. While I imagine it's possible that she found him attractive, I think it's also important to point out that she must have worried about what her suing Jefferson to remain in Paris would mean for the family left behind in Virginia.
While I think Boles struggled with Jefferson's involvement with slavery and the Hemings family, I have to give him credit for a book that is otherwise quite good. He's a skilled writer and deftly handles the archives of the era to bring to life Jefferson and his times. I enjoyed this book and, even when it challenged me, I felt drawn in and motivated to press onward. If you're looking for an engaging birth-to-death biography of Jefferson, this is the book I'd recommend.
Review: Three 1/4 out of four stars.