American history, biographies, book reviews, John Boles, presidential biographies, Presidents, Thomas Jefferson
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
Meacham’s was well written but woefully inadequate in discussing Jefferson’s interior life. He fails to fully appreciate in particular the role religion played in his thinking, and relegated the controversy over Sally Hemmings to footnotes. He does much better with people whose principle claim to fame are their actions rather than their thoughts.
Deborah Bowers said:
Thank you for this review. Yes, it would be incredibly uplifting to have another multi-volume epic biography by such a writer as Meacham or McCullough. I wonder if we are past the era when such a feat is possible. Thanks again for your reviews, Steve.
It’s difficult. Andrew Roberts wanted 2 volumes for Winston Churchill and was turned down. When a writer of his stature can’t get a second volume for such a subject it says something about the state of the publishing industry.
Thank you for the review! I have embarked on the presidential biography challenge, but my pace is not at all blistering (1/2 way through Washington by Chernow after 2.5 months). However, I have taken to heart your “enjoy the journey” sentiment, so I read when I can and have stopped racing the calendar.
In the interim, I come here when I need a few minutes at work and fully enjoy perusing and reading all of your reviews. Someday when life slows down, I look forward to reading with the voracious appetite that I intended at the beginning, but until then, these reviews provide great preliminary vision into the presidents and interesting individuals of history!
Yes, I really do believe that enjoying the journey is the most important piece of this adventure! I, too, frequently find that my “appetite” for reading exceeds my opportunity but better to start off too ambitious than with a lazy lack of purpose 🙂
In any event, do enjoy the challenge, my fingers are crossed that you find Chernow’s biography satisfying in the end and please keep visiting!
Thank you so much for your review! I’ve been looking for a Jefferson biography and I am torn between Boles’s and Meacham’s. A number of reviews of Boles’s book faulted it (very much like Jon Meacham’s book) for being too sympathetic to Jefferson, including on the issue of slavery. What is your take on this?
With the benefit of hindsight, and at the risk of oversimplifying the issue, I would say that Meacham’s book is more engaging and colorful but Boles’s biography is far more balanced and thoughtful on the issue of slavery.
Got it. I think I’ll go with Boles’s biography. Meacham’s books are just too hagiographic to me. Thanks again for your review (and all the others)!