Wednesday, July 19, 2017



By John B. Boles

Basic Books, $35, 626 pages

If words were all that mattered, Thomas Jefferson would, indeed, have been the “Architect of American Liberty” that John Boles proclaims in the subtitle of his impressive new biography. Had Thomas Jefferson never written another word after the Declaration of Independence, he would be remembered as author of one of the most influential documents in the history of political thought.

But actions also matter and Jefferson, who shined in roles as varied as philosopher, inventor, architect and musician, was definitely not a man of action. Without him, the Declaration of Independence might have been a duller document, but the Washingtons, Adamses, Hamiltons, Lafayettes and Franklins — and thousands of humble citizen soldiers who braved hardships Jefferson never had to face — would have seen us through to independence. Jefferson wrote the sales pitch; they delivered the product.

Mr. Boles tells us that he set out to write a full-scale biography, “admittedly sympathetic but critical when appropriate.” Had he done so, a good book would have been even better. Unfortunately, his narrative often reads more like the brief of a skilled defense attorney making the most of sympathetic evidence and ignoring or discounting unfavorable facts.

A case in point: The author makes much of the many words Jefferson wrote critical of slavery, and bends over backward to portray him as a kindly, reluctant slave master. We are told that Jefferson “rarely sold slaves, finding the practice shameful,” and that he “only sold his slaves out of what he considered economic necessity,” rather like a stick-up artist robbing banks only when he needed the money.

Jefferson once wrote of slavery that, “Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Throughout his public life, when it came to practice rather than preaching, Jefferson always tipped the scale in favor of self-interest. Even his greatest achievement as president, the Louisiana Purchase, extended the institution of slavery to vast new areas in a way that never happened before or after it.

As historian Roger G. Kennedy has pointed out, “as the slaves were driven westward during the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison … Virginia theorists in charge of national land policy … set a higher value on delaying industrialism than on sustaining free farming. The planters were the winners.” The losers were the very yeoman farmers Jefferson claimed to champion and to cherish as model citizens.

Then there is the problem of Jefferson’s political duplicity, his tendency to strike lofty, above-the-fray public poses while pulling the strings for political “dirty tricks” behind the scenes. A striking example — ignored by Mr. Boles — is his subsidizing and encouraging the scurrilous pamphleteer James Callender, who smeared President George Washington while Jefferson served as his secretary of State and pretended to sympathize with Washington when he complained about abuse from the gutter press.

That particular bit of hypocrisy caught up with him in the end: Callender eventually turned on Jefferson and revealed the sordid facts about Sally Hemmings, Jefferson’s slave concubine and the mother of several mulatto bastards almost certainly fathered by Jefferson.

One of the great ironies of the early years of Federalist-Republican rivalry is that the politicians who claimed to champion the common — as long as he was white — man tended to be aristocratic planters like Jefferson while the advocates of a cohesive national structure and economic growth tended to be self-made men from humble or relatively modest origins like John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and even George Washington, a practical and humane planter who managed his lands well and freed his slaves.

The problem with Jefferson was not that he owned slaves — a situation he was born into — but that he proved himself an inhumane, improvident master. For example, although acquaintances denounced the sadism of one of his overseers — a brute named Gabriel Lilly who once whipped a 17-year-old relative of Sally Hemmings three times in the same day — Jefferson wrote that it would be impossible to find “a man who fulfills my purposes better than Lilly …”

He also confided to one of his overseers that “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man on the farm, what she produces is an addition to capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”

Thomas Jefferson was a great articulator of free ideals, but he also qualifies as the prototypical limousine liberal, a man whose epitaph might well read: Do as I say, not as I do.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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