Judging the ‘architect of American liberty,’ not by today’s standards but by those of his time. William Anthony Hay reviews ‘Jefferson’ by John B. Boles.
ByWilliam Anthony Hay
The satirist Finley Peter Dunne once observed, through his character Mr. Dooley, that the Supreme Court follows the election returns. In a similar way, historical scholarship tends to follow the preoccupations of its own time. Thomas Jefferson offers an illuminating example. Though far from uncritical, biographers of Jefferson in the postwar years up to, roughly, the early 1970s—scholars like Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson—treated him with sympathy and celebrated his Enlightenment ideals. In the mid-1970s, Fawn Brodie changed Jefferson’s public image by highlighting his relationship with the slave Sally Hemings. Race soon became central to Jefferson scholarship and opened up criticism on other fronts. Once lionized as a defender of liberty, Jefferson came to be depicted as a slave-owning elitist whose class interests, as a Virginia planter, trumped his egalitarian rhetoric. Indeed, neo-progressive historians began to argue that, by creating a property-owning democracy of white males, Jefferson had curbed the prospect of liberty for women, slaves and Native Americans and had codified structural inequality. From such a standpoint, Jefferson’s legacy stands in tension with his professed ideals, making him a hypocrite if not worse.
In “Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty,” John Boles, a history professor at Rice University, advances a series of arguments counter to these interpretive trends. He offers a sympathetic (though not hagiographic) view of Jefferson that emphasizes the differences between his world and ours. The constraints under which Jefferson lived—legal, financial, personal and intellectual—shaped his actions, Mr. Boles shows, limiting or guiding his choices and revealing them to be, when viewed in context and without today’s presumption of moral superiority, admirable more often than not, fully justifying the esteem in which Jefferson was once routinely held. It is better, Mr. Boles argues, to understand Jefferson’s world and his place in it than to judge him by the standards of a later day.
A 1789 bust of Jefferson by Jean-Antoine Houdon.PHOTO: LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES
By John B. Boles
Basic, 626 pages, $35
Slavery offers a case in point. Although condemned as a slave owner who doubted that free blacks could live at peace among whites—as he famously wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia” (1785)—Jefferson opposed slavery in his own state and pushed for the legislation that ended the importation of slaves to the U.S. after 1808. Debts kept him from following George Washington’s example of freeing his slaves after his wife’s death, an inaction that Mr. Boles describes, rightly, as almost ruining Jefferson’s reputation in the late 20th century. But none of the Founders, including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, risked his career by pushing hard for abolition. Jefferson did what circumstances allowed, and it turned out to be more than expected of a man formed by his slave-owning milieu.
Jefferson grew up on a plantation more culturally part of the old Tidewater region on the Chesapeake than the Piedmont frontier where it stood. Studying the classics reinforced in him a stoicism common among Virginia gentlemen. Although in his own words a hard-working student at the College of William & Mary, Jefferson managed to enter Williamsburg society by drawing the notice of men like Francis Fauquier, the royal governor of Virginia. Conversation and social polish complemented Jefferson’s reading, which went far beyond preparing him to practice law.
From his early support for colonial liberties as a Virginia legislator, Jefferson became a pre-revolutionary spokesman for the American cause—which he saw as a fight for self-rule against new efforts of the British to impose control over the colonies. It is hard for us to grasp today how bold it was to assert the rights of the governed against the encroachments of imperial authority. Almost the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775, Jefferson determined to fight rather than submit to Parliament’s insistence on imposing internal taxes and legislating for the colonies without their assent.
The next year, as Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, he would turn to a range of much earlier English writings as well as to the Virginia Declaration of Rights that George Mason had written not long before. Summarizing “years of thinking and political philosophizing,” Mr. Boles notes, Jefferson framed his thoughts in the Declaration to make an argument for America’s place among nations. Congress kept 90% of his words in the final document.
Instead of taking up arms, Jefferson became a revolutionary lawmaker first in Congress and then back in Virginia. Mr. Boles calls him a born legislator who combined deep legal knowledge with precise language, a pleasant manner and sheer diligence. He started the process of revising Virginia’s laws to promote religious freedom and to make the rules of inheritance more democratic. Far from curtailing liberty, as latter-day interpreters would have it, he worked to expand it. Mr. Boles notes that his efforts against slavery—including an effort to denounce the slave trade in the Declaration—faced too much resistance to make headway.
In the later stages of the war against Britain, Jefferson returned to Congress, where he wrote the ratification of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War. His report on western lands guided the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, a law that planned the sale of the lands to homesteaders, provided funds from the proceeds for public education, and excluded slavery north of the Ohio River: a democratic initiative if ever there was one. It is again important to imagine how differently this territory might have been managed if powerful, self-interested elites, preferring tenants or large estates to independent small-holders, had held sway. Jefferson’s work, by contrast, helped to extend a society of landowning farmers to territory that eventually become states on equal footing with the original 13.
Throughout his career, as Mr. Boles emphasizes, Jefferson framed institutions on broad principles of republican government and thus had a lasting effect on America’s political culture. In such a way, he was, in Mr. Boles’s words, the “architect of American liberty,” a phrase the author uses without the sneers or hedges that have become de rigueur among recent chroniclers of the founding era.
Attributes that made Jefferson an effective legislator also served him as a diplomat in France in the 1780s. Mr. Boles describes him as a remarkable conversationalist, and his scientific feats had made him a celebrity before he reached Versailles. There he became “an exemplar of the philosopher as statesman.” Touring Europe made him value the United States all the more, especially for the prosperity and liberty it gave ordinary people. He blamed monarchy in France “for the shocking discrepancy in living standards between the richest and the poorest,” as Mr. Boles writes. Jefferson did not foresee the tremendous social upheaval that the French Revolution would unleash, and he returned home before the Jacobin Reign of Terror. His unwillingness to denounce its excesses gave American opponents ammunition for years to come. Jefferson “considered the threat of governmental repression a greater danger than rebellion from below,” Mr. Boles notes, but he neither consistently defended periodic rebellion nor opposed lawful authority.
The global conflict that the French Revolution set in motion in the early 1790s heightened America’s vulnerability and made it all the more important to preserve neutrality. Jefferson was alarmed by Federalists who sympathized with Britain and who sought a strong federal government to check the possibility of plebeian unrest; he saw them as hankering after the monarchy he despised. They, in turn, saw him as a crypto-Jacobin who would bring atheism and social revolution to America. Washington sided with Jefferson (then his secretary of state) and maintained good relations with France while distancing the United States from its old ally, but relations within Washington’s cabinet broke down as rival parties emerged.
John Adams’s presidency further polarized American politics, though Jefferson and his friends did not realize that, as Mr. Boles says, “Adams was a moderating voice” among the Federalists, checking Hamilton’s larger ambitions. Tensions at home and a quasi-war with France drew Jefferson away from playing a mere passive role as vice president and into actively campaigning to succeed Adams. He consciously sought reconciliation after his victory in the 1800 election by reaching out to former opponents. But he also strove to promote the republican principles of simplicity and frugality, not least by reducing both taxes and the national debt and reversing Hamilton’s efforts at economic centralization.
Purchasing Louisiana in 1803 from France “for a song,” as Gen. Horatio Gates, the famed Revolutionary War veteran, put it, marked Jefferson’s greatest achievement as president. French control over New Orleans had meant a stranglehold over exports from the Mississippi Valley, an arrangement that, Jefferson said, would force Americans to “marry ourselves to the British fleet & nation.” Patient diplomacy and a shift in Napoleon’s strategy brought a sale on favorable terms, although by a step not allowed explicitly by the Constitution (as Jefferson’s critics like to point out).
Jefferson fared less well in his second term, mainly because the Napoleonic Wars threatened American trade. Economic warfare squeezed neutral powers like the United States, and clashes with Britain threatened war. Jefferson responded with an embargo on trade that would, he believed, pressure foreign rivals and buy time for diplomacy. Commercial strain had more effect on Britain than critics at the time realized, but economic disruption also hurt the United States and divided the country along regional lines. Jefferson’s departure from Washington in 1809 ended his public career, though he pursued an active retirement—writing, gardening, tinkering with the architecture at Monticello and the University of Virginia—until his death in 1826.
While emphasizing Jefferson’s part in framing institutions fundamental to American liberty, Mr. Boles stresses the man’s contradictions. An aristocrat by birth and manner, Jefferson was “the most thoroughgoing democrat of the Founding Fathers.” Deeply convinced of the power of words, he avoided public oratory and preferred working behind the scenes. A devoted agrarian, he was a connoisseur of cities who took a leading part in the designing of Washington, D.C. More cosmopolitan and widely traveled than other Founders, he preferred the comforts of home and family. The contradictions—almost as much as the differences between past and present—make Jefferson hard to grasp. Mr. Boles’s splendid biography shows that trying to understand him on his own terms is more than worth the effort.
—Mr. Hay is the author of a forthcoming biography of Lord Liverpool, Britain’s prime minister during the Napoleonic Wars.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.