In an essay written in 1996 for the Atlantic, the Irish politician and scholar Conor Cruise O’Brien lobbed a literary grenade into the stately field of Jefferson studies. Arguing that Thomas Jefferson was a radical who supported genocide and a racist to boot, he demanded that the founder be toppled from the pantheon of American heroes. There was, O’Brien insisted, no place in an increasingly post-racial and multicultural America for such a hypocrite.
A year later, Annette Gordon-Reed unsettled matters still further in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Using her legal training to interrogate received opinions and giving more weight to the oral traditions of Jefferson’s slaves than past historians had done, Gordon-Reed set off a firestorm by arguing that Jefferson, rather than his Carr nephews, was the likely father of Sally Hemings’s children. Although Gordon-Reed conceded that the case was not airtight, she concluded that Jefferson was the most plausible candidate since he was present at Monticello nine months before Sally gave birth to each of her four children.
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All this took place a year before the publication in the scientific journal Nature of new DNA tests on a male descendant of Eston Hemings, Sally’s youngest son. The results further strengthened, but by no means proved, the case for Jefferson’s paternity of one or more children with his slave, while ruling out the Carr line (which lacked the distinctive Jefferson Y-chromosome). The tests did not, however, rule out another male in the Jefferson line, who most likely would have visited Monticello when Jefferson was in residence, including Jefferson’s brother, Randolph, and his four or five young adult sons. Nor did they shed any light on the paternity of the remaining Hemings children, since DNA tests had not been performed on them. It is possible, too, that Sally had sexual relations with more than one man, though DNA testing on multiple descendant lines of Tom Woodson (a Monticello slave), whose oral tradition also claimed Jefferson as father, turned up negative.
To put all of this in context, it is helpful to recall that the DNA story broke just as the third president’s namesake, William Jefferson Clinton, was embroiled in a sex scandal of his own while in the White House. The mere possibility that Jefferson might have been bedding his slave, the half-sister of his deceased wife, proved irresistible to defenders of the sitting president. That the DNA evidence was far from conclusive, showing only that some male in the Jefferson line had fathered one of Sally’s children, was generally brushed aside. One notable exception was the late Lance Banning, distinguished historian at the University of Kentucky, who in these pages and elsewhere examined the evidence with admirable impartiality (“Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Case Closed?” CRB, Summer 2001). Although Banning did not dismiss the evidence, he remained unpersuaded. (Full disclosure: The final report of the Scholars’ Commission examining the question of Jefferson’s paternity, to which I contributed, along with Banning and CRB editor Charles Kesler, was unconscionably delayed and was not published until 2011. The majority of those who participated did not exonerate Jefferson, but maintained that the evidence so far adduced did not prove the case.)
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Despite Banning’s cautionary note, most historians quickly fell in with Gordon-Reed’s interpretation. Slavery, race, and sex took center stage. Peter Onuf, who at the time held the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Chair in the University of Virginia’s History Department, spearheaded the drive. Together with Jan Ellen Lewis, a professor of history and now dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University, the two turned out an edited volume in 1999, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture. A year later, Monticello announced its own findings supporting Jefferson’s paternity, followed by an issue devoted to the topic in the William and Mary Quarterly in 2001. Then, in 2002, Onuf sponsored a conference, “Writing the Life of Thomas Jefferson” at the University of Virginia, which included, among others, Annette Gordon-Reed and Jan Ellen Lewis to make sure that the message got out to biographers and historians. (I was also a participant.) Building on this momentum, Gordon-Reed followed up with The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008), which abandoned any doubts that Jefferson was the father of all of Hemings’s children, and further asserted that their “intimate relationship” began in Paris while a teenage Sally was attending to Jefferson’s daughters. The book won a Pulitzer Prize as well as a National Book Award.
Here is a romance custom made for our times. In this postmodern age, which insists that there are no truths, only stories, Gordon-Reed maintains that despite the differences in age and power, theirs was a relationship founded on tenderness and mutual affection rather than coercion and exploitation. Although her conclusion does not—indeed cannot—take the curse off slavery, it does cast Jefferson in a new and more sympathetic light, with the added bonus of moving the Hemingses to a central place at Monticello. Although there is still no conclusive evidence for any of this, the scholarly consensus forged among historians by Gordon-Reed and Onuf is such that it is nearly impossible for anyone writing on Jefferson these days to overlook the reigning “narrative.”
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Enter John B. Boles, professor of history at Rice University and former editor of the Journal of Southern History, who in Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty has produced the first full-scale biography of the founder since Merrill D. Peterson’s Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (1970)—which is to say, since the issues of slavery and race have come to take center stage. At the same time, Boles is careful to state that we mustn’t let our own views of slavery and race “overwhelm our view of Jefferson,” and “impoverish” our understanding of his significant accomplishments, especially “his commitment to political liberty and intellectual and religious freedom.” Indeed, he goes even farther, asserting that in the context of Jefferson’s own times, “race and slavery were generally not of central importance.” Nevertheless, it is primarily the new scholarship in this field, led by “today’s leading Jefferson scholars, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf,” that makes a new full-scale biography necessary, and with it a new appraisal of Jefferson’s place in our civic memory. Although Boles never mentions Conor Cruise O’Brien’s diatribe, his final words, insisting that, as the “architect of the nation’s highest ideals,” Jefferson will always belong in the American pantheon can be read as an extended response to the Irish critic.
By “the nation’s highest ideals” Boles means Jefferson’s commitment to political liberty, religious freedom, and an education befitting free citizens of a great republic, the three achievements for which he wished to be remembered on the obelisk marking his gravesite. Accordingly, Boles spends considerable time on Jefferson’s drafts of constitutions for the newly independent Virginia. Race and slavery may not have been Jefferson’s central concerns, but never are they absent, either. Early on, he backed provisions for the abolition of slavery, though his emancipation proposals were always linked to colonization. Boles is certainly correct when he observes that no major politician of the founding era (and considerably after) thought that a biracial republic was possible, especially when one race had been enslaved by the other, and when most of the master race held the opinions (or worse) Jefferson expressed in his Notes on the State of Virginia about black intellectual inferiority. Still, Boles strives to place his subject in historical context. Although he later points out that George Washington’s provision in his will emancipating his slaves after the death of his wife would reflect very badly on Jefferson in the 20th and 21st centuries, Boles couches his remark by pointing out that Jefferson was in dire financial straits, and so was not at liberty to dispose of his property the way Washington was. Also, owing to a Virginia law enacted after Washington’s death, emancipated slaves were required to leave the state within a year or risk being re-enslaved. On the whole, Boles gives us a portrait of a man troubled by slavery, but increasingly resigned to pass the problem on to the next generation.
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Jefferson’s draft constitutions also proposed ingenious ways of widening suffrage for white males, even as they evinced a certain distrust of unfiltered popular will. He doubted that the majority of people were distinguished for their wisdom, and favored a system that would refine their choices by having the lower house elect the upper house. Yet later on, he became convinced that a government was republican only to the extent that all its branches were drawn directly from the people and immediately accountable to them. Boles doesn’t discuss the latter view, so the reader has no way of assessing which Jefferson was the better architect of America’s loftiest ideals. Even more surprisingly, he says nothing about Jefferson’s proposal (first mentioned in 1810) to subdivide Virginia’s counties into wards that would enable the people to exercise political power directly on those matters within their competence. Yet Jefferson considered the wards the sturdy base of his envisioned federal pyramid and the cornerstone of his distinctive republicanism.
Although Jefferson famously listed his authorship of the Declaration of Independence as one of the three accomplishments for which he wished to be remembered, Boles’s discussion of its significance with regard to political liberty is surprisingly weak. The two scholars he cites, Carl Becker and Danielle Allen, make an odd couple. Becker, who published his study, The Declaration of Independence, in 1922, seems to undercut the assertion that Boles’s own work is “fully grounded in modern scholarship.” In an endnote, Boles writes that Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014) “has significantly shaped my view of the Declaration,” but fails to explain how. Given that Allen places a greater emphasis upon equality than on liberty, this point would have been worth pursuing, especially given Boles’s subtitle. This omission points to a larger problem: the book’s lack of attention to Jefferson’s political thought. In a biography that makes Jefferson the spokesman for the nation’s highest ideals, Boles’s cursory treatment of political ideas frequently disappoints.
Take his discussion of the Kentucky Resolutions. Boles focuses on the important Resolution 8, which defends nullification as the proper remedy if the federal government exceeds its delegated powers. But because he fails to discuss Jefferson’s understanding of the nature of the Union as a compact between two parties, each state and all the other states, he does not make clear why Jefferson insisted that states have the right to nullify a federal law. Nor does he explain that Jefferson regarded nullification as a natural right, outside the constitutional order. Instead, Boles seeks to reassure the reader that nullification does not mean secession, but rather the right of a state to declare a federal law “void and of no effect”—as if there were nothing revolutionary about that.
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The great challenge in attempting a full-scale biography is to cover the major events and ideas of a person’s life while also including those personal details that make the historical figures come alive. Boles only partly succeeds. He leaves us in no doubt of Jefferson’s wide-ranging genius: diplomat, architect, inventor, musician, gardener, and of course, political actor and thinker, but it’s not always clear how the many vignettes he sketches fit his overall narrative arc. At times, Boles shifts so rapidly from one event to another—say, from Jefferson’s improvements to Benjamin Latrobe’s polygraph, to his compilation of the “authentic” teachings of Jesus, to his daughter Maria’s death, to the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton—all in a dizzying few pages, that it is easy to lose the story’s main threads. And, as in the case of the wards, important political proposals are left out.
Boles does, however, add fresh details to a few well known events, giving his account an immediacy that not even he could have foreseen. Take, for example, his discussion of the election, or revolution, of 1800. Today we celebrate Jefferson’s ascension to the presidency as the peaceful transition of power from one political party to the other. But we learn here of one “outrageous Federalist attempt” to change the rules determining valid Electoral College votes, so as to ensure a Federalist victory. Republicans, in turn, feared that the Union might not hold “if one party refused to accept the express decision of the people and attempted to steal the election.” Elsewhere, he explains how Jefferson used the crisis over the 1820 Missouri Compromise (which kept slavery from expanding further north) to win political support for his new university by pointing out the dangers of sending Virginia’s sons north for their education. His discussion of Jefferson’s idiosyncratic Christianity, too, has a distinctly modern ring.
Boles is also fair-minded in blaming Jefferson for being too quick to criticize John Adams’s efforts to avoid an all-out war with France in the waning years of Adams’s presidency. The same holds true for his even-handed discussion of the moderating influence his protégé and fellow Virginian James Madison exerted on Jefferson.
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Without doubt, however, the impetus for a new biography is the new scholarship related to Sally Hemings. (Apart from this, it is surprising how much the author relies on older scholarship, except for the work of his own graduate students.) Boles tries to put their “intimate relationship” in perspective, by situating it within the larger framework of Jefferson’s extraordinary life. Although Sally makes her appearance early, it is not until Chapter 29, “Living with Paradox,” that Boles ties up the threads. As he makes clear, he considers Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello “the definitive account.” Following Gordon-Reed, Boles states as fact that the 45-year-old widower’s intimate involvement with his teenaged slave began in Paris. Earlier, Boles speculates that Jefferson’s teasing mention to the Italian-English artist Maria Cosway of a Dutch painting depicting “Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham” may have expressed “a subconscious desire” for “an acceptable substitute wife.” He also notes that Jefferson’s library contained a French medical book advancing the “bizarre theory” that scholarly men need sexual release, preferably with younger women, to remain healthy!
Although Boles concedes that we cannot know for certain what their relationship was (that they had a sexual relationship of some sort he regards as settled), he accepts Gordon-Reed’s conclusion that it was probably “genuine affection—if not love itself.” Although French law did not recognize slavery, and Sally could have petitioned the French courts for permission to remain in Paris, she chose to return to Monticello with Jefferson, even though “she would not be free and she and Jefferson could never marry.” Never marry? She also “apparently extracted from him a promise to free any children they might have.” That Jefferson in his will freed Sally’s sons, Madison and Eston (not immediately but when they reached the age of 21, and along with others of the Hemings clan, but not Sally herself) is offered as further proof of the veracity of these accounts.
Boles follows Gordon-Reed in asserting that according to family legend, Sally was pregnant by the time they arrived back in Virginia, but here conflicting oral traditions confuse the identity of her first child. He mentions, but doesn’t consider, the findings of DNA testing that do not bear out the paternity of the descendants of one of those claiming to be Jefferson’s son. Boles also notes that Jefferson did not take Sally with him to Philadelphia, New York City, or Washington, D.C., which meant that they were separated a good deal during these years. Nor did he take her with him to Poplar Forest, his nearby Virginia retreat. All this seems odd for the romantic portrait on offer. On the other hand, the fact that Jefferson was in residence at Monticello nine months before Sally gave birth to each of her children, along with the DNA evidence on Eston Hemings’s descendant, weigh against Jefferson. As Banning put it, the case is far from closed, even now.
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It should be obvious that most of the love story sketched here is sheer speculation, in which each bit of circumstantial evidence provides the foundation for further airier speculations about the nature of their relationship, despite Boles admitting that “[w]e know nothing of Sally’s personality,” and most of what we do know comes from the hearsay accounts of her son, Madison Hemings, published in an 1873 newspaper interview in Ohio. To the end of her life, Sally remained sphinx-like. Despite the strengths of new biography, John Boles lets his imagination run wild when he writes that regardless of the vast difference in “their educational backgrounds,” and, we could add, much else, “they shared memories of Paris,” which, along with Jefferson’s kind and gentle nature, casts a tender glow over their romantic bond. Much like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Boles leaves us with the happy thought that Jefferson and Hemings will always have Paris.