“Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty,” by John Boles

John Boles

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

Dumas Malone’s six volume biography of Thomas Jefferson is nearing the half-century mark since publication.  Joseph Ellis’s biography appeared in 1996, followed by other biographies, some of which own a “tabloid” quality. Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, however, is an insightful consideration of a story largely expunged from history until recently.

Whether previous biographies of Jefferson illustrate scholarly honesty is an interesting subject likely for a doctoral dissertation.  Jefferson has been abased or has become a statue or a face carved on a mountain; Hamilton less so, the subject of a recent musical.

Professor John Boles’s Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty will continue the conversation, adding to extant layers of interpretation without canceling out or supplanting predecessor biographies. It’s wise, though, to regard Boles’s word “architect” as having numerous, facet-like connotations. Each “episode” of the biography, in other words, is a portion of a Jefferson architectural blueprint from his own time, from the world as he knew it. The point is to consider Jefferson with just such an understanding, neither condemning nor excusing. The result is a biography of a man of sophisticated knowledge and accomplishments.

He was at the center of American public life for a good half-century, deftly astride those tension-packed years. Professor Boles argues that Jefferson’s life must be viewed holistically, with less eulogist favor, and within the rich range of human experience.

It’s a wonderfully satisfying book, some of which covers the usual history as any biography must. Professor Boles’s account of Jefferson’s presidency, which follows on the heels of John Adams’s mixed-results administration, is masterful.  Serious problems indicated that the American presidency had yet to be defined.  When in 1801 Jefferson took office, he understood the constitutional origins of the executive branch and the social, economic, political, and international forces that shape the presidency.

It’s been widely and traditionally assumed that Washington illustrates the origins of American presidential character, with its lines of conduct and manners. Still there was partisan rancor, grossly enlarged during the four years of John Adams’s administration, largely the result of Federalist disunity. Adams and the High Federalist Hamilton expressed shifting views regarding the virtues of monarchical and hereditary political institutions, including the executive office.

Such may have been scurrilous but so were the attacks on Jefferson during the campaign, which are well-known. Professor Boles’s account of that campaign portrays Jefferson as prudent, honest, and restrained.  When Jefferson assumed office, Professor Boles suggests, he took control of his own cabinet, but always stood on the bedrock of what Jefferson the architect conceived to be the American system. Thus, after a disputatious political campaign, Jefferson purposefully began to heal the nation’s wounds:  “the people would ‘according to the rules of the constitution . . . arrange themselves under the rule of law, and unite in common effort for the common good….’”

Jefferson was aware that the High Federalist partisans believed him to be either dreamy or a wild-eyed French radical.  As President, then, he set about articulating his own position: “All too will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

Professor Boles shows that Jefferson architecturally shaped his presidency, having in mind fundamental ideas that characterized the “American system,” namely, a “strong central government and vigorous state governments, bound together in a federated system that mediated between the two.”

It’s wise to spend a bit of time on this statement because Jefferson in his time was deeply aware of the constitutionally defined spheres of authority. Jefferson was humble, but held an expansive view of the future of the nation. He called his position “the first Executive office,” not the presidency.

What was his general architectural principle? The ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which when outlined would hold the country together and form the creed of our political faith. In 1801, then, Jefferson wrote that he would “advance with obedience to the work.” And he would do so by venerating the spirit of the people.

The metaphor is, again, architectural. Faced with the Federalist argument that the American system of common law should mirror the British system of common law, Jefferson the lawyer objected. An earlier interest in the history and sociology of law led him to argue that simply to accept what had become over time a tortured system of judicial metaphysics was unlikely to promote public happiness. His contention was that there should be only two legitimate sources of law in America:  the law of nature and the law enacted by the “American” people, which is illustrated by his opposition to the efforts of Federalist judges to read into the law of the American commonwealth the English common law and the precepts of the Christian church.

Professor Boles’s account, furthermore, of Jefferson’s favorite legal heresy (i.e., the notion that Christianity was a part of the common law), was for Jefferson more likely than not a conspiracy between judges and divines, between state and church. For Professor Boles, then, since Jefferson is the “architect of American liberty,” his conception of the close relation between American law and American politics must remain free from English prejudices.

Jefferson’s own metaphor? One might as well require a man to wear the coat of a boy, tight-fitting as it would be and uncomfortable. Likewise in the interpretation of the law, no one man or division of government could hold a monopoly;  similarly, each of the agencies of government entrusted by the people with upholding the Constitution must decide the meaning of the Constitution.

For Professor Boles, Jefferson, the architect of American liberty, always understood that every intention of government was of necessity measured within the scope of permissive constitutional power. Citing Jefferson’s “feud” with Chief Justice Marshall, Professor Boles writes that Jefferson’s fear was that to consider judges as final arbiters of constitutional questions would place the liberty of the American people under the despotism of an oligarchy.

So much, therefore, to admire. But does Jefferson disappoint?

Boles says yes: it’s the issue of slavery. Upon his death, Washington emancipated his slaves. Not Jefferson. A major reason might have been his near bankruptcy.   He abhorred and yet benefited from the institution.  More than any other major Founder, “Jefferson spoke and acted against slavery.”  He’s a paradox.

And there was one caste above the rest, in his eyes: the members of the “Hemings clan enjoyed slightly better housing and more generous clothing allowances.”  Professor Boles is at pains to note that Jefferson over time moderated his earlier beliefs. One may, Boles suggests, “wonder whether Jefferson saw the Hemingses’ evident ability as the result of ‘white blood’ coursing through their veins.”

Sally Hemings had become Jefferson’s concubine by the early 1790s.  Professor Boles believes the relationship to have been monogamous and as “unlikely as it might seem, probably had genuine mutual affection.” By the standards of white society, she was “reputedly pretty, if not beautiful,” and according to some testimony by other slaves, “mighty near white,” bearing a striking resemblance to Jefferson’s deceased wife.

Jefferson is not, of course, subject matter for a sentimental novel, but Professor Boles offers readers numerous moments in which Jefferson is a man of “feeling” and could emotionally identify in his “servants” something much more than a selfish man could ever see. There was also a codicil to his will in which Sally’s two children were freed. Professor Boles argues that Jefferson did not legally free Sally but orally arranged with Martha to unofficially free her.

Is it satisfying? Jefferson was profoundly aware of a Virginia law that required “manumitted slaves to leave the state within one year.”  It’s possible, therefore, that Jefferson the lawyer understood how that law limited his personal range of action. What did not occur is legislative change (apart from the moral dictate of elites) that could effectuate social change.

Jefferson’s hope?  That the “generation after his—reared in an atmosphere of political liberty—would expand the concept of liberty to include general emancipation.”

There were other Virginia laws which required freed slaves to leave the state or lose their freedom.  There’s a pragmatic side to Jefferson, who believed it would be morally irresponsible to free slaves without giving them land, tools, draft animals, and enough financial backing to sustain themselves.

On the 22nd of April 1820, Jefferson wrote to John Holmes to discuss the Missouri question, which “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled [him] with terror”; he would live six more years, and matters would remain the same.

Jefferson’s was an expansive intellectual life; as Professor Boles makes clear, however, he was also a “sentimental,” gentle father doting on his daughters. One will not find in this magisterial biography the Jefferson of “tabloid” excesses; one finds, instead, a Jefferson who is quintessentially the architect of American liberty and the most “American” of all the Founders.

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