Aristocrat and author of the Declaration of Independence. Gourmand, traveler and farmer. Slaveholder and enemy of slavery. In his new biography, historian John Boles sought to capture Thomas Jefferson’s long life in all its complexity.

John Boles ’65, the William P. Hobby Professor of History, could not have had a more distinguished and influential career at Rice. Since joining the history department in 1981, he has been accorded numerous honors and awards for his teaching, scholarship and service, and he has directed 61 doctoral dissertations. A noted scholar of the American South, Boles edited the Journal of Southern History for 30 years (1983–2013) and has served as president of the Southern Historical Association.

Last year, Boles garnered widespread critical acclaim for the publication of “Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty” (Basic Books, 2017). The book is in many ways the culmination of Boles’ long-term study of America’s third president, an interest first sparked in his undergraduate years at Rice in the 1960s and continued while attending graduate school at the University of Virginia. At UVA, Boles ultimately expanded his interests, delving deeply into the region’s religious history for his dissertation.

It wasn’t until Boles retired from his position at the journal in 2013 that he was able to once again focus his attention on Jefferson. With his and other scholars’ accumulated knowledge of Jefferson and his complicated legacy — especially the well-established fact of his relationship with the slave and house servant Sally Hemings — he set out to write a biography that addressed Jefferson in full. “It is a comprehensive biography of Jefferson that is fully conversant with the last 50 years of scholarship,” Boles told Rice News. “I talk about Jefferson in art and architecture, in science and music, in diplomacy and politics; Jefferson as father and grandfather, and as gardener and slaveholder.”

To conduct our interview, we sought out another eminent historian of American history, Allen Matusow, who arrived at Rice as a faculty member in 1963. A noted scholar of 20th-century U.S. history, especially of the post-World War II and Cold War era, Matusow is the author of many books, including “The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s” (University of Georgia Press, 2009). He is the academic affairs director at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the William Gaines Twyman Professor Emeritus of History.

Matusow and Boles got together late last summer in Boles’ Fondren Library office — a fifth-floor nook overflowing with books, papers and files that features a spectacular view of the Academic Quad and Lovett Hall. It’s not surprising that Matusow’s interview turned into a wide-ranging and informative conversation about the eventful life of a most extraordinary Founding Father.

John Boles, left, discusses Thomas Jefferson with Allen Matusow.

AM: The first review of your book was written by Jonathan Yardley, who for 30 years had been the book reviewer for The Washington Post. This is what he said:

“‘Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty’ is perhaps the finest one-volume biography of an American president. Boles … has spent many years studying Jefferson’s native American South in all its mysteries, contradictions, follies and outrages, as well as its unique contributions to the national culture and literature. This biography is the culmination of a long, distinguished career. I admire it so passionately that, almost 2 1/2 years into a happy retirement, I had no choice except to violate my pledge never again to write another book review.”

How long did it take you to write this book, and what were the most difficult challenges you faced in the course of writing it?

JB: My senior year at Rice, I took a course called Jeffersonian-Jacksonian Democracy, taught by Sanford W. Higginbotham. We read historian Merrill Peterson’s great book “The Jefferson Image in the American Mind” along with a book of about 500 pages of Jefferson’s letters. I thought they were fascinating. In fall 1965, I went to graduate school [at UVA] to study Jefferson and there took a yearlong seminar with Peterson on Thomas Jefferson. In a sense, I began the book then, even though my dissertation was on something different.

For 45 years, I wrote about different kinds of things, but I continued to read the literature on Jefferson, biographies and monographic studies. He was never totally absent from my mind, but he wasn’t what I was researching. When I retired from editing the Journal of Southern History in 2013, I thought if I’m ever going to study Jefferson, I better get to it. I decided to start with Volume 1 of “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson” and just read all the way through the 53 volumes.

When I retired from editing the Journal of Southern History in 2013, I thought if I’m ever going to study Jefferson, I better get to it. I decided to start with Volume 1 of “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson” and just read all the way through the 53 volumes.

Jefferson lived a long time, wrote thousands of letters and was involved in so many important things. How do you write comprehensively about someone who wrote so much, did so much, lived so long and keep it within a reasonable compass? I found that really frustrating.

AM: There’s been an extraordinary decline in Jefferson’s reputation. And the major reason for that, of course, is the contradiction between the man who wrote “all men are created equal” and the man who was a slave owner. The accusation against Jefferson is that he’s a hypocrite writ into the origins of our republic. How do you reconcile this contradiction?

JB: I decided the way to approach him was to say, “Let’s not boil him down to a person who’s only a slave owner. Let’s look at the whole range of his life and his contributions. And more importantly, let’s look at him in the context of his time.” You’d almost forget by conversations in American popular culture that Jefferson was not the only slave holder — so were George Washington, James Madison and John Marshall.

Jefferson spoke out more forthrightly against slavery than any of the Founding Fathers, and, on many occasions, he tried to enact provisions that would have ended slavery. For example, he proposed a constitution for Virginia that would have ended all slavery in 1800. And he proposed in 1784 that slavery not exist in all the territories west of the Appalachians — Alabama, Louisiana and so forth. He was defeated in all those efforts.

He also began to realize, along with the others, that the issue of slavery was so controversial that if you really pushed antislavery, you would destroy the nation. A key moment came in one of the early debates of the first Congress in March 1790, when there was a debate over freeing slaves. The delegates from South Carolina and Georgia went berserk and talked about secession and ending the nation — that really frightened the Founding Fathers. Every one of them worried about whether the union would survive.

To the founders, the union was very fragile. None of them — not Washington nor Marshall nor Hamilton, etc. — risked their political career or, in their belief, risked the nation, to end slavery. That’s frustrating and upsetting to us, but if we’re going to judge Jefferson, we need to put him in the context of that time.

That doesn’t occur to us as a problem, because we know it did survive. To the founders, the union was very fragile. None of them — not Washington nor Marshall nor Hamilton, etc. — risked their political career or, in their belief, risked the nation, to end slavery. That’s frustrating and upsetting to us, but if we’re going to judge Jefferson, we need to put him in the context of that time.

AM: George Washington, in his will, freed his slaves. Jefferson did not. Why?

JB: When Jefferson’s father-in-law died, his wife inherited, which means Jefferson inherited, her father’s land and slaves, plus a lot of debt. He wasn’t able to get out from under that debt his entire life. A law was passed in Virginia in 1792 that said if a person was in debt, any slaves he might free could be seized by his debtors. So Jefferson was always under the cloud that he couldn’t free his slaves because they could be seized by his debtors.

Also, in 1806, a law was passed in Virginia that said if a person freed slaves, those slaves had to leave the state within one year or they’d be seized by the state [as slaves]. So Jefferson realized that even if he avoided that 1792 law about debt and freed his slaves, they had to be expelled. He didn’t have the means to buy animals or land or tools to set them up [in another state]. He felt hamstrung by that. He also had a lot of kin — children and grandchildren — whom he was supporting. At any one time, Jefferson was supporting 15–20 family members at Monticello.

In contrast, George Washington was wealthy and was not in debt, so he wasn’t affected by the 1792 law. Washington had no biological relatives — no children, no dependents he was taking care of. When he decided to free his slaves after his and Martha Washington’s death, they could stay on the land there because that 1806 law hadn’t been passed [when he died in 1799]. … So Jefferson, as much as he believed slavery was morally wrong, was trapped by his responsibility to his white dependents, his debt and by the 1806 law.

In 1974, Fawn Brodie wrote “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History,” which highlighted that affair. She thought in some sense it made him more human. Still, it was controversial. It’s not until the late 1990s that historian Annette Gordon-Reed made a persuasive argument that this was not just a scandalous rumor, but that this was almost certainly true. And then she published another book in 2008 called “The Hemingses of Monticello,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and is just a brilliant piece of historical research.

AM: Let’s talk about Sally Hemings, with whom Jefferson had intimate relations for decades. She bore him five children, whom he didn’t acknowledge. How do you address that in the book?

JB: In 1965, when I first went to UVA, the idea of the Sally Hemings affair was considered a scandalous story that his political enemies used against him. Jefferson scholars like Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson believed it was unthinkable. It wasn’t so much a question of immorality as the status difference between the two.

In 1974, Fawn Brodie wrote “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History,” which highlighted that affair. She thought in some sense it made him more human. Still, it was controversial. It’s not until the late 1990s that historian Annette Gordon-Reed made a persuasive argument that this was not just a scandalous rumor, but that this was almost certainly true. And then she published another book in 2008 called “The Hemingses of Monticello,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and is just a brilliant piece of historical research.

Also, in the early 21st century, there was some biomedical evidence — a genetic marker that goes through the male line — that showed up in the descendents of Sally Hemings. Just the totality of the evidence has convinced nearly every historian that there was in fact a long-term monogamous relationship.

The Hemingses are important, because Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, had a long-term relationship with a slave woman named Betty Hemings, and she bore him five or six children. So Jefferson’s personal valet in Paris and Sally Hemings are the half brother and sister of Jefferson’s wife. By 1794–1795, Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings had become solidified.

Gordon-Reed argues that the relationship was consensual and affectionate. She says that when Sally Hemings was in France [having accompanied Jefferson’s daughter to France], slavery wasn’t allowed, so Jefferson treated her and her brother as servants and paid them wages. They both knew, because they spoke French, that if they simply raised their hand, they would be freed. So Jefferson realized he could not require them to come back to America, but she had cousins and sisters and brothers and relatives in Monticello. She could have stayed free in Paris, but she returned.

Jefferson is a combination of things that don’t seem possible. He was born and educated and lived as an aristocrat, but I think he was the most thoroughgoing democrat of the Founding Fathers. He was born and lived and died as a slaveholder, and he was a passionate enemy of slavery. There are just so many things about him that don’t seem to match.

AM: How old was she by then?

JB: She was about 16 or 17. She was to be his concubine — which meant substitute wife — from 1794 at least until his death. For his last 15 years, Sally Hemings lived in a room in the basement of Monticello. She apparently took care of his room and did his laundry. He never acknowledged her publicly, nor did he acknowledge fathership of her children, although when he died, he freed them. He did not technically free her because then she’d have to leave the state, so he told his daughter to treat her as free and gave her a house.

AM: There’s this contradiction we’ve talked about between Jefferson the champion of liberty and Jefferson the slave master. There’s another contradiction — Jefferson the aristocrat and Jefferson the democrat. The Constitution he proposed in 1776 for Virginia struck me as the perfect example of how advanced his political thinking actually was at that time.

JB: At that time there were property qualifications for voting, so he said let’s take land from the state’s western territories and give it to white men without sufficient property so they can become eligible voters. His idea was of a state where every white male was a landowner and was a voting citizen.

Jefferson is a combination of things that don’t seem possible. He was born and educated and lived as an aristocrat, but I think he was the most thoroughgoing democrat of the Founding Fathers. He was born and lived and died as a slaveholder, and he was a passionate enemy of slavery. There are just so many things about him that don’t seem to match.

In so many areas, he seems so modern, so beyond his time, that we find it unusually frustrating when he’s not progressive in everything. People don’t attack Marshall or Madison for not freeing their slaves, but we attack Jefferson because somehow we expect more of Jefferson — he justifies that expectation. Ironically, it’s his words about liberty and freedom that undergird later efforts to free the slaves.

“View of the West Front of Monticello and Garden” (1825), Jane Braddick Peticolas

AM: The end of Jefferson’s life makes for depressing reading, as he becomes enmeshed in financial problems, and he can’t find his way out. What happened?

JB: Virginia was in a long economic decline. Land sold for less than what you could rent it for per year, so in a sense Jefferson was land-poor. Tobacco had worn out its stay, and wheat had replaced it. Tobacco was being raised in the new, fresher lands of Kentucky and so forth. So he was faced with not just his own personal economic collapse, but also the whole economic collapse of the Virginia economy. He ended up incredibly depressed at the end of his life, because he saw no way out. It’s a sad ending.

Jefferson is too often seen as just this intellectual being, so I wanted to capture his personality and his interests in everything from farming to family. I liked that role of Jefferson as a doting grandfather, but I was also taken by the amount of tragedy in Jefferson’s life — the death of his father, mother, sister, children, best friend and wife. It’s really kind of astonishing. He’ll have periods of grief and depression because of debt and death, but on the whole, if you wanted to characterize Jefferson, you’d say his personality or outlook was optimistic even though he had to overcome a constant stream of death of the ones closest to him. I found that really affecting, the way he was able to do that. Weren’t you kind of surprised?

AM: Yes. I wondered whether death like that was common in those times?

JB: Death was common, but if you read John Adams’ biography, death was not nearly as common as it was with Jefferson. And he was very stoic about it. In his memorandum book, he would say, “My daughter died last night” or “my wife died” or “my mother died.” As a young boy, he read a lot of philosophers and believed that you had to face adversity by being stoic.

AM: Jefferson wanted three of his achievements to be remembered and inscribed on his tombstone: the Declaration of Independence, the founding of the University of Virginia and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The Virginia statute is a major event in our history, as well as in his life.

JB: He said that was the most difficult political fight he ever had. I believe that since Constantine, every place in Europe had a state religion. Sometimes it was Protestant, usually it was Catholic. But there was an assumption that the state determined your religion, and Jefferson wanted to sever that tie. I believe the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is the first time in Western civilization that by law, the state has no mandate on what your religion should be.

I believe that since Constantine, every place in Europe had a state religion. Sometimes it was Protestant, usually it was Catholic. But there was an assumption that the state determined your religion, and Jefferson wanted to sever that tie. I believe the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is the first time in Western civilization that by law, the state has no mandate on what your religion should be.

Jefferson believed in what he called the “illimitable freedom of the human mind,” and he believed that no one — no monarch, no president, no priest — should have authority or be between a person’s conscience or reason and their belief in and worship of God. He wanted to make it clear that religious freedom was not just freedom for Protestants and Catholics, but for Protestants and Catholics and Jews and Hindus and Muslims. There weren’t any Hindus or Muslims around at the time, but he wrote it in such a way that there would be complete religious freedom. He saw that as absolutely essential.

He believed in it so strongly that although he didn’t like to give speeches — Adams said in the Continental Congress that you never heard him speak more than three sentences at a time — he wrote out and gave a passionate speech to the Virginia Legislature on behalf of religious freedom. It didn’t pass until 1786 when he was in France, but that was of extraordinary importance to him.

Jefferson believed in what he called the “illimitable freedom of the human mind,” and he believed that no one — no monarch, no president, no priest — should have authority or be between a person’s conscience or reason and their belief in and worship of God.

And I think it’s at the basis of religious freedom, the basis of the First and Second amendments, and is the motif running through Jefferson’s life. He saw the Declaration of Independence as a bulwark for political freedom, the Virginia Statute as religious freedom and the University of Virginia as freedom from ignorance.

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