You Tell Me: Your Favorite Jefferson Biography EVER

Posted in: A Summary View, Thomas Jefferson

Lots of people ask us for recommendations for which Jefferson biography to read, but the choices are so many and people’s tastes so varied that answering this question is always a bit tricky.  So I thought I’d ask the audience: which would you recommend?  I’ll prime the pump with a list of possibilities (in order of publication, lest you think I am trying to suggest some sort of ranking), but feel free to write in your own candidate!


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For someone coming to Jefferson for the first time, I would not recommend Ellis's "American Sphinx." In fact, I don't recommend it at all. The historiography of Jefferson is littered with debilitating bias and Ellis is a classic example. He is the last person to stand in judgment of another man's character whether it be Jefferson or his next-door neighbor. That said, though Bowers' book is fun to read, it is too biased in favor of Jefferson. Also, Malone is simply too much for the casual reader.

Bernstein's book is a very solid introduction to the major events of his life and the major themes of his political career. Once one has read that, they can go on to any of the other books and make more informed judgments regarding the authors and their arguments including Merrill Peterson's "Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation" or more recent works by Peter Onuf and Andrew Burstein.


Ellis's American Spinx is great but not a strict biography. Also Malone's 6 volume set is very good if you can get by his errors concerning Sally Hemmings and his bias against A Hamilton

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