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Jefferson's Body

A Corporeal Biography
Maurizio Valsania

BUY Cloth · 280 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813939704 · $35.00 · Apr 2017
BUY Ebook · 280 pp. · ISBN 9780813939698 · $35.00 · Apr 2017

What did Thomas Jefferson look like? How did he carry himself? Such questions, reasonable to ask as we look back on a person who lived in an era before photography, are the starting point for this boldly original new work. Maurizio Valsania considers all aspects of Jefferson’s complex conception of "the body," from eighteenth-century clothing and fashion to manners, adornment, posture, gesture, and visual and material culture. Drawing also from the fields of medical science, psychology, and cultural anthropology, the author conjures a vivid and detailed re-creation of the third president as a living, breathing—and pondering—human being.

Having situated Jefferson in his own body, Valsania looks at the embodied Jefferson in the world of his fellow humans. Any one of the other people in Jefferson’s society—whether that other person was male or female, free or enslaved, African American or Native American—was a critical counterexample for the eighteenth-century Virginian to define himself against, and Valsania’s explorations here lead to numerous insightful discoveries about race, gender, and structures of power. The first comprehensive exploration of Jefferson’s corporeal world, Jefferson’s Body brings the man vividly to life for the modern reader while deepening our understanding of what it meant to Jefferson to be alive.


Maurizio Valsania’s highly original and fascinating approach to Thomas Jefferson brings together an interdisciplinary mix of studies of race, gender, the body, and the Enlightenment. Jefferson came into view for me as a real person, a product of his times as well as a leader of those times, in ways he had not in other scholarly or popular works about him. Valsania has an intuitive and wonderful sensibility for how to capture the materiality and physicality of Jefferson and his world.

Kathleen Brown, University of Pennsylvania, author of Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

In Jefferson's Body, Maurizio Valsania works a miracle by casting a bright, new light on the long-studied Thomas Jefferson. By insightfully assessing the development of his posture, movement, and dress, Valsania offers a revealing and novel way to reconsider Jefferson's thinking about nature, self, others, and race.

Alan Taylor, University of Virginia, author of American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804

Jefferson’s Body gives us a fascinating new way to consider the man whose mind has captivated observers the world over. With great insight, Valsania explores the ramifications of Jefferson’s firm belief that a healthy and successful body are essential to forming a healthy and successful mind. This rich and nuanced work is a much-needed addition to the scholarship on our third president.

Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University, author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

"This book takes a new approach to familiar material with positive results."

Kevin R.C. Guzman, Western Connecticut State University · Virginia Magazine

Jefferson is alive and well within the modern American body politic, for better or for worse, and today we must deal with the dualities within the American condition begotten by the very republicanism Jefferson formulated. Instead of putting the Jefferson enigma to rest, Valsania brings to the fore another dimension of such captivating and concerning contradictions in which we seek to comprehend the successes and failures not only of Jefferson, but of the United States.


Thomas Jefferson's body is a wonderful subject for a book. As Jefferson was a central figure in a new republic devoted to forging a distinctly American, if not modern, identity, his abiding interest in male and female bodies, fashionable bodies, laboring bodies, racialized bodies, and private, or self-possessed bodies proves to be a most relevant avenue for exploring foundational questions about civic culture in the United States.

The Journal of Southern History

Maurizio Valsania’s Jefferson’s Body: A Corporeal Biography presents readers with an intriguing and compelling concept: that one’s body tells a story of its own. This is a valuable book for anyone interested in understanding historical actors and builds on recent scholarship about corporeality and sensory history. Elegantly written and filled with important insights on Jefferson, the body, and embodiment, this book was a pleasure to read.

Early American Literature

Other biographers have offered descriptions of Jefferson—his unusual height, his red hair, his sometimes peculiar attire—but Valsania’s corporeal biography offers a far more encompassing portrait, ranging from Jefferson’s posture to his medical conditions to his opinions about women, and drawing from the fields of anthropology, psychology, and whiteness studies, to name a few.... Valsania’s fresh, interdisciplinary approach offers insights that will appeal to a wide range of readers. Those interested in the history of fashion, or in Jefferson himself, may find themselves fascinated by discussions of such topics as his controversial—though never negligent, we find—sartorial decisions, while scholars interested in race, gender, the body, or the Enlightenment will also find much of interest

Journal of the Early Republic

About the Author(s): 

Maurizio Valsania, Professor of American History at the University of Torino, Italy, is author of Nature’s Man: Thomas Jefferson’s Philosophical Anthropology and The Limits of Optimism: Thomas Jefferson's Dualistic Enlightenment (both Virginia).

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