The Essentials: Five Books on Thomas Jefferson

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

Thomas Jefferson books
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

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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