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.  If we hope to understand the enigma that is Thomas Jefferson, we must view him holistically and within the rich context of his time and place”—excellent advice to historians, biographers, and their audiences.  The problem, Boles suggests perceptively, is that Jefferson’s assumptions as a man of his time have surprised—and, in recent years, appalled—modern people simply because they imagine him, owing to sentimentalist hagiography, as having been far ahead of it.  Yet, “As much as we might wish, Jefferson was not a modern man.”  He did not embrace, nor could he have embraced, “the values of a cosmopolitan, progressive person of the twenty-first century.”  Today, Jefferson is most criticized for his views on race and for his slaveholding.  Yet in his mind race was not the preeminent issue, let alone the obsession, it is in America and the West today: “[F]or him, race and slavery were generally not of central importance.”  Insightfully again, Boles suggests that Thomas Jefferson “was the architect of American liberty almost despite himself,” never fully perceiving (perhaps deliberately) the implications of his philosophical and historical principles.  Demythologizing the man is the goal of modern scholarship, but Boles argues against demonizing as well as deifying Thomas Jefferson.  His book succeeds very well at avoiding both.

31841160 A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism, by Carol Berkin (New York: Basic Books; 307 pp., $30.00).  The thesis of this well-written, interesting, and otherwise excellent book is that four crises—the Whiskey Rebellion, the so-called Genêt Affair, the XYZ Affair, and Virginia’s and Kentucky’s resistance to the Alien and Sedition Acts—together offered a comprehensive challenge to the nationalist interpretation of the Constitution defended by the Federalists, who throughout the 90’s feared for the future of the new American Republic as they understood it.  The Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania amounted to a denial of the federal government’s power to tax its citizens.  During l’affaire Genêt the sole authority of that government to determine foreign policy was at stake.  The XYZ Affair, in which the Jacobin government of France sought a bribe from Washington to turn, as Berkin says, the U.S. into a French satellite, had the effect of inflaming patriotic sentiment in America and encouraging Americans to regard themselves thereafter as citizens of a nation, rather than of a particular state.  And the most telling aspect of the battle over the Alien and Sedition Acts, she claims, was that “both sides accepted the legitimacy of the Constitution and the government it created.  The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions,” which denied the authority of the government in Washington to regulate free speech and immigration and argued that unconstitutional laws might be nullified by the states, “were a challenge to a particular interpretation of the Constitution, not to the Constitution itself.”  Nevertheless, Professor Berkin’s argument overreaches itself in concluding that, despite the Federalists’ defeat in the elections of 1800, the cause of “sovereignty”—meaning nationalist sovereignty—was basically settled, since for generations thereafter (down to 1861, in fact) the Constitution was widely assumed to be an agreement among willing and equal sovereignties to organize themselves in federal union from which each of them retained the right to withdraw at will, a right that Jefferson himself affirmed.  Even so, A Sovereign People, as a demonstration of the degree to which Federalist rule in the 1790’s succeeded in knitting the previous Confederation into a Republic, is an important contribution to the historical literature of the period.              

        —Chilton Williamson, Jr.