Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty by John B. Boles. Basic Books, 529 pp.
More than 190 years after his death, Thomas Jefferson remains something of an enigma. Undeniably one of our most brilliant presidents, he can also be one of the most exasperating.
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, penning stirring words of liberty that still inspire people today. Yet the same Jefferson who spoke of all men being created equal and endowed with unalienable rights lived on the labor of enslaved people. He spoke frequently of the need for them to be out of bondage but did nothing to free those he owned, Upon his death, families were broken up and sold to pay his debts, a cruel practice Jefferson always said he opposed; this happened because he made no other provision for them in his will.
Jefferson's views on slavery can't help but disappoint the modern mind. He could never bring himself to make the the necessary personal sacrifices to fully embrace a more humane and progressive view.
But as much as he was a product of his times on race, Jefferson was far ahead of his contemporaries in another area: religious freedom.
John B. Boles' new biography of Jefferson, Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty, is a sympathetic, yet sober, analysis of the life of this important, but often challenging, figure in American history.
Boles is the William P. Hobby Professor of History at Rice University. His book is a survey of Jefferson's entire life, not a specific study of his views on church-state relations or religion. Yet readers will find much about these topics; in addition, Boles's wider discussion provides a useful analysis that puts Jefferson in the context of his times.
The reader quickly learns that religious freedom was a lifelong interest of Jefferson's. In 1776, looking forward to independence, Jefferson produced a draft of a new constitution for Virginia. One provision read, "All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution."
If that language sounds familiar, it's for a good reason: In a different form, it resurfaced 10 years later in Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and there's more than an echo of its spirit in the First Amendment.
Although Jefferson's Virginia constitution was not adopted, he did manage to influence a list of rights produced by George Mason that were originally intended to be a preamble to the...