Atlantic History Thomas Jefferson
by
Maurizio Valsania
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0196

Introduction

Third president of the United States (1801–1809), coauthor of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia during troublesome times (1779–1781), president of the American Philosophical Society (1797–1815), the mind behind the Louisiana Purchase (1803), and the sanguine “founding father” of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly an achiever. His stature as a public figure and an internationally renowned politician has produced an enthusiasm that, after almost two centuries since his death (on 4 July 1826), does not seem to waver. Both academics and the wider audience, regardless of their political orientation, are still eager to identify with this leader, or at least to extol his greatness and exemplarity. “If Jefferson was wrong,” has prophesized James Parton, a famous 19th-century biographer, “America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.” Jefferson’s prominence as a leader matches his achievements in the intellectual realm. Greatness must be bestowed on Jefferson also when we take him as a philosopher. A polymath spanning over a number of scientific disciplines as well as literature, art, classical languages, geographical explorations, architecture, and, of course, political science, Jefferson helped define the vocabulary of his days. Albeit not a systematic thinker, he delved extensively into numberless concepts, including human nature, virtue, happiness, nation, and government. While achievements and exemplarity are thus well attested, the scholarship underwent a dramatic turn in the early 1980s, when Jefferson the private man entered the scene. Scholars have begun questioning the characteristics of Jefferson as a model and a symbol hovering above historical time. They have stopped asking exclusively what Jefferson could mean to us, to civilization, and to future generations. More and more, this 18th-century man has emerged as trapped in a distant culture, ensnared in a far-off society far more complex than previous generations of scholars used to believe, and with which we cannot identify. Issues of inner life, anxiety, emotion, a romantic heart, gender, race, the dynamics of slavery, and many other aspects related to his mind have justly captured the attention. Increased specialization has splintered Jefferson the symbol into a myriad of fragments. Whether or not Jefferson was actually a sphinx, or a living contradiction, research has repeatedly shown that this real man—a Virginian slave owner, a hapless tobacco grower, a restless letter writer, an obsessive journal keeper, an aristocrat mansion dweller, and a romantic Enlightenment devotee—belonged to himself.

Primary Sources

Even though collections of Jefferson writings began to circulate right after his death, it was only with the publication of Papers of Thomas Jefferson that scholarship arrived at mature editorial criteria. This major project covers Jefferson’s correspondence and other types of documents (see especially the Second Series), but it is still ongoing. Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Boyd, et al. 1950–) has been complemented by Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series (Looney 2004–), which focuses on the retirement-era correspondence (1809–1826). Both projects are expected to be drawn to completion sometime between 2025 and 2030. Most volumes of these series are also available in Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Digital Edition (Oberg and Looney 2009), a fully searchable text. Works of Thomas Jefferson (Ford 1904–1905) is the second-best choice. Accurately transcribed from manuscripts, freely accessible online, and still valuable, this edition is not as comprehensive as Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Lipscomb and Bergh 1903–1905). This last edition, basically a compendium of reprints, is the most comprehensive, to date, but it is highly unreliable, does not indicate sources for specific items, and recklessly modernizes spelling and punctuation. Thomas Jefferson: Writings (Peterson 1984) is the best single-volume selection of documents, a recommended starting point for every research project. The letters Jefferson and John Adams sent each other over the several decades of their friendship stick out as a first-rate philosophical treatise on several subjects. They are fortunately available in Adams-Jefferson Letters (Cappon 1959). Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia has been adequately commented and annotated in Peden 1995 (originally published in 1954).

  • Boyd, Julian P., Lyman H. Butterfield, and Mina R. Brian, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 38 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950–.

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    The most reliable and updated collection of letters by and to Jefferson, private notes, and other documents. Historical notes by the editors (in many cases actual scholarly essays) provide the context for the printed material. Upon completion, this edition will supplant the older editions.

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  • Cappon, Lester J., ed. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. 2 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

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    The complete correspondence between Adams and Jefferson. Arranged in chronological sequence, this collection introduces readers into the vigor and broadness of these two minds. Fully annotated and well edited. Reprinted as recently as 1990.

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  • Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. The Works of Thomas Jefferson: Federal Edition. 12 vols. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s, 1904–1905.

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    Reasonably well-edited albeit incomplete edition of Jefferson’s writings. Republished as recently as 2009 (New York: Cosimo). Text available online.

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  • Lipscomb, Andrew A., and Albert Ellery Bergh, eds. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. 20 vols. Washington, DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1903–1905.

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    Still the only printed source for many of Jefferson’s documents, this edition suffers from a general lack of editorial accuracy. It contains little or no annotation. Text available online.

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  • Looney, J. Jefferson, ed. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series. 8 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004–.

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    Focuses on Jefferson’s correspondence after the third president returned to private life in March 1809. Editorially accurate, this series covers some material that has never been published before.

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  • Oberg, Barbara B., and J. Jefferson Looney, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Digital Edition. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.

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    Fully searchable edition of most volumes both from the main series of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson and the Retirement Series.

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  • Peden, William, ed. Notes on the State of Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

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    Fully annotated edition of Jefferson’s masterpiece. The introduction gives important information on the vicissitudes and complicated history of this book. Originally published in 1954.

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  • Peterson, Merrill D., ed. Thomas Jefferson: Writings. Library of America 17. New York: Viking, 1984.

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    Single-volume selection of Jefferson’s writings, including the so-called “Autobiography,” “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” the Notes on the State of Virginia, the Declaration of Independence, addresses and messages, public papers, and letters. Well edited.

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Reference Works

To orient oneself amid the huge, constantly evolving bulk of Jefferson scholarship is no easy task. Given the popularity of the topic and the growing specialization in the field of historical studies, companion works may provide essential cues. Scholarship is constantly shifting, its keywords and theoretical tools are incessantly evolving, and its priorities are continually relocating. For this reason, general surveys, companions, or anthologies often remain the best roadmaps; in many respects, they are to be preferred to single-author big syntheses. Within good companion works, individual voices and different methodological platforms are still clearly visible. Consequently, they provide a more realistic, less consolatory appraisal of where a given research field is heading. Cogliano 2012 is the most updated picture of the themes that contemporary historians, and students at large, believe to be pivotal to properly assess Thomas Jefferson’s role in American history. Built upon the groundbreaking Onuf 1993, it faithfully conveys scholars’ present-day sensibilities and hints at future agendas and possible developments. Shuffelton 2009 is similarly reliable but is less comprehensive in scope.

  • Cogliano, Francis D., ed. A Companion to Thomas Jefferson. Blackwell Companions to American History. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

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    Important introductory essays on Jefferson from a representative selection of Jefferson’s scholars, including young researchers. Arranged in three parts (Part I: “Jefferson’s Life and Time,” Part II: “Themes,” Part III: “Legacy”), this companion covers most aspects of Jefferson’s intellectual world. Useful bibliography.

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  • Onuf, Peter S., ed. Jeffersonian Legacies. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993.

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    A collection of essays that have become classics. This volume broke with established patterns of Jeffersonian scholarship and generated new ideas. To a major or minor extent, all the essays addressed some of the most vital social issues of the 1990s, including democracy, civil rights, education, and race.

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  • Shuffelton, Frank, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson. Cambridge Companions to American Studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521867313Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    With a certain emphasis on the policymaker and the public figure, the essays presented here may well complement those collected in Cogliano 2012. Useful bibliography.

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Jefferson’s Lives

Malone 1948–1981 is still widely regarded as the standard biography; it has both merits and shortcomings. Reliable and well documented, it put emphasis on Jefferson’s public life while not neglecting to bring in several aspects of the private man and his family. The obvious shortcoming is that its author was superseded by the big shift occurring within American society starting in the 1960s. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, and sexual liberation triggered an entirely new sensibility. Scholars during this era felt that it was important not to downplay themes (power, sex, and arbitrary social hierarchies) that Malone’s monumental work downplayed. Brodie 2010 (first published in 1974) is the anti-Malone, in many respects, but also the necessary complement. The author flirted with psychoanalysis and psychohistory, and these biases may or may not be ascribed as a quality. An abundance of wild interpretations and, now and then, factual inaccuracies must be certainly frowned upon. But Brodie 2010 conveys the sense that Jefferson had sexual appetites, that he had a body, that he was a male, that women also existed in Virginia, and that Jefferson was definitely more than an intellectual lavishing principles and concepts. Focused on the theme of power, Meacham 2012 debunks all previous (and future) portraits of Jefferson as a daydreamer and a philosopher somehow out of touch with expedients and machinations. Jefferson emerges as an experienced leader, singularly bestowed with real-world effectiveness. Peterson 1970 sticks out as a balanced account of Jefferson’s life, perhaps the best biography every research project should begin with. Hayes 2008 is not just a comprehensive and updated survey on Jefferson as a reader and writer, but also an original literary biography. Although more selective than longer works, shorter biographies have a pictorial strength that leaves a clearer impression in the memory. For this reason, Cunningham 1987, Burstein 1995, Ellis 1997, and Bernstein 2003 must appear in every bibliography.

  • Bernstein, Richard B. Thomas Jefferson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Sets Jefferson in historical context, addressing the contradictions pervading his life and thought. While conceding his expressed biases about race and gender, the book stresses that Jefferson’s ideas about equality and liberty continue to shape American life, forming the basis on which later generations have taken him to task.

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  • Brodie, Fawn M. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Introduction by Annette Gordon-Reed. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2010.

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    Tries to convey Jefferson’s private life, including sexuality. Bordering on psychohistory and often jumping hastily to unsupported conclusions, it has the merit to use traditionally neglected sources, such as the oral traditions of enslaved people at Monticello. The relationship with Sally Hemings is brought to the fore. Originally published in 1974.

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  • Burstein, Andrew. The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

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    Concentrates on the complexities of Jefferson’s mental life, his almost feminine sensitivity, and his self-doubts. The private individual, an uneasy member of the Virginia gentry, is meticulously scrutinized.

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  • Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson. Southern Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

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    Jefferson as an optimist relying on the sufficiency of reason for the care of human affairs. In his declining years, a pessimist about the course of the nation.

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  • Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

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    Ellis claims that Jefferson entwined the best and the worst of American history at the same time. He targets Jefferson’s contradictory character and the “principles,” as the author calls them, which animated both his public and private figure. Many important moments of Jefferson’s life are either omitted or downplayed.

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  • Hayes, Kevin J. The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    A literary biography focused on the place of literature (and books) in Jefferson’s life. However, Jefferson’s reading habits are not treated as a starting point to explore other facets of his intellectual world. Hayes insists that literature is important per se, regardless of how it clarifies other aspects of Jefferson’s life.

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  • Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and His Time. 6 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948–1981.

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    Standard biography of Jefferson. Extolling the rich diversity of Jefferson’s achievements. Jefferson as an apostle of individual freedom and defender of human dignity. Centered on Jefferson’s public role, and generally sympathetic, the last volume makes allowances for Jefferson as an actual, complicated human being. Republished in 2005 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press).

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  • Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.

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    Meacham sees Jefferson as a leader-philosopher guided by principles and ideas but not limited by them. Jefferson’s corporeality, this time in the form of a masculine leader deliberately pursuing effectiveness, occupies the center stage. Written for a broad audience.

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  • Peterson, Merrill D. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

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    Focusing on Jefferson’s public roles, it aims nonetheless to strike a balance between public and private life. Peterson is skeptical about the Hemings relationship, but Jefferson is presented as an opponent of slavery. At the same time, Jefferson’s racism is criticized. No footnotes and citations.

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Politics and Government

For obvious reasons, politics will always remain one of the favorite fields in Jefferson studies. Sheldon 1991 is a concise survey that should help readers to settle account both with the breadth and the philosophical depth of Jefferson’s understanding of politics. For him, politics was more than just a science: taking inspiration from an Aristotelian definition of the human being as a political animal, Jefferson experienced politics as an essential human pursuit. Recent studies on Jefferson’s nationalism, such as Onuf 2000 and Steele 2012, show that Jefferson had never been a politician for his own sake, a petty localist, a proto-confederate, or a theorist on states’ rights in some modern sense. It was for him inconceivable that individuals might thrive beyond an inclusive political community of shared responsibilities—the United States—for the time being. In order to realize his nationalistic project, he was ready to exploit circumstances—and also to recur take advantage of real-world effectiveness, if necessary. Jefferson as the “inventor” of the presidency and a friend of the executive power is convincingly presented in Cunningham 1978, Ackerman 2005, and Bailey 2007: historiography has fortunately succeeded in doing away with the once-held myth of Jefferson as a visionary idealist and a nostalgic ruralist. Neither a dreamer, nor certainly nostalgic of some form of traditional authoritarian government—including the tyranny of the majority—he urged the citizens to be constantly vigilant and approved of the national Constitution as a check on the abuse of power (Mayer 1994).

  • Ackerman, Bruce. The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2005.

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    Jefferson is presented as the first president to claim a direct mandate from the living generation, the people, thus introducing a new style of government, a plebiscitarian presidency overruling any instituted body. Jefferson’s presidential leadership benefited largely from a “movement party,” the Republicans.

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  • Bailey, Jeremy D. Thomas Jefferson and Executive Power. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511509742Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Bailey argues, against still-widespread contrary allegations, that Jefferson was no enemy of the executive. He willingly embraced presidential power rather than being overtaken by it. More than that, as Bailey shows, he always sought to justify bold actions and political change by forging a new Jeffersonian constitutional theory.

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  • Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. The Process of Government under Jefferson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

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    Looking at how policies were formulated, Cunningham presents Jefferson as an effective administrator, totally at ease with running the government, mastering details, and giving directions to his subordinates. At the same time, Cunningham shows that Jefferson promoted an integrated environment in which pragmatic compromises among his collaborators were possible.

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  • Mayer, David N. The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson. Constitutionalism and Democracy. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

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    Describes Jefferson’s constitutional thought as a dialogue between three essential dimensions: a Whig aspect (constitutions were tools to prevent the abuse of government over individual rights), a federal aspect (divide power into distinct branches: legislative, executive, and judicial), and a republican aspect (the constant reference to a “rightful” majority).

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  • Onuf, Peter S. Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood. Jeffersonian America. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

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    Five penetrating essays on Jefferson’s nationalistic vision. The union was for Jefferson the whole point of the American Revolution. But while from our point of view nationalism appears to be a problem, for Jefferson it was a vision of liberating possibilities, of people seeking to determine their own political destiny.

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  • Sheldon, Garrett Ward. The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

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    Concise introduction to several important political topics. Jefferson’s political philosophy was a rich constellation of elements from many traditions, including British liberalism, classical republicanism, Scottish moral sense, and Christian ethics.

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  • Steele, Brian. Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood. Cambridge Studies on the American South. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139105842Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Demonstrates that nationalism, for Jefferson, was not “philosophical” attachment to a particular form of the government, but that it was dynamic and took on multifarious shapes. The inspiring principle of Jefferson’s nationalism was that nationhood must embody genuine popular aspirations. The people themselves created a national identity.

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Declaration of Independence

Better than many other texts, the Declaration is apt to channel Jefferson’s political visions. More than that, this brief document expresses an entire set of philosophical aspirations shared by an entire generation. The Declaration is actually the late-18th-century American mind speaking. No wonder that since the groundbreaking Becker 2008 (first published in 1922), scholars have kept their attention alive. Unconvinced that the Declaration was such an “orthodox” Lockean document, as Becker had claimed, Wills 2002 (first published in 1978) sets out to trace another source, Francis Hutcheson and the Scottish Enlightenment. Jayne 1998 and Maier 1998 broaden the analysis and include more than a single line of indebtedness; they are no doubt to be preferred. Jayne 1998 claims that theological debates and heterodox religious worldviews had an impact on the text. Maier 1998 shows that the Declaration was not as much the creation of Jefferson’s personal genius, but rather the abridgment of shared values and a preexisting American common sense. Anticipated by several other analogous local declarations, the Declaration was the direct expression of people’s wisdom. Fliegelman 1993 adds a further dimension to the research on this fascinating text. The author reminds us that the Declaration was read loud and, in so many senses, performed. His structural analysis of the rhetorical qualities of this vocal document points out its theatrical nature: the Declaration was a script through which everyone could behold the unfolding drama of the new American citizen.

  • Becker, Carl L. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2008.

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    Presents Jefferson as “the” author of the Declaration, channeling in this document his personal ideas. Becker appoints Locke as the main influence on Jefferson’s political thought. The moral and legal justification for the rebellion is found in the theory of natural rights. In many respects out of date, but instructive and definitely worth reading. Originally published in 1922 (New York: Harcourt, Brace).

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  • Fliegelman, Jay. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language & the Culture of Performance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

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    Makes an interesting case for the Declaration as a vocal narrative that was publicly performed. Analyzes the rhetorical and persuasive qualities of the Declaration as a theatrical event.

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  • Jayne, Allen. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, and Theology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

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    Moves convincingly beyond the hypothesis of a direct line of influence, whether Locke or the Scottish school. Broadening the range of indebtedness, Jayne shows at the same time that the text conveys a heterodox theology and resonates with an American religious background.

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  • Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage, 1998.

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    Presents the Declaration for what this document was—notably, an expression of the American mind and the culmination of a series of revolutionary activities carried on by manifold subjects. Any approach calling for a direct literary influence on the text is belied. Best study on the Declaration, to date. Originally published in 1997.

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  • Wills, Garry. Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Rev. ed. Mariner Books. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

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    Argues that the Scottish Enlightenment, Francis Hutcheson in particular, was the main sources of the Declaration. Consequently, the gist of the document would not be a defense of individual rights, self-interest, and separateness, but instead an articulation of a communitarian vision. This revised edition contains a new introduction. Originally published in 1978 (New York: Doubleday).

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Reading Nature

“Nature,” “nature’s god,” and “natural rights” are tropes recurring incessantly in Jefferson’s writings. Nonetheless, the semantic ambiguity of words and phrases such as these may easily deceive. Nature receives several connotations, depending on the context. The necessary point of departure for every analysis on Jefferson and nature, broadly conceived, is Miller 1988. Nourished by his voracious appetite for books, Jefferson was always keen on adding new meanings and new dimensions to his evolving philosophy of nature. Zuckert 1996 explores how the idea of nature gave shape to the discourse on rights, both in Jefferson’s case and in the broader tradition of American political theory. Burstein 2005 emphasizes the importance of medical and physiological discourses. Jefferson the natural man—a “son of nature,” as he dubbed himself—was provisional on a notion of bodily existence that was laboriously finding its way amid prevalent spiritualistic and theological prejudices. On the other hand, science, or natural philosophy, must be singled out as the main method through which Jefferson used to approach nature. The numerous dimensions of Jefferson the scientist (astronomer, botanist, chemist, entomologist, geographer, geologist, and so on) emerge brilliantly through a series of studies, such as Bedini 1990, Thomson 2008, and Clagett 2009. Cohen 1995 is by one of the few scholars able to master the technicalities of Jefferson as a serious Newtonian scientist and a gifted mathematician.

  • Bedini, Silvio A. Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science. New York and London: Macmillan, 1990.

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    Excellent introduction to the scientific mind of Jefferson. From geography to botany, from archeology to cartography, and from ethnology to paleontology, Bedini offers the most exhaustive catalogue, to date, of the scientific methodologies that Jefferson employed to make sense of nature.

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  • Burstein, Andrew. Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

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    A chronicle of Jefferson’s retirement years, from the point of view of the medical and physiological literature of the time. The study of Jefferson’s body, especially its pathologies, is the occasion to bring to the forefront a more gloomy aspect of this well-known “son of nature.”

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  • Clagett, Martin. Scientific Jefferson: Revealed. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.

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    Connects Jefferson’s scientific interests to the Enlightenment movements, especially from Scotland. Argues persuasively that the Scot William Small, Jefferson’s professor at the College of William and Mary, had an important influence that shaped an enduring interest in science. Especially original is chapter 4, on social architecture and public health.

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  • Cohen, I. Bernard. “Science and the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson: The Declaration of Independence.” In Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison. By I. Bernard Cohen, 61–134. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1995.

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    Not an essay on the Declaration as such, but instead an essay about science piercing through the Declaration. The argument that Jefferson was the only president who ever understood Newton’s Principia is remarkable. Cohen demonstrates in detail that Jefferson was in command of the most-advanced physics and mathematics.

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  • Miller, Charles A. Jefferson and Nature: An Interpretation. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

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    A detailed analysis of the several meanings that the term “nature” plays in Jefferson’s writings. Nature is categorized both as a being and a value. The indispensable point of departure for every study on Jefferson’s natural philosophy.

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  • Thomson, Keith. A Passion for Nature: Thomas Jefferson and Natural History. Monticello Monograph. Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2008.

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    A brief account of Jefferson’s “passion,” nature. More concise than other precedent analyses on the topic, it conveys a convincing picture of Jefferson as a scientist. Especially entertaining and easy to read.

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  • Zuckert, Michael P. The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition. Rev. ed. Frank M. Covey Jr. Loyola Lectures in Political Analysis. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.

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    Seven provocative essays by an influential political theorist on the complex dynamics between nature and natural rights. Both the Declaration and the Notes on the State of Virginia figure prominently, but Zuckert brilliantly moves well beyond Jefferson. Especially convincing is Zuckert’s interpretation of Jefferson’s concept of “state of nature.”

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Virginia Society, African Americans, and Native Americans

Research on Virginia has deepened our understanding of Jefferson, his notion of society, his perception of authority and leadership, his progressivism cum traditionalism, and the ways he put up with the extant arbitrary dynamics of power and exploitation. Dunn 2007 is a fit introduction to Jefferson and Virginia society. It shows the misfortune of the Old Dominion, caught between tradition and innovation. Moreover, it narrates the drama of a president and a progressive thinker burdened by the necessity and impossibility of an embarrassing inheritance, chattel slavery. Hatzenbuehler 2006 takes Jefferson for what he definitely was, an uneasy member of the ruling elite of Virginia on the eve of the American Revolution. Highlighting that he kept living well at the expense of others until the end of his life means fundamentally to call attention to three obvious forms of exploitation. The essays collected in Lewis and Onuf 1999 make a strong case for at least two of them, sexual exploitation and the brutal fact of owning other human beings. These essays are also an adequate introduction to the ongoing debate on slavery. Every research project on Jefferson, slavery, sex, and race must include the following two classics: Gordon-Reed 1997 and Gordon-Reed 2008. These studies have revolutionized the scale of values through which historians used to look at American society: what lay in the background has come to the forefront. The article “To Declare Them a Free and Independent People” (Onuf 2000) presents Jefferson’s “political” conception of enslaved Africans; that is, slaves as forming a captive nation. Slavery is understood in more than personal terms, both as a Virginian and a national dilemma. Wiencek 2012, on the contrary, does not locate slavery within the broader political context inherited by Virginia society; slavery is discussed as a financial opportunity that Jefferson consciously and deliberately grabbed. When dealing with slavery and racism, it is difficult not to yield to reprobation and condemnation, as Wiencek 2012 and Finkelman 2001 (the latter cited under Reputation and Legacy) demonstrate. But objectivity and balance should always remain the scholar’s golden standard. Stanton 2012 gathers balanced essays on the topic of slavery, written since the early 1990s by a leading scholar. The third form of exploitation that made it possible for Jefferson’s generation to thrive and succeed was the appropriation of Indian land. Sheehan 1973 opened up the debate on Jefferson and Native Americans. Wallace 1999 remains the ultimate word on this topic, to date.

  • Dunn, Susan. Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

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    The story of the cultural and social decline of Virginia, from its heyday in the 1780s to the gloomy 1830s. Emphasis is put on the Louisiana Purchase opening up a vast new market for Virginia slave breeders. Essential to properly assess Jefferson as a member of the Virginia gentry.

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  • Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

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    A famous law professor embarks on a reexamination of the circumstantial evidences long available to scholars about the Hemings-Jefferson liaison. Written right before the DNA test (1998), this essay indicates the possibility cum probability of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship. Yet more interestingly, it reveals the American prejudices against African Americans’ credibility.

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  • Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.

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    Jefferson’s life and character seen through the saga of the Hemings family, a constant presence at Monticello. Moreover, an important chapter of the history of slavery in America.

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  • Hatzenbuehler, Ronald L. “I Tremble for My Country”: Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Gentry. Southern Dissent. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

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    Argues that after he retired, Jefferson lost his sanguine temper and increasingly identified with the Virginia elite class. Jefferson is convincingly placed in the context of a tobacco-growing region.

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  • Lewis, Jan Ellen, and Peter S. Onuf, eds. Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture. Jeffersonian America. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

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    Presents ten important essays by leading scholars. The volume focuses on the topic of the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings but has a broader scope as well. It explores the theme of interracial sex in a slave-owning region.

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  • Onuf, Peter S. “To Declare Them a Free and Independent People.” In Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood. By Peter S. Onuf, 147–188. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

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    Discusses Jefferson’s conception of enslaved Africans as forming a separate nation waging perpetual war against their American masters. Given this premise of a continuing war, Onuf argues that Jefferson’s only peace plan could be paradoxical: expatriation and relocation. Slavery is described as a political issue, not a personal and moral one. Originally appeared as “‘To Declare Them a Free and Independent People’: Race, Slavery, and National Identity in Jefferson’s Thought,” in Journal of the Early Republic 18.1 (1998): 1–46, which is available online through purchase or by subscription.

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  • Sheehan, Bernard W. Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973.

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    A good introduction that helps the reader to contextualize the problematical relations between whites and Native Americans’ land, especially during the Jeffersonian era. A number of key concepts and policies are analyzed and adequately explained, including the “noble savage,” incorporation, manipulation, disintegration, and removal.

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  • Stanton, Lucia. “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Jeffersonian America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.

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    Eleven essays published over the course of the twenty years prior to publication, by an expert on Jefferson and slavery. Balanced and authoritative.

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  • Wallace, Anthony F. C. Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999.

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    Wallace displays what he calls the self-serving Jeffersonian conception of Native Americans. The style may at times seem a little too judgmental, but this volume is the most comprehensive treatment, to date, of the topic of Jefferson and the American Indians.

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  • Wiencek, Henry. Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

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    Commitment to slavery is seen as a moral and personal choice that Jefferson deliberately made. Wiencek argues, somehow problematically, that the core of Jefferson’s experience both with slavery and slaves was that this master sought to make a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children.

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An Original Moral Philosopher

Since the early 1980s or so, Jefferson the private man, or his mind, if you prefer, has progressively captured the attention of scholars, both in Europe and the United States. He is increasingly presented as a “moral philosopher,” very human in his half-successful attempts to cope with his fluctuating world. Scholars had sometimes accused Jefferson of being a hypocrite, a disingenuous calculator, and a man of contradictions. A better perspective has fortunately prevailed, bringing to bear more-sophisticated methodologies and putting forth new theoretical tools. The essays collected in Onuf 2007 introduce the mind of Thomas Jefferson as an inexhaustible subject of enquiry, one that commands historians the continual fine tuning of new explanatory concepts. These essays enhance a sense of cultural distance and promote understanding and reconciliation over either ideological accusation or uncompromising advocacy. Free from the constraint either to condemn or absolve him, Yarbrough 1998 recasts the issue of virtue and the American character afresh. While exploring Jefferson’s mind, Sloan 1995 refers to the notion of economy as 18th-century intellectuals had actually understood it, as a virtue to be secured and, more generally, as a branch of moral philosophy. Spahn 2011 insists on the necessity to deal with Jefferson’s philosophy of history and also, on a more basic level, on his conception of time. To make sense of Jefferson’s mind, Kelsall 1999, Staloff 2005, and Valsania 2011 blur the boundaries between outdated partitions, such as that between the Enlightenment and romanticism. A romantic endeavor to bring light into an overwhelming darkness, the Enlightenment put Jefferson the moral philosopher into a condition of extreme anxiety.

  • Kelsall, Malcolm. Jefferson and the Iconography of Romanticism: Folk, Land, Culture, and the Romantic Nation. Romanticism in Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230378742Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents Jefferson as a romantic architect, a nationalist, and a moral philosopher devising an ethos of an originary American people. Monticello in particular is presented as a moral example that other nationalists abroad should follow. This book is often overlooked by Jefferson scholars but is worth a more central place.

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  • Onuf, Peter S. The Mind of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.

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    Thirteen essays forming a collection that thoroughly and effectively brings together the many dimensions of Jefferson as a moral philosopher, in his own terms. Especially important to properly assess the “impenetrability” of Jefferson’s mind is the essay coauthored with Ari Helo, titled “Jefferson, Morality, and the Problem of Slavery.”

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  • Sloan, Herbert E. Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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    The most stimulating treatment of Jefferson’s understanding of the economy, especially “economy” as a virtue. Sloan shows the consequences of Jefferson’s inability to distinguish between public and private indebtedness (which notoriously plagued him). Emphasis is put on a key moment of Jefferson’s life, from the beginning of 1789 to early 1791. Republished as recently as 2001 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia).

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  • Spahn, Hannah. Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History. Jeffersonian America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011.

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    Spahn provides a full analysis of two fundamental concepts that sustain Jefferson’s entire vision of progress. His endeavor to tackle the crucial problem of historical change in an age of revolution is explained by means of the notion of “Newtonianism.” Spahn introduces entirely new descriptors and original theoretical tools.

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  • Staloff, Darren. Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of the Enlightenment and the American Founding. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.

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    Staloff uses the Enlightenment as a basic canon and measures these three founders according to the ways they deviated from it. Each figure emerges as an original philosopher: Jefferson in particular is portrayed as a moral artist converting the Enlightenment, especially its cult of moderation, into an inspiring American romanticism.

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  • Valsania, Maurizio. The Limits of Optimism: Thomas Jefferson’s Dualistic Enlightenment. Jeffersonian America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011.

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    Interprets the Enlightenment as a romantic and risky experiment to bring light into an overwhelming darkness. Jefferson comes out as an anxiety-ridden moral philosopher who had optimism (actually, more than one type of optimism) and, at the same time, acknowledged the limits of human agency. Jefferson’s so-called paradoxes are explained away.

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  • Yarbrough, Jean M. American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson and the Character of a Free People. American Political Thought. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

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    A sophisticated and nuanced analysis of Jefferson’s take on virtue and its several facets. Sometimes a demanding reading, Yarbrough demonstrates that Jefferson’s moral and political discourses outdid any rigid opposition of Lockean rights versus republican virtues. By the same token, Jefferson’s moral vision blended self-interest and benevolence.

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Reputation and Legacy

Jefferson was concerned about how his reputation would stand the test of time. Moreover, he knew that future generations would heavily draw on his figure, both public and private. That he destroyed the letters he exchanged with his wife is indubitably telling. He sought to convey certain messages, while censoring other dimensions of his personality. Peterson 1998 (first published in 1960) is the standard examination of the ways 19th- and early-20th-century American culture handled the image of Jefferson. Cogliano 2006 concentrates on what happened after the mid-1940s, when Peterson’s analysis ends. More than on the broader culture, Cogliano 2006 focuses on Jefferson’s treatment at the hands of scholars. Perhaps more important, it insists on Jefferson as consciously trying to influence the judgment of posterity. While the historiography of the 1940s and 1950s saw Jefferson largely as an achiever and an Apostle of Liberty, some scholars in the 1960s began to react bitterly to any hagiographic tendency. Levy 1963 initiated a revisionist tradition pointing at Jefferson as substantially an evil figure. A hypocrite striking his opponents with even-illegal means, this character offered little or no example for emulation. Similarly, Finkelman 2001 sees in Jefferson just about a despicable racist. Attackers and defenders of Jefferson’s legacy and reputation will probably always exist. People will always imagine Jefferson more as a symbol—in so many senses “belonging to us”—than as a real long-gone Virginian. The “Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society,” for example, makes a strong case against the alleged Hemings-Jefferson relationship. By the same token, books will always exist that “stand up” for Jefferson’s character and reputation. Burton 2005 and Hyland 2009 are the best representatives of this trend.

  • Burton, Cynthia H. Jefferson Vindicated: Fallacies, Omissions, and Contradictions in the Hemings Genealogical Search. Keswick, VA: Cynthia H. Burton, 2005.

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    Argues for the need to vindicate President Jefferson’s character. Centered on the topic of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship, Burton insists on the inconclusiveness of the DNA testing.

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  • Cogliano, Francis D. Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy. Jeffersonian America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748624997.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Extends the analysis of Jefferson’s reputation from 1945 to the present. Focusing mainly on Jefferson’s reception at the hands of scholars, it also explores how Jefferson wanted to be read and how he tried to influence the judgment of posterity. Also important is the study of Jefferson’s ideas about history.

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  • Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. 2d ed. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001.

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    Seven well-documented essays on race and slavery in the age of Jefferson. But Jefferson is depicted as an evil figure, essentially a slave master and a slave trader. The thesis that Jefferson the racist “hated” slavery because it undermined the self-control of the white master class is intriguing.

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  • Hyland, William G., Jr. In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2009.

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    A balanced, well-written, well-documented defense of Jefferson’s character, by a writer who contests the DNA evidence. Hyland maintains that Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, and his sons may well stand out as the best candidates.

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  • Levy, Leonard W. Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. Publication of the Center for the Study of the History of Liberty in America, Harvard University. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1963.

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    Censors Jefferson as an anti-libertarian, chicaning, and disingenuous public figure. Sometimes pervaded by antipathy and often resulting in a long list of misdemeanors, Levy’s book initiated an important revisionist trend intended to curtail what he calls the “conventional image.” Numerous references to an inconsistency between his deeds and his words. Republished in paperback as recently as 1989 (Chicago: I. R. Dee).

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  • Peterson, Merrill D. The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.

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    Peterson’s is a book on “what history made of Thomas Jefferson.” Covering the period 1826–1943, it focuses on the image of Jefferson in the American culture broadly conceived, not as much on scholars’ receptions and interpretations. A classic on the vicissitudes of Jefferson’s reputation. Originally published in 1960 (New York: Oxford University Press).

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