The Essentials: Five Books on Thomas Jefferson

A Jefferson expert provides a list of indispensable reads about the founding father

Five must-read books on Thomas Jefferson from author Marc Leepson. (AP Photo / Richmond Times-Dispatch, Stuart T. Wagner)

Historian Marc Leepson is the author of seven books, including Saving Monticello (2001), a comprehensive history of the house built by Thomas Jefferson and the hands it passed through since his death in 1826.

Here, Leepson provides a list of five must-reads for a better understanding of the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States.

Jefferson and His Time, by Dumas Malone

This classic biography of Thomas Jefferson, written by one of the most renowned Jefferson scholars, was published in six volumes over 33 years. It consists of Jefferson the Virginian (1948), covering his childhood through his drafting of the Declaration of Independence; Jefferson and the Rights of Man (1951), about his years as a minister to France and secretary of state; Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty (1962), leading up through his presidential election; Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805 (1970) and Jefferson the President: Second Term, 1805-1809 (1974); and The Sage of Monticello (1981), about the last 17 years of his life, as his priorities changed from politics to family, architecture and education. In 1975, author Dumas Malone won the Pulitzer Prize for history for the first five volumes.

From Leepson: Malone is a Jefferson partisan, but his scholarship is impeccable.

American Sphinx (1996), by Joseph J. Ellis

National Book Award winner Joseph J. Ellis’ newest book, First Family, takes on the relationship between Abigail and John Adams. But a decade and a half ago, the Mount Holyoke history professor made Thomas Jefferson—and his elusive, complicated and sometimes duplicitous nature—the subject of American Sphinx. “The best and worst of American history are inextricably entangled in Jefferson,” he wrote in the New York Times in 1997.

The book—one volume in length and written in layman’s terms—is perhaps a more digestible read than Malone’s series. “While I certainly hope my fellow scholars will read the book, and even find the interpretation fresh and the inevitable blunders few, the audience I had in my mind’s eye was that larger congregation of ordinary people with a general but genuine interest in Thomas Jefferson,” writes Ellis in the preface.

From Leepson: An insightful, readable look at Jefferson’s character.

Twilight at Monticello (2008), by Alan Pell Crawford


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