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Thomas Jefferson's Lives

Biographers and the Battle for History
Edited by Robert M. S. McDonald

BUY Cloth · 344 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813942919 · $35.00 · Aug 2019
BUY Ebook · 344 pp. · ISBN 9780813942926 · $35.00 · Aug 2019

Who was the "real" Thomas Jefferson? If this question has an answer, it will probably not be revealed reading the many accounts of his life. For two centuries biographers have provided divergent perspectives on him as a man and conflicting appraisals of his accomplishments. Jefferson was controversial in his own time, and his propensity to polarize continued in the years after his death as biographers battled to control the commanding heights of history. To judge from their depictions, there existed many different Thomas Jeffersons.

The essays in this book explore how individual biographers have shaped history—as well as how the interests and preoccupations of the times in which they wrote helped to shape their portrayals of Jefferson. In different eras biographers presented the third president variously as a proponent of individual rights or of majority rule, as a unifier or a fierce partisan, and as a champion of either American nationalism or cosmopolitanism. Conscripted to serve Whigs and Democrats, abolitionists and slaveholders, unionists and secessionists, Populists and Progressives, and seemingly every side of almost every subsequent struggle, the only constant was that Jefferson’s image remained a mirror of Americans’ self-conscious conceptions of their nation’s virtues, values, and vices. Thomas Jefferson’s Lives brings together leading scholars of Jefferson and his era, all of whom embrace the challenge to assess some of the most important and enduring accounts of Jefferson’s life.

Contributors:Jon Meacham, presidential historian * Barbara Oberg, Princeton University * J. Jefferson Looney, Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello * Christine Coalwell McDonald, Westchester Community College * Robert M.S. McDonald, United States Military Academy * Andrew Burstein, Louisiana State University * Jan Ellen Lewis, Rutgers University * Richard Samuelson, California State University, San Bernardino * Nancy Isenberg, Louisiana State University * Joanne B. Freeman, Yale University * Brian Steele, University of Alabama at Birmingham * Herbert Sloan, Barnard College * R. B. Bernstein, City College of New York * Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh * Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University * Gordon S. Wood, Brown University


"An immensely valuable work, a worthy complement to Merrill Peterson’s The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. Every scholar interested in Jefferson will want to read this book, and for students it is a wonderful introduction to the evolving craft of history and historiography. I think it the most important collection relevant to Jefferson since Peter Onuf’s landmark 1993 volume, Jeffersonian Legacies."

—John B. Boles, Rice University, author of Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty

You may be enraptured or infuriated, but the insightful entries in Thomas Jefferson’s Lives will cause you to reflect not just on Jefferson and his world, but on why so many writers have seen him so differently. This marvelous collection of essays informs us not only about Jefferson, but about how, and why, historical interpretations can be so contradictory. It is a book that is guaranteed to cause readers to ponder – and maybe rethink -- some things they thought they knew about Jefferson. What more can one ask of a book about Thomas Jefferson?

John Ferling, author of Apostles of Revolution: Jefferson, Paine, Monroe, and the Struggle Against the Old Order in America and Europe

This book is a living testament to the Jeffersonian truth that life should be about the pursuit of reason, and reason, like history, is not static but kinetic.

From the foreword by Jon Meacham

Thomas Jefferson’s Lives, a collection of essays edited by McDonald, shows in dramatic detail how complicated Jefferson is. Not only is understanding Jefferson as a historical figure a challenge, but his legacy is likewise arduous to determine. The book is an excellent portrayal of various viewpoints of Jefferson and how these attitudes differed as a result of national events and cultural trends.

Journal of the American Revolution

About the Author(s): 

Robert M. S. McDonald is Professor of History at the United States Military Academy and the author of Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time (Virginia).

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