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Confounding Father

Thomas Jefferson's Image in His Own Time
Robert M. S. McDonald

BUY Cloth · 328 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813938967 · $29.95 · Aug 2016
BUY Ebook · 328 pp. · ISBN 9780813938974 · $19.95 · Aug 2016
BUY Paper · 328 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813940571 · $19.95 · Oct 2017

Of all the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson stood out as the most controversial and confounding. Loved and hated, revered and reviled, during his lifetime he served as a lightning rod for dispute. Few major figures in American history provoked such a polarization of public opinion. One supporter described him as the possessor of "an enlightened mind and superior wisdom; the adorer of our God; the patriot of his country; and the friend and benefactor of the whole human race." Martha Washington, however, considered Jefferson "one of the most detestable of mankind"--and she was not alone.

While Jefferson’s supporters organized festivals in his honor where they praised him in speeches and songs, his detractors portrayed him as a dilettante and demagogue, double-faced and dangerously radical, an atheist and "Anti-Christ" hostile to Christianity. Characterizing his beliefs as un-American, they tarred him with the extremism of the French Revolution. Yet his allies cheered his contributions to the American Revolution, unmasking him as the now formerly anonymous author of the words that had helped to define America in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, meanwhile, anxiously monitored the development of his image. As president he even clipped expressions of praise and scorn from newspapers, pasting them in his personal scrapbooks.

In this fascinating new book, historian Robert M. S. McDonald explores how Jefferson, a man with a manner so mild some described it as meek, emerged as such a divisive figure. Bridging the gap between high politics and popular opinion, Confounding Father exposes how Jefferson’s bifurcated image took shape both as a product of his own creation and in response to factors beyond his control. McDonald tells a gripping, sometimes poignant story of disagreements over issues and ideology as well as contested conceptions of the rules of politics. In the first fifty years of independence, Americans’ views of Jefferson revealed much about their conflicting views of the purpose and promise of America.

Jeffersonian America


Confounding Father is an ambitious, impressively researched, and well-written study that shows how public perceptions of Jefferson were inextricably bound up with the young nation's core values and controversies. A must-read for anyone seeking to understand the sweeping impact of Jefferson's image on early national America and beyond.

Joanne Freeman, Yale University, author of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic

Robert McDonald has undertaken to study the evolution of Jefferson’s reputation during his lifetime, and the result is an original and engaging study. This will stand out as a notable contribution to our understanding of Jefferson and his time. A substantial and important work.

Francis Cogliano, University of Edinburgh, author of Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy

Robert McDonald's fascinating study of Thomas Jefferson's efforts to shape his image-and of the ways his fellow Americans saw him in his own time-brings the controversial author of the Declaration of Independence into sharp and illuminating focus. Confounding Father is a major contribution to the literature.

Peter S. Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor Emeritus, University of Virginia, coauthor, with Annette Gordon-Reed, of "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs": Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination

Thomas Jefferson’s contemporaries often acknowledged his quiet, meek, and at times downright awkward disposition, and yet this mild-mannered man became one of the most controversial figures of his time. In Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time, Robert M.S. McDonald tackles the question of how the quiet Jefferson became such a divisive figure over the span of his public career.

Journal of the American Revolution

For anyone dismayed by the salacious and defamatory political battles carried on in today’s press, a bit of historical perspective is necessary. Robert M. S. McDonald’s carefully researched and beautifully written study of how Thomas Jefferson was viewed in his own time provides ample information that our present unpleasantness is far from new.

Journal of American History

This latest installment in the University of Virginia Press’s 'Jeffersonian America' series fills a vital need so well that it’s amazing that nobody has attempted such a thing before.... [McDonald] writes with grace, clarity, and skill; his research is deep and wide-ranging... Confounding Father is one of the indispensable modern studies of Jefferson and of the politics of the early Republic. McDonald proves that we can still say new and illuminating things about Jefferson and his time, and he does so with extraordinary historical craftsmanship.

Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

As West Point historian Rob McDonald expertly reveals in his profound and original study of the third president, those who loved and hated Jefferson manufactured his image. While Jefferson allowed this to happen—especially in the early- to mid-1790s—he had not originally sought the position of patriot demigod. Instead, Dr. McDonald writes, Jefferson actually believed that in a republic, the true leader does not seek leadership or power, preferring the private life unless the public demands and confers such honors as political authority.... McDonald’s Confounding Father is not just a worthy addition to your library—it is a must-own.

The Imaginative Conservative

McDonald sees Jefferson’ s image as the result of the shaping efforts of Jefferson himself, hisincreasing number of allies and admirers, and his opponents and critics.McDonald convincingly argues that Jefferson’ s reputation evolved in conjunctionwith two other factors, one a fortuitous cultural shift and the other theresult of conscious political positioning... McDonald has consulted an impressively deep and broad range of sources, including Jefferson’ s voluminous correspondence, a wide array of newspapers,and others’ personal correspondence and diaries... Every paragraph of Confounding Father teems with well-selected and relevant evidence.

Andrew M. Schocket, Bowling Green State University · The Journal of Southern History

About the Author(s): 

Robert M. S. McDonald, Professor of History at the United States Military Academy, is the editor of Sons of the Father: George Washington and His Protégés (Virginia).

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