The Chronicle Review

Reassessing Thomas Jefferson

A new biography says the founding father wasn’t simply a racist

June 26, 2017

Áine Cain, The Flat Hat
In 2015, protesters at the College of William & Mary covered a statue of Thomas Jefferson with notes bearing messages like "slave owner" and "racist."

A hypocrite who said all men are created equal but held slaves. A rapist — or close to it — who took advantage of a slave girl he owned.

Since the 1970s, when Thomas Jefferson began to lose his foothold in the pantheon of American heroes, this has been the sum total of what many students know, or think they know, about a leader once almost universally lauded as a father of democracy.

“What I'm trying to do is to try to explain, if I can, why Jefferson acted and believed the way he did.”

John B. Boles believes that picture is incomplete. In a new biography that is both sympathetic and critical at times, Boles, a historian at Rice University and the former editor of the Journal of Southern History, contextualizes how Jefferson faced the dilemma of slavery. He also pulls back the lens to take in the breadth of Jefferson’s achievements as a leader who wrote the Declaration of Independence, promoted religious and intellectual freedom, and reshaped the role of president into that of an active figure who pushes an agenda through Congress.

The result, Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty (Basic Books), is "the fullest and most complete single-volume life of Jefferson" since 1970, wrote the historian Gordon S. Wood. The Washington Post’s retired book critic, Jonathan Yardley, admired it so highly that he violated his vow to never again review another book, judging Boles’s work "perhaps the finest one-volume biography of an American president."

The Chronicle talked to Boles about his findings and the conversation in which his book participates. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed.

How and why have scholarly views on Jefferson changed?

Particularly for anybody in Southern history, the civil-rights movement was by far the most important thing of our times. And then you had this incredible outpouring of scholarship on slavery in black studies beginning in the late ’60s and early ’70s. So it’s just that what’s happening in the field all of a sudden sort of changes the gravity.

The portrait of Jefferson that emerges from your book is of somebody who is incredibly progressive in many ways.

In the Virginia House of Burgesses, the colony’s legislative body, he tries to ease manumission so that slave owners can free their slaves. He argues on behalf of an indentured servant that they have natural rights. In the Declaration of Independence — that section that’s cut out — he talks about these African men and women had the same natural rights as whites do. He in 1784 tries to pass a land ordinance that says no slavery shall exist in any of the states west of the Appalachians, which would have meant Alabama and Mississippi and so forth would not have had slaves. Of course, almost none of those things pass. He also proposes a new constitution for Virginia that would have said all slavery would end in 1800. So he does a lot of things, except in his own individual life, he does not see how he can free his own slaves.

So how do you square that paradox?

There are a couple of things. One, he was in debt almost his entire life because his wife early on inherited the debts of her father. In 1793, Virginia passed a law that said a person who was in debt, if that person freed any of his slaves, those slaves could be seized by any of his debtors. That hampers his ability to free slaves. And then, when Jefferson gets older — and maybe begins to think about, How could I free my slaves, and if I did, would I give them land or whatever — in 1806, Virginia passed a law that said that any slave freed had to leave the state within one year, or he’d be re-enslaved by the state.

Well, this meant that Jefferson, if he freed his slaves, would have to somehow send them away. But he was in debt. He didn’t have the wherewithal to buy them land in Ohio or somewhere.

He also believed that the head of the family had a moral obligation to support and defend and protect his larger biological family. He ended up having to support, for much of his life, 15 or 20 other people of his family at Monticello. That made it even more complicated if he somehow freed his slaves. I’m not trying to defend. I’m just trying to explain, in his mind, this is what shaped his response to what he saw as a clear moral dilemma.

Is there a broader reassessment under way? In promoting their recent Jefferson book, Peter S. Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed also said they wanted to complicate the discussion.

Yeah. I think we all are reacting to this same set of events. If you study this person, you know that most people have a view of him that is incredibly incomplete. And so there’s one group of historians who just dismiss him. And there’s another group — and Onuf and Gordon-Reed are among those — who say, Look, here’s an imperfect person, a very complicated kind of person, but let’s look at him holistically and in context and see if we can’t have a more sophisticated, better-nuanced understanding of him.

What’s your position on the Sally Hemings debate ?

I believe that they had a long-term essentially consensual affair, and that in a different world they may have gotten married. She was technically, legally a slave. There was a law in Virginia that said that a free man could not marry a slave. She also was the half sister of his wife. There also was a law in Virginia that said that a man could not marry the sister of his deceased wife. So even if Sally Hemings were white and free, Jefferson could not have legally married her. He also had promised his wife he’d never remarry.

I don’t know if I want to say it’s absolute love, but it comes pretty close to that. After all, she looked very much like his wife. A lot of people just say offhand, he’s a powerful white man, she’s a black woman, it’s rape. Annette Gordon-Reed says, while that may be usually true, it’s not always true. And if we say that of every single situation like that, then we’re depriving everybody of any sense of agency.

Gordon Wood wrote that you sometimes allow your sympathy for Jefferson to get the better of you in your treatment of race and slavery. Another reviewer accused you of introducing "bizarre semi-justifications and rationalizations to soften the brutal reality of Jefferson’s callous racism."

I don’t think what I’m saying is a bizarre rationalization. What I’m trying to do is to try to explain, if I can, why Jefferson acted and believed the way he did. One way is to say he’s a white racist, end of story. I’m trying to say there’s more to the story. And I’m disappointed that he doesn’t come down the way I would have. But he’s not living in 2017.

We’re living at a time when protesters at Jefferson’s alma mater, the College of William & Mary, and elsewhere have covered statues of him with sticky-notes calling him a "racist" and "rapist." At a recent conference, the slavery scholar Hilary Beckles, head of the University of the West Indies, suggested that we should take down statues of Jefferson, just as we took down statues of King George after the Revolution. What’s your response?

That’s a very ungenerous way of looking at the past. And, actually, a lot of the things Jefferson says about liberty and freedom is the language that eventually is employed by those later on who do end up addressing the racial problems. In a lot of ways, he’s surprisingly modern. The Statute for Religious Freedom is one of really the great events in Western history. So things like that we just shouldn’t remember? No.

Marc Parry is a senior reporter who writes about ideas, focusing on research in the humanities and social sciences. Email him at marc.parry@chronicle.com, or follow him on Twitter @marcparry.