Rice’s John Boles offers new exploration of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson

In a new book spanning more than 640 pages, Rice’s eminent scholar of the American South, John Boles ’65, takes a fresh, nuanced look at one of America’s most talented, enigmatic and complex Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Not since the 1970 book “Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation” by Boles’ mentor Merrill Peterson has a scholar published a comprehensive biography of the third president of the U.S.


“Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty,” published by Basic Books, hits bookstores April 25.

Boles’ fascination with Jefferson dates back to the fall semester of his senior year at Rice in 1964 when he took a course on Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democracy taught by Sanford W. Higginbotham, who was the managing editor of the Rice-based Journal of Southern History from 1965 to 1983. “We read a lot of Jefferson’s letters and read a great book on Jefferson by Merrill Peterson, and I decided on the basis of that Merrill Peterson book to go to the University of Virginia the next fall to study Jefferson,” Boles said, noting that Peterson was a professor of history there.

However, when Boles arrived at Virginia, he got “sidetracked,” as he put it, and he subsequently researched and wrote books on various topics, including books on Southern history and on the history of Rice. It wasn’t until 2013, when Boles retired from his position as managing editor of the Journal of Southern History, that his full attention turned to Jefferson.

“My goal was to write a comprehensive biography of Jefferson,” Boles said during an interview in his office on the fifth floor of Fondren Library, which includes an entire bookshelf filled with books about and relating to Jefferson. “And I say that because there have been dozens of dozens of books on Jefferson as architect, Jefferson as lawyer, Jefferson and the West … all focused on narrow aspects of Jefferson. The last significant full biography of Jefferson was written in 1970.”

Boles was able to draw extensively on Jefferson’s edited papers, which expanded from about 15 volumes in 1970 to more than 50 volumes today. Boles said that by delaying his study for 50 years, he benefited from “all the editing of Jefferson’s correspondence, his two-volume account book, a wonderful range of scholarship in Southern history that made us think differently about the history of slavery, the history of Southern religion, the history of early politics, and dozens of monographic studies of Jefferson.”

“I thought it was time to see if one person could write about Jefferson not just as a politician or architect or political philosopher but as the whole person,” Boles said. “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. It really is a comprehensive biography of Jefferson that is fully conversant with the last 50 years of scholarship.”

Boles, the William P. Hobby Professor of History, has taught at Rice since 1981 and currently teaches an undergraduate seminar, Jefferson and His Age. This year he is also serving as  president of the Southern Historical Association.

‘Living with Paradox’

Boles details Jefferson’s political and religious ideas, his complicated relationship with France, his on, off and on-again friendship with John Adams, his complicated and tragic involvement with slavery and his fascination with the West, exemplified by his negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition. He was a copious and skilled letter writer — readers also witness him drafting the Declaration of Independence — who was dedicated to his state and Monticello homestead.

Jefferson possessed a profound, lifelong intellectual curiosity, starting from his studies of philosophy and science at the College of William and Mary, and later law, continuing through his years living in Paris as the U.S. minister, and later secretary of state, the vice presidency and presidency, and culminating in his creation of the University of Virginia, where Boles earned his doctorate.

A man of his time, Jefferson was steeped in the revolutionary ideals of the Enlightenment, such as the need for religious tolerance and the belief (ultimately struck from the Declaration) that slaves “had natural rights identical to those of the rest of the American people” — and yet he notoriously held on to his own slaves, Boles said. Paradoxically, he spoke out more against slavery than any other Founding Father.

Boles devotes a chapter to Jefferson’s “Living with Paradox” and reminds readers not to judge “the sage of Monticello” solely by 21st-century terms. Regarding emancipation, “in no other aspect of his life does Jefferson seem more distant from us or more disappointing,” Boles wrote.

“In some sense, he believed in what he called the ‘illimitable’ freedom of the human mind,” Boles said. “The Declaration of Independence represented political liberty, (Virginia’s) statute of religious freedom guaranteed religious liberty and the University of Virginia provided freedom from ignorance. Of course, there’s a paradox there: He was a slaveholder. That’s a huge problem in the book, explaining the central paradox.”

Publishers Weekly wrote in its review of the book, “Boles, an accomplished scholar well-versed in the source material, deftly paints a picture of the world as Jefferson knew it, taking care not to mix up understanding with excusing, especially with the Virginian’s relationship with Sally Hemings. This is a gem of a biography.”

Boles will read from his book and sign copies at 7 p.m. May 9 at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet St. For more information, go to www.brazosbookstore.com/event/john-boles-jefferson-architect-american-liberty. A book signing will also be held at 3 p.m. June 17 at River Oaks Bookstore, 3270 Westheimer Rd. For more information, go to www.riveroaksbookstore.com/cal-01.htm. Additional book signings will be held on campus in the fall.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.