Making Jefferson Safe for the Historians        

Washington, DC - Jefferson Memorial

Washington, DC – Jefferson Memorial

Rice University’s John Boles was for many years (1983-2013) editor of The Journal of Southern History, which after The Journal of American History is the most-cited scholarly journal in the field of American history. In that position, he had substantial influence on, besides being substantially influenced by, the shape of the field today.

Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty comes as a kind of valedictory.  As in his earlier work, Boles is self-consciously guided in writing it by recent developments in academic historiography. Contemporary politics make themselves felt in his story of the Master of Monticello, too.

A full one-volume account has long been needed. As Boles’ publisher says, there has been no full-length biography of Jefferson since Merrill Peterson’s nearly a half-century ago. Peterson famously warned off undergraduates who showed up in his courses on the Jeffersonian era expecting to venture beyond political history, and his book is dry as dust. It also is self-consciously defensive of Jefferson. Virtually at every point, Peterson excuses Jefferson for whatever animosity arises in his career and whatever ill effects follow from his policy decisions.

Peterson also burnished what liberals c. 1970 might have taken to be the rough edges of Jefferson’s record. So, for example, he omitted from the Library of America’s volume Thomas Jefferson: Writings several of the documents in which Jefferson stridently took the states’ side against the Federal Government (including the 1799 letter in which he expressly held out the option of secession), criticized federal courts for making law instead of applying it, and otherwise sounded like Henry A. Wise or Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.

Besides that, as Edward Ayers and Scot French showed, Peterson and his contemporary Dumas Malone—the greatest of all Jefferson scholars—did what they could to keep the public from believing the old rumors about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. This included leading a successful behind-the-scenes campaign to prevent network television broadcast of programming on the subject.

The way academic history works is that new arguments are published first in scholarly outlets such as The Journal of Southern History—with an audience of experts, and eventually in books. Correction of the current view forms the bedrock of what academic historians do. This often leads to complete about-faces of the Received Wisdom. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this fact concerns Jefferson and Hemings.

As recently as twenty years ago, careful Jefferson scholars like Joseph Ellis rejected the idea of a Jefferson-Hemings relationship. The Jefferson they thought they knew, like the one Merrill Peterson thought he knew, would never do such a thing. Ellis called Jefferson a “sphinx” chiefly on the ground that before, while, and ever after he wrote that “all men are created equal,” Jefferson owned slaves, but Ellis was certain there had been no mixed-race offspring.

A month after publication of Ellis’s Jefferson book, Annette Gordon-Reed entered the lists with Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Even before supporting DNA evidence appeared, this fine tome pushed the vast majority of scholars into the Yes, He Did camp.

Where formerly Jefferson scholars and the interested public mentioned the matter in passing, if at all, they now commonly foreground it. References to and ruminations on it as a “paradox” proliferate, while Paul Finkelman insists on its centrality to Jefferson’s story and Joshua Rothman holds some aspects of the Jefferson-Hemings story “creepy.” Using the word “paradox” is by now almost trite. Many of the authors who use it admit their “disappointment” in their subject. Thus, the Publishers Weekly review of this book omits reference to the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Louisiana Purchase, and the University of Virginia, but it does mention “the Virginian’s relationship with Sally Hemings.” The top blurb on the dust jacked quotes the preeminent Jefferson scholar of our time to the effect that, “Boles never loses sight of Jefferson’s limitations and failures—or of his extraordinary achievements.” For his part, Boles refers to Jefferson’s “failure to free his slaves,” says Jefferson “disappoints us” in “the partiality of his escape from the prevailing beliefs of his age,” and promises to find a middle ground between vilification and hero worship. One might have thought that a historian would expect his subject to be set in a particular bygone age, not be disappointed in his failure to escape its beliefs.

In general, Boles devotes appropriate attention to the issue of Jefferson and Hemings. His approach to the question, however, including repeated expressions of dissatisfaction, calls to mind the movie character who breaks the fourth wall over and over.

In the full chapter devoted to the subject of Jefferson and slavery, Boles at one point scores Jefferson for not freeing all of his slaves on his death—which, since he died enormously indebted, likely would have been ineffective. Several pages later, he mentions the legal obstacle. Ultimately, he gets around to saying, “Jefferson likely believed himself caught in a vise with no escape.” (Boles does not explain why Jefferson’s creditors allowed the manumission of the few slaves Jefferson did free. There is an interesting issue.) Finally, Boles concludes in reference to Jefferson’s expressions of certainty that slavery would end eventually that, “Activists in Jefferson’s time … could not accept such a patient approach; nor can modern readers.” Jefferson’s own status, Boles concedes, left him seeing “little need for urgency.” “In no other aspect of his life does Jefferson seem more distant from us or more disappointing.”

Disappointing, but not completely hopeless: at one point, Boles hazards that perhaps Jefferson’s experience had left him with a higher opinion of blacks by 1826 than he expressed in Notes on the State of Virginia in the 1780s—and with “a slightly more positive assessment of slavery as an institution” too. That Jefferson came to have a more positive view of slavery by his life’s end may be the only original idea Boles contributes in this regard. That scholars will accept it is unlikely in face of the evidence—for example, of Jefferson’s statement as late as February 4, 1824, that although colonizing black children abroad “would produce some scruples of humanity,” to let such children stay in Virginia with their mothers instead “would be straining at a gnat, and swallowing a camel.”

Reading virtually any contemporary scholarly account of Thomas Jefferson leaves me wondering why so many historians feel bound to editorialize on his life as a slaveowner. After all, one does not find in the typical account of Leonidas commentary on the author’s disappointment with Spartan pederasty, the “incongruity” of Spartiates’ insistence on eleutheria even as they oppressed the helots, the notable brutality of Spartan religion, etc. Pick up the latest biography of Caesar Augustus, say, or of Abraham Lincoln, and you are unlikely to find mention of the Roman’s effacement of Rome’s republican constitution or the president’s decades-long advocacy of deporting blacks or of his attending minstrel shows on the cover. While one could wish this sermonizing were not so common in accounts of Jefferson, then, he also struggles to explain why it is so commonplace.

Of course, the Hemings relationship is not the only score on which Jefferson has been in bad odor. From the time of the Civil War, he was long commonly implicated in the constitutional tradition that culminated in the creation of the Confederate States of America. Peterson responded to this by referring to federalism/states’ rights as the saddest element of Jefferson’s legacy. Boles takes a different approach: on page 477 of his 520-page book, he suddenly delivers himself of the observation that, “preservation of the union was the preeminent passion of [Jefferson’s] life.”

To this point, Boles has provided virtually no evidence to that effect. In fact, he mischaracterizes Jefferson’s famous “treason against the hopes of the world” letter of 1820 as equating “an act of secession” with that “treason.” Even a cursory reading of the letter in question (which, oddly, Boles quotes at greater length only at p. 491) shows that not the imagined secessionists, but their opponents (whom he describes as in thrall to “unworthy passions”) would be the ones who had thrown away the Revolution’s inheritance if their antislavery maneuvers led southerners to secede.

Boles does not describe Jefferson’s reaction to the Missouri Crisis in any great detail. He omits altogether Jefferson’s response to John Marshall’s classic Hamiltonian opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), an opinion which prompted even James Madison to say that if the people had known the Constitution would be read that way, they never would have ratified it. Also missing is the “wolf by the ears” metaphor Jefferson famously borrowed from the Greeks in describing the position of southern slaveholders: justice was in one scale, self-preservation (the only concern philosophers of Jefferson’s age put above justice) in the other. Here was no indication Jefferson sympathized with northern antislavery nationalism.

In fact, Jefferson’s position on federalism is notably downplayed, usually by omission, throughout the book. Thus, President Jefferson’s reply to a letter from Pennsylvania’s Republican governor mentioning the prospect of “a few prosecutions” of libelous journalists “disappoints us today.” (There we go again.) Boles says that Jefferson’s expression of support for the governor’s idea “led him to betray his belief in the complete and unfettered freedom of the press,” and yet Jefferson had told Abigail Adams the previous year that the First Amendment left control of the press with the states, where it ought to be.  Not a doctrinaire libertarian, then, Jefferson was primarily concerned with the federal principle. (Boles omits the Adams letter altogether.)

Boles provides an extended quotation of Jefferson’s 1799 letter saying that Republicans “are willing … to sever ourselves from that union we so much value, rather than give up the rights of self government [sic] which we have reserved.” Instead of following it with an observation that Jefferson never retracted this position, he instead concludes that, “Jefferson never publicly expressed support of secession and never again mentioned the idea in private.” This claim is mistaken.

Perhaps most notably, Boles omits mention of Jefferson’s ruminations on the subject of secession in an 1816 letter to William Crawford:

[Y]ou have fairly stated the alternatives between which we are to chuse; 1. licentious commerce, & gambling speculations for a few, with eternal war for the many: or 2. restricted commerce, peace, and steady occupations for all. if any state in the union will declare that it prefers separation with the 1st alternative, to a continuance in union without it, I have no hesitation in saying ‘let us separate.’ I would rather the states should withdraw, which are for unlimited commerce & war, and confederate with those alone which are for peace & agriculture.

Jefferson expressed related, states’-rights/-sovereignty sentiments on numerous occasions over a long period of time, from 1774 to 1825—most famously, of course, in the Declaration of Independence, which when read in tandem with “A Summary View…” is clearly a secession document. For another example, he told Missourians during the Missouri Crisis that in case Congress did not at first admit their state to the Union with its proposed constitution allowing slavery, Congress would have to knuckle under sooner or later. “If rejected unconditionally,” he counseled, “Missouri assumes independant [sic] self-government, and Congress, after pouting awhile, must receive them on the footing of the original states.” There are numerous other such omissions and mistaken characterizations on this subject, including his old-age correspondence with John Taylor of Caroline and Spencer Roane. That correspondence features prominently in other Jefferson works, but not in this one. Why?

Boles mentions in an endnote that historian Joseph Ellis once said at the Massachusetts Historical Society that had he still been alive, Jefferson would have gone with the Confederacy. Besides the numerous occasions on which Jefferson said that the Constitution was created by the states, that the states were responsible for preventing the Federal Government from enforcing unconstitutional and unbearable laws within their territories, etc., Ellis might have pointed in support of his assertion to the presence in Confederate ranks of the flower of the Old Virginia aristocracy. For example, the CSA minister to Great Britain was a grandson of Jefferson’s admired older colleague George Mason; Jefferson’s lifelong friend and political ally John Tyler’s son the former president (who liked to boast that he grew up with Jefferson at the family dinner table) was elected to the Confederate Congress; and Jefferson’s own grandson George Wythe Randolph was a Confederate secretary of war. All of these men thought of themselves as good Jeffersonians—and likely would have said that Abe Lincoln’s election met Jefferson’s definition of “treason against the hopes of the world.”

It seems more likely than not that Ellis was right. A still more eminent historian told me privately that he thought so. Yet, we cannot know, and here is the point: to speculate about such matters is a parlor game, grist for chit-chat at a conference, not a historian’s task. It has no place in a book that is meant to last.

Boles’ other notable omission is any evaluation of Jefferson’s legacy as it took shape during his two immediate successors’ presidencies. The disastrous War of 1812, the founding of Liberia, James Monroe’s decision to let the Republican Party wither into nothingness, Jefferson’s congressman/son-in-law voting against Madison’s bank, not to mention the extinguishment of the national debt during the Andrew Jackson Administration, …. All are absent. A complete evaluation of Jefferson’s presidency requires consideration of these and related matters.

I regret these shortcomings of what otherwise is a fine book. Boles displays deep knowledge of the relevant sources (including obscure ones), his writing style pleases the ear, and he is master of the art of providing just the right amount of detail. This book should supplant Peterson’s as the go-to full-length life, but it displays flaws characteristic of contemporary Jefferson historiography—much as Peterson’s did.


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