American history, biographies, book reviews, Merrill Peterson, presidential biographies, Presidents, Thomas Jefferson
“Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation” by Merrill Peterson was published in 1970 and is considered by many to be the best, and most complete, single-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson. Peterson, who died in 2009 at the age of 88, was a prolific author, having written about Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, among others. He was also a professor of history, teaching at Brandeis and Princeton before moving to the University of Virginia in 1962 to succeed Dumas Malone, another legendary Jefferson scholar.
Peterson’s “Thomas Jefferson” was my fifth and final biography of Jefferson – counting Malone’s six volume series only once. Having now lived and re-lived Jefferson’s life from the perspective of many authors, I was eager to experience this weighty, thousand-page classic. In most ways I was not disappointed, though there were a few bumps along the way.
From an academic perspective, Peterson’s biography serves as a thorough and detailed reference on Jefferson, comprehensively chronicling nearly all of his legislative, diplomatic and political activities. Had I not recently read Dumas Malone’s even more comprehensive series on Jefferson, I would have thought not a single detail could possibly have been left aside. Peterson’s biography is often interesting, usually meticulous, and always informative.
Although he seems to skim over certain events rather quickly – such as the Marbury vs. Madison case and the suicide of Meriwether Lewis – I found his treatment of other historical matters such as the Burr Conspiracy and the Louisiana Purchase unusually thorough and interesting. And although Peterson’s sympathies with Jefferson are not difficult to uncover, his partisan tendencies prove much less obtuse than I had been warned to expect.
It is only fair to highlight that this biography may not provide the casual Jefferson fan with a fun and carefree experience. Most readers will find this is not a book to be read purely for pleasure. It is often dry and distant, almost appearing to be a lengthy political news story crafted by a punctilious Associated Press reporter without a publication deadline. Except in this case, the story is assembled with paragraphs that routinely take up more than an entire page.
Disappointingly, Peterson provides little insight relating to Jefferson’s immediate family, and even less of his friends and more distant relatives. This is a book focused nearly exclusively on Jefferson’s professional, rather than personal, life. Exceptions to this include his academic, scientific and literary interests and talents. Peterson also seems not to follow Jefferson’s attitudes towards slavery to any final conclusions, leaving the obvious contradiction between his stated views and his lifelong ownership of slaves to be judged by history – or the reader.
Readers unfamiliar with Jefferson’s life will, at times, become lost in a sea of complex details. Those with some familiarity merely risk losing the forest for the trees, particularly when topics turn to foreign affairs. But for those with a full understanding of the times, Peterson’s biography will fill in interesting details the reader probably did not even know had been missing. In one area, Peterson’s biography does feel stuck in a time warp, however: on the topic of Jefferson’s rumored relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, Peterson had no access to the evidence that has only recently come into existence. In the book he finds the relationship “difficult to imagine” but (wisely) goes little further.
Structurally, the book is smartly divided into eleven sections reflecting the major periods of Jefferson’s life (and further subdivided into topical, rather than chronological, chapters). However, it is both weighty and dense. As a result, though Peterson’s writing style is straightforward and easy to read, it is not always as easy to comprehend or completely digest.
Overall, however, this is an excellent, substantive and comprehensive study of Jefferson that should appeal to anyone with a serious interest in presidential history. Peterson’s book is designed to be read for enlightenment and with serious purpose, not necessarily for “fun”. It requires some patience and a bit of stamina, but in return is immensely enriching and rewarding. For its nearly pure focus on Jefferson scholarship – devoid of contrived conspiracy theories and imputed psychic intuitions – it is nearly perfect. As an instrument of entertainment, to be read at leisure with a cocktail by the pool, it is less well-suited.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
This is my favorite one-volume bio.