Books in Brief

Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty, by John B. Boles (New York: Basic Books; 626 pp., $35.00).  This excellent, very well-written, and highly readable book is the “full-scale biography” the author set out to write.  It succeeds further as an affirmation of the historian’s (and his readers’) need to accept the past on its own terms by refusing the progressive approach to history represented by the Whig school for the past two and a half centuries and the presentist one ideological historians insist on today.  Boles portrays Jefferson as the highly contradictory figure he indisputably was: an aristocrat who was also the most democratically minded of the founders; a bookish man who wrote one book in his long life (and that “by accident”); one who traveled widely abroad but never went south of Virginia, nor farther west from Monticello than 50 miles; a poor public speaker who was also a brilliant conversationalist; a believer in human equality who owned slaves; an effective politician who preferred the solitariness of his study to the political arena; a countryman who lived in cities for much of his life.  Boles argues against attempts to reconcile these contradictions by totaling them up in columns and assessing Jefferson according to the highest score.  “Surely an interpretive middle ground is possible, if not necessary. ...

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