History Books » American History

The best books on Thomas Jefferson

recommended by Andrew Burstein

Thomas Jefferson is famous for having written the Declaration of Independence, with its ringing claim that "all men are created equal".  In modern times he has been castigated for hypocrisy, given his ownership of slaves and his failure to campaign for abolition. Here, historian Andrew Burstein discusses Jefferson's wider political career and whether it is fair to judge his attitude to slavery by contemporary standards.

Interview by Eve Gerber

The third president of the United States is our topic today. Before we get to the books, please introduce us to Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson is best known for writing America’s long-form birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence. He was a member of Virginia’s General Assembly and Virginia’s Governor during the American Revolution. Then, he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as America’s senior diplomat in France. Jefferson fell in love with Paris, French culture and French people. So, Jefferson’s political identity was part cosmopolitan and part parochial Virginian. He was George Washington’s secretary of state.

We think of the early presidents as nationalists. But, in the early days of the Republic, Americans identified most strongly with their state and local communities. Jefferson represented the states’ rights strain that eventually grew into the defensive mentality that led the South to secede in 1860. So, there’s an interesting interplay in Jefferson’s life: at times he stood for the interests of Virginia, at others for the interests of the nation.

We don’t like the word imperialism now, but back then Jefferson’s efforts to expand America were massively popular and ‘American empire’ had a hopeful ring to it. He was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the territorial extent of the United States in the first years of the 19th century. He sent Lewis and Clark to explore the entire North American continent, crossing the as yet unknown Rocky Mountains, which helped Americans imagine becoming a nation that extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific. So Jefferson was very much a nationalist in his idea that the republic would extend itself 3,000 miles west.

Thomas Jefferson is one of the idols of what you call ‘founder worship’. A marble temple for him, in the shape of Rome’s Pantheon, was constructed on Washington’s National Mall and dedicated in 1939. At its center is a bronze 19-foot tall 10,000-pound statue of Jefferson. Why the pedestal?

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington was completed in 1943 on Jefferson’s 200th birthday. The memorial was President Franklin Roosevelt’s baby, he was integral to making it a shrine to democracy, using Jefferson’s universal message about human liberty in the face of tyranny. Jefferson was America’s first and most quotable wordsmith. He was enlisted to fight fascism in the darkest days of World War II.

Jefferson and the Virginians, your first recommendation, a book by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor at History at University of Virginia Peter S. Onuf, places our subject in the context of the state that shaped him.

The University of Virginia was founded by Jefferson. Peter inherited the mantle of senior Jefferson scholar at Mr. Jefferson’s university. His best-known book is the brilliantly conceived Jefferson’s Empire. Jefferson and the Virginians is his latest book, written since his retirement. The book examines Jefferson’s interactions with several prominent Virginians at different stages of his political career and helps us understand how Jefferson advanced his political agenda for the United States. It is divided into sections focused on Jefferson’s interactions with each of these individuals.

“When Jefferson was called ‘a democrat’, it was not a compliment.”

Onuf starts with Patrick Henry, a charismatic courtroom lawyer whose oratory fueled the Revolution in Virginia. He was the one who got people fired up in 1775-76 and he became the first governor of independent Virginia. Their relationship was initially friendly. Then, when Jefferson succeeded Henry as Governor, it turned adversarial. Henry opposed Jefferson’s legislative agenda in Virginia, especially when it came to what has since become known as the separation of church and state. So, Henry starts out as a hero of Jefferson and becomes a nemesis.

There’s another chapter about Jefferson and James Madison’s long political alliance, which began based on their common distrust of and opposition to Patrick Henry. Onuf distinguishes Jefferson’s abstract ideas from his practice of politics. He shows that Jefferson has an ecstatic approach to popular politics, whereas Madison, best known as ‘The Father of the Constitution’, was resistant to key elements of Jefferson’s performative democracy.

When people talk about  ‘Jeffersonian democracy’, what do they mean?

Jeffersonian democracy has come to mean the belief that educated citizens should have their will enacted by their elected representatives. But when Jefferson was called ‘a democrat’, it was not a compliment. In the 1790s, Jefferson’s ideas of democracy and his support for the French Revolution, scared a lot of people. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton feared French revolutionary-style democracy would mean mob rule. Democrat and democracy did not become positive terms until the 19th century. So, Jeffersonian democracy only grew into something Americans took to heart en masse over a period of decades.

Our next Thomas Jefferson book is Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation by historian John Ferling.

Ferling has written many books about the American Revolution; he has an encyclopedic knowledge of this period.

His Jefferson and Hamilton is a portrait in partisanship, a blow-by-blow account of the ideological contest between men with divergent visions. Jefferson feared centralization and a strong national government. Jefferson is, comparatively speaking, a states’-rights advocate. Hamilton believes in the strong central government. Jefferson is a Francophile and Hamilton is an Anglophile.

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Both Jefferson and Hamilton were underhanded in advancing their agendas. Hamilton revealed privileged information to a British representative, subverting Jefferson’s efforts, as secretary of state, to keep a distance from Britain. Jefferson wrote a long letter to Washington, in September 1792, trying to convince him that Hamilton was a monarchist intent on destroying the Republic. Jefferson and Hamilton went head-to-head in Washington’s cabinet. When Washington sided with Hamilton, Jefferson retired to his plantation. Hamilton ultimately got the better of Jefferson—until 1800.

Jefferson referred to his presidential election as the ‘Revolution of 1800’. It sounds grandiose. Please explain what he meant by that and how that fits in with the temperament you’re describing?

A decade after he left the presidency, in a letter, he referred to his election as ‘The Revolution of 1800’. What Jefferson meant was that his election removed the dominant Federalist Party (the Hamiltonians) from power. Jefferson’s party, which eventually morphed into the Democratic Party, was able to win both houses of Congress and the Presidency. So, Jefferson came into office with his political opposition on the decline. He was able to move away from Hamilton’s economic infrastructure. The elitism of the Federalists was supplanted by what we just described as ‘Jeffersonian democracy’, which elevated educated men of sometimes humble roots and placed greater faith in the idea that ordinary citizens could understand what was in their collective best interest.

You call Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty by John B. Boles the “best full-length Jefferson biography of the 21st century”. What makes this book the best life of Thomas Jefferson?

John Boles has been a student of Jefferson and the early American Republic for his entire career. This is an all-encompassing, cradle-to-grave biography. Boles brings a balanced perspective to both positive and negative aspects of Jefferson’s character. It’s a sympathetic biography, but it’s not a whitewash. It takes a very strong look at Jefferson and slavery, something the present generation of historians has been fathoming, because of the obvious paradox that this champion of human liberty took no appreciable action to remove slavery from his native Virginia. Boles makes the complex story of Jefferson’s character easy to process. It’s detailed and entertaining. It brings into clear focus a complex human being. On a psychological level, it’s a profound analysis of a person, his political vision and his political practice. And it’s very engagingly written.

Let’s turn to another very well-written book, Madison and Jefferson by you and your partner Nancy Isenberg.

Madison and Jefferson had a personal and political partnership that lasted fifty years. These two men loved each other, respected each other, and enjoyed each other’s company. It’s an enduring 50 year partnership, which no one had written a book about since 1950.

It’s called Madison and Jefferson, rather than the other way around, because although Madison is generally thought of as Jefferson’s protégé, they were in all respects equals. You could say the Jefferson’s presidency was a co-presidency with Madison, his secretary of state. People think of Madison as the cerebral father of the Constitution, which is accurate, but he was also a power player in Congress, especially in the troubled 1790s, when he held political seniority. Madison was instrumental in forging the anti-Hamilton political interest in Congress that ultimately backed Jefferson. There was nothing Jefferson did not consult Madison on.

The book identifies awkward truths that generations of patriotic mythmakers have avoided facing. It’s a story of country gentlemen practicing hardball politics. We think of democracy as something open and above board, but both Madison and Jefferson came to believe that political progress was best arranged in secret.

You show that Jefferson was a person for whom friendship had a public purpose, as well as a private purpose. He drew so much from his partnership with Madison and in later life, from his correspondence with his former nemesis, John Adams. Should we remember Jefferson as among America’s most successful political users?

Well, he had many lifelong friendships, and he knew how to use them to his advantage. He used his pen to mold opinion, to build alliances, and to forge plans sometimes in coded letters or in small conclaves. Then he and Madison presented pre-formed plans to Congress. Jefferson goaded his allies to enact his political will.

It is impossible, at least for me, to think about any aspect of Thomas Jefferson without turning to the fact that his life of luxury, leisure and civic involvement was made possible by slavery. I look forward to hearing about the 600 enslaved individuals whose labor gave Jefferson liberty.

In Democracy’s Muse, I write about how, from FDR to the present, every president and many members of Congress have quoted Jefferson to advance their own partisan agendas. His words were heroic. But he was someone who had inherited from his father and from his father-in-law a couple of hundred African Americans as property. That’s the world he was born into.

“When I lecture, I use the term ‘timid abolitionist’”

The question is: Why didn’t he do more to bring it to an end? He wrote about slavery as a sin, boldly, in the early 1780s. He wrote that slavery destroyed the virtue of white kids, who, growing up, had to learn the attitudes that embodied mastery. When I lecture, I use the term ‘timid abolitionist’ which is to say Jefferson wasn’t going to say anything more in public than what he wrote when he was young when he hoped that Virginia’s Legislature would find a way to eradicate slavery. He left the task of getting rid of this evil to the next generation.

We focus on Jefferson as the man who should’ve done more. But Washington was president for eight years and he didn’t lift a finger to free African Americans in his lifetime. He did free his slaves in his will, but it wasn’t immediate. Those slaves were only freed after his widow, Martha, died.

John Adams wrote the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution and Declaration of Rights, including the statement that “all men are born free and equal” which provided the basis for Massachusetts courts to abolish slavery in 1783. Prior to that he represented African Americans in suits to win their freedom. He hired freedmen and never enslaved labor.

Nancy and I just wrote a book about John and John Quincy Adams called The Problem of Democracy. It does distinguish the Adams family from the Virginian founders. In New England, they didn’t grow up around slaves. A New Englander might’ve had a household slave or one person who helped in the field. None of the New England states held as slaves more than 1-2% of its population at any time. In Virginia that figure was around 40%.

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Virginians’ economic well-being depended on slavery. Yet some in the state did work to find an end to slavery by compensating owners for their loss of property—a bill promoted by Jefferson’s grandson that nearly passed the Virginia legislature in 1832. Jefferson said that blacks and whites could never live together peacefully, because of understandable black resentments as well as white prejudices. This is what a majority of white early Americans probably believed. So, we would have to indict his entire generation and the entire leadership group for greed and a collective failure to cure their society of a species of injustice and immorality we find ugly and impossible to reconcile.

Perhaps the Adamses were morally superior in this area of concern. But John Adams embraced Jefferson’s etiology in the 1780s when Jefferson wrote that recolonization of freed blacks to West Africa or the Caribbean would be the best way to remove slavery from American shores.

That brings us to Lucia Stanton’s “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

This book represents the consummation of Stanton’s career researching the history of plantation slavery. It traces the lives of the extended families of Monticello over generations. Annette Gordon-Reed’s work on the connection between Jefferson and the Hemings family won a Pulitzer. Stanton’s work, as a senior researcher at Monticello for decades, laid a foundation for what Annette wrote. Stanton pretty much started from scratch in reconstructing the world of the slaves and free laborers in Jefferson’s neighborhood.

The only slaves freed in Jefferson’s will were part of the Hemings family. In 1997, DNA effectively proved they were his children. Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who was the biological half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, gave birth to several of Jefferson’s children. Stanton traces the Hemings family from Jefferson’s plantation to their post-emancipation lives in Ohio. It’s a marvelously interesting story about the diaspora of Jefferson’s house servants, how they made lives for their descendants, their work and professional accomplishments.

What about the other enslaved people? What was the nature of their lives and labor? How did they produce Jefferson’s wealth?

In this book, you meet people who worked in Jefferson’s house. The field laborers’ names were recorded but their lives went unrecorded.

Jefferson spoke of his servants as his “family”. They learned marketable skills. Sally, for example, was a seamstress. One of Sally’s brothers was a chef, another a brewer. Jefferson’s white grandchildren taught members of the Hemings clan how to read and write. One of Jefferson’s granddaughters, Ellen, moved to Boston and became a critic of slavery and she wrote to Jefferson about her objections. She maintained correspondence with the Hemings family; one named a child after Ellen. So, there was clearly fondness felt, something more than a master-servant relationship. Stanton is so good at teasing all this out.

In 2020, a descendant of Jefferson’s, Lucian Truscott IV, opined that the Jefferson Memorial is a monument to “a man who famously wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence that founded this nation—and yet never did much to make those words come true.” Fair assessment?

Yes, it’s fair. But on the other hand, as I tried to explain before, we have to indict the whole generation for its collective failure, you can’t place the brunt of America’s responsibility on the shoulders of one individual. Are we going to celebrate only those very few people who took an economic hit by freeing their slaves when everyone knew that slavery was evil? That’s a rather narrow way to examine history.

We cannot extract Jefferson from Virginia or the fact that he inherited 200 slaves and died a hundred thousand dollars in debt, which is in the neighborhood of $6 million today. Jefferson is always going to be a man of the 18th century and we can’t impose our moral expectations on men of the 18th century.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein is the Charles P. Manship Professor of History at Louisiana State University.

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Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein is the Charles P. Manship Professor of History at Louisiana State University.