Published in 2017, “Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty” by John Boles is the most recent full-length biography of Thomas Jefferson. Boles is Professor of American History at Rice University and former president of the Southern Historical Association. He is also the author of a half-dozen books including “Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South.”
This biography of Thomas Jefferson is uncommonly thoughtful, thorough and well organized. Boles is extremely familiar with the cross-currents of Jefferson’s era and exhibits admirable dexterity in distilling and conveying the most important bits of wisdom to the reader.
Boles spends much of the book portraying Jefferson as a complex man of perplexing contradictions and investigating his ideology versus his actions. Boles does not forgive him simply as a “man of his times” so much as he attempts to understand and describe Jefferson’s flaws within the context of his times and against his own ideals. Boles is also careful to describe Jefferson in all his forms: as a politician, diplomat, architect, inventor, farmer, slave-owner and patriarch.
There is much to be admired about this biography beyond its deliberate and reasoned approach, however. Boles’s dissection of Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” proves compelling, his methodical exploration of Jefferson’s long-standing interest in religious freedom is fabulous and the chapter devoted to his founding of the University of Virginia is invaluable.
But the book is probably at its best when humanizing Jefferson, placing the reader squarely in his world or pondering his inscrutable persona. A chapter exploring the major paradoxes of his life (his attitude and actions with respect to slavery…and his relationship with Sally Hemings) is excellent. And chapters exploring his non-political interests (in farming, the outdoors and in art and music) and his relationships (particularly with his grandchildren) are wonderfully revealing.
But Boles is a better historian than author and his writing style can be dry and a bit flat. Although the narrative occasionally exhibits brilliant flashes of texture and vibrancy, more often it is a crisp, analytical and business-like history of Jefferson’s life. Boles is not quite one of the rare authors who can seamlessly combine brilliantly-condensed history with uncommonly eloquent scene-setting.
Also disappointing is that this biography often fails to deeply explore Jefferson’s most important relationships – such as those with Lafayette and James Madison. Important ancillary characters tend to appear only as needed to support whatever historical analysis is being examined at the moment. As a result, the full flavor of Jefferson’s life is never fully accessed.
By many accounts the most remarkable, interesting and important of Jefferson’s relationships was with John Adams. But only toward the end of this biography does Boles really begin to unravel their incredibly unique, decades-long friendship – one that was of such consequence it is the subject of its very own book.
Overall, however, John Boles has written an extremely articulate, thoughtful and dispassionate study of the life of Thomas Jefferson. This biography will serve as an excellent introduction to Jefferson’s life and times for most readers. But seasoned Jefferson enthusiasts will continue dreaming of the even better Jefferson biography yet to be written which combines Boles’s keen insight and perspective with the artfully engaging style of Jon Meacham.
Overall Rating: 4¼ stars