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You Tell Me: Your Favorite Jefferson Biography EVER
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!
- Henry Randall’s Life of Thomas Jefferson (1857). One of the first major Jefferson biographies. Perhaps prone to a very nineteenth-century romanticizing of Jefferson and his times, but on the other hand, Randall had an in with Jefferson’s family members, so his biography is chock-full of great anecdotes and stories that are found nowhere else. (Also, some Jefferson documents which are now found nowhere else)
- Claude Bowers, Jefferson and Hamilton (1925), Jefferson in Power: The Death Struggle of the Federalists (1936), and The Young Jefferson, 1743-1789 (1945). Considered by some to be the first “modern” biography of Jefferson.
- Marie Kimball, Jefferson: The Road to Glory, 1743 to 1776 (1943), Jefferson: War and Peace, 1776 to 1784 (1947), and Jefferson: The Scene of Europe, 1784 to 1789 (1950). Probably the first major modern biography that relied on fresh original research in the various archives of Jefferson papers.
- Dumas Malone’s epic 6-volume Jefferson and His Time (1948-1981). Of course. Great footnotes, incredibly detailed. Very useful for answering reference questions.
- Merrill Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (1970).
- Noble Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987).
- R. B. Bernstein, Thomas Jefferson (2003). Lots of people like this one because it’s short(er).