Review: John Boles's "Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty"

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. 

John B. Boles

John B. Boles

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. 



The Problem of Hagiography in Presidential Biography

If you read enough history and biography, it’s inevitable that you’ll come across books that can only be described as hagiographic towards their subjects. In the right hands, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s only natural that some writers will feel that their subjects deserve a tremendous amount of praise. At the same time, the hagiographic biographer can stumble in defending some of his/her subject’s less admirable qualities. Case in point: Dumas Malone and Thomas Jefferson.

As most Jefferson biographers note, Jefferson made unwanted sexual advances towards Betsey Walker, the wife of a friend who was away on business. Malone acknowledges that Jefferson made a mistake in the Walker affair, but in the next sentence begins to make excuses for Jefferson. “He was then unmarried, full of physical strength and vigor…” This comes off as if we should give the man some leeway for his sexual urges. As if he was simply a young man in his sexual prime who can’t be expected to control himself.

Young Jefferson. Clearly full of vigor.

Young Jefferson. Clearly full of vigor.

He also praises Jefferson for his response much later in life. “A generation afterwards John [Walker] said that during his absence Jefferson’s conduct towards Mrs. Walker was improper; and the President of the United States candidly admitted to certain particular friends that at one time it was…he said this privately: ‘I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady. I acknowledge its incorrectness.’ Also, when he was in his sixties, he did what he could in private to make amends to his alienated friend, and to relieve Walker’s mind in a time of embarrassing publicity by exculpating the lady from all blame. Such action was in full accord with his strict code of manners and morals. [emphasis added]” Perhaps I’m being too critical, but should we view actions done candidly and privately as evidence of a strong character? Is this the behavior of a man accepting full responsibility for his actions?

In noting that Betsey Walker waited several years to tell her husband about Jefferson’s sexual advances, Malone concludes “the natural supposition is that the lady did not regard to the offense as grave.” Considering Jefferson’s social standing, it is also possible that she worried about leveling such an accusation. Which makes Malone’s conclusions anything but “natural.” Unless, of course, you want to believe that Jefferson was the best of men.

Once she does reveal what happened, we learn that it was far more of an issue than Jefferson (and Malone) suggest in their muted language. “Mrs. Walker told her husband about Jefferson’s designs on her. When he was at a safe distance she unfolded a lurid story of ‘base transactions’—in 1769 and 1770, when he was still a bachelor, and extending into 1779, when he had been for some years a married man.” What Malone depicts as a moment of youthful indiscretion is, in reality, a years-long effort on Jefferson’s part. 

And yet, given the choice between the testimony of Jefferson and Walker, Malone comes down firmly in the former’s camp. What I find particularly troubling is how much of Malone’s defense rests on his belief that Jefferson was too much of a “good guy” to do such a thing:

“In the absence of other testimony, such an incredible story cannot be accepted in detail. All we can be sure of is that Jefferson made advances of some sort to his friend’s wife while he himself was single, that he deeply regretted his actions afterwards, and that he accepted all the blame. He may possibly have erred more than once in his youthful ardor, but this sensitive man was not bold toward women and the awkward maneuvers which Mrs. Walker reported suggest none of the accomplishments of a rake. He was much more in character as a devoted husband and kind father than as an aggressive lover, and it is hard to believe that he would have persisted in the face of rebuffs at any age. He generally observed the proprieties almost to the point of stiffness; he was notably loyal to his friends; and there is no reason whatever to question his complete fidelity to his own wife. [emphasis added]” 

There’s a lot to unpack here. Malone seems to think that the initial charge is somehow less of an issue because Jefferson was not married at the time. But why does that matter? Making repeated sexual advances on a woman who rejects them is no more acceptable coming from a single man. More importantly, Malone can’t help contradicting himself. He wants us to see that Jefferson was a man of rigid virtue and morality, but then chalks his behavior up to “youthful ardor” and “vigor.” Jefferson is either a man of great self-control or a man driven by sexual passions. It’s hard to see how both are true. He rejects Mrs. Walker’s claims by saying that Jefferson was “notably loyal” despite Jefferson’s own acknowledgment that he was guilty of this accusation. Malone may want us to dismiss these charges, but I come away from this passage feeling like he protests far too much.

Having not written a biography myself, I can only imagine that it is an extremely fine line to walk between critiquing and honoring your subject. At the same time, I would encourage all biographers to take this moment in Malone’s epic project as an example of how not to behave in the face of your subject’s indiscretions—youthful or otherwise.

Note: All quotations come from pages 154-155 in Dumas Malone's Jefferson the Virginian

Wrestling With the Past

In my quest for deeper dives and authoritative takes, I've encountered a number of older works that, despite their merits, are dated in staggering ways. A recent case-in-point comes early on in Dumas Malone's Jefferson the Virginian. Published in 1948, his first volume in a six-part study of Thomas Jefferson is, at times, a wonderfully engaging read. And yet, I can't help being stopped in my tracks by the following: 

Jefferson "was distinctive because he combined within himself the highest virtues of his native society (excepting the military), while escaping its chief vices." 

Dumas Malone. 

Dumas Malone. 

Malone makes no secret of his admiration for Jefferson and, were this a modern biography, I might wonder if he were simply papering over his subject's darker flaws. But, Malone hasn't shied away from talking about the presence of slaves or their importance as property to the Virginia elite. It seems, however, that Malone wasn't willing (or able?) to see Jefferson's slave holding and his treatment of Sally Hemings as a "chief vice." I can't help wondering if an eminent historian, writing in the 1940s, simply couldn't perceive the issue of slavery as a deeply problematic system tarnishing every individual involved. 

This moment suggests quite a lot about how far our history writing has developed over the years. Aside from ideologically motivated authors (see Barton, David), it would be astonishing for a modern historian to make this point about Jefferson. To do otherwise would ignore the deeply important and revelatory work of people like Annette Gordon-Reed in her award-winning books, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and The Hemings of Monticello

And yet, I feel compelled to continue reading Malone's work. Which makes me feel conflicted. Am I reading too much into these moments? Am I overlooking serious ethical failings on his part out of a deference to his authority? It's certainly too early to say, but it's something that I find interesting and troubling. And something I intend to keep tracking as I move forward. 


Malone's six-part series and his subject. 

Malone's six-part series and his subject.