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)

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Alan Pell Crawford, a former political speechwriter and Congressional press secretary who now covers history and politics, pored over archives across the country, at one point holding a residential fellowship at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, to research this book. And the digging paid off. He found documents and letters of Jefferson’s relatives and neighbors, some never before studied, and pieced them together into a narrative of the president’s twilight years. During this far from restful period, Jefferson experienced family and financial dramas, opposed slavery on principle and yet, with slaves working on his own plantation, did not actively push to abolish it, and founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

From Leepson: The best treatment by far of Jefferson’s life post-presidency (1809-26).

The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), by Merrill D. Peterson

“The most important thing in my education was my dissertation,” said Merrill D. Peterson in 2005, about his time studying at Harvard in the late 1940s. Instead of researching the president’s life, Peterson focused on his afterlife, studying the lasting impact he had on American thought.

The idea became the basis of his first book, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, published in 1960. And the book, which won a Bancroft Prize for excellence in American history, established Peterson as a Jefferson scholar. After stints teaching at Brandeis University and Princeton, Peterson filled the big shoes of Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He wrote Jefferson and the New Nation, a 1970 biography of the president, among other books, and edited the Library of America edition of Jefferson’s collected writings.

From Leepson: A revealing history of Jefferson’s historical reputation from the 1820s to the 1930s.

The Hemingses of Monticello (2008), by Annette Gordon-Reed

Harvard law and history professor Annette Gordon-Reed tells the story of three generations in the family of Sally Hemings, a slave of Thomas Jefferson’s thought to have bore him children. She starts with Elizabeth Hemings, born in 1735, who with Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, had Sally, and then follows the narrative through Sally’s children. Without historical evidence, no one can be certain of the nature of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings. But Gordon-Reed argues that it was a consensual romance. She won the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for history and, in 2010, a MacArthur “genius grant.”

From Leepson: No list would be complete without a book on Jefferson, slavery and the Hemings family. This is the best one.


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