John B. Boles wants students to know more about Jefferson than that he was a slaveholder

Historians in the News
tags: Thomas Jefferson, John B Boles



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.

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. ...





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