The com­plex Je≠er­son in his place and time

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD -

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 21/2 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.” Jonathan Yard­ley was the book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post from 1981 to 2014.

KATHERINE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Thomas Jef­fer­son’s legacy has been clouded by his at­ti­tudes to­ward slav­ery. But John B. Boles writes that “we must view him holis­ti­cally and within the rich con­text of his time and place.”

By John B. Boles Ba­sic. 626 pp. $35

JEF­FER­SON Ar­chi­tect of Amer­i­can Lib­erty

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