By the Book: Thomas Jefferson

July 18, 2016 Bryan Craig

The first year of a new president’s first term is always a crucible. But often it’s only in hindsight, within the carefully considered pages of an authoritative presidential biography, that the full measure of that first year can be taken. In this new series on the best presidential biographies, Miller Center presidential scholars and experts recommend the ones most worth reading.

Alan Taylor discusses Thomas Jefferson's first year in our newest essay. So, we turn to Thomas Jefferson here in this series. However, material on Jefferson's life and work is enourmous and this is not meant to be exhaustive.

Let's look at the political basics. If you are looking for an one-volume politcal history, Noble E. Cunningham, Jr.'s In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson, is a good start, but it is limited in scope. A more nuanced, recent biography is Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. Joseph J. Ellis' American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson adds another layer to Jefferson, as well.

Regarding the slavery issue, Lucia C. Stanton's work, "Those Who Labor for My Happiness:" Slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello is important. Annette Gordon-Reed built on Stanton's research to write Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and later, the Pulitzer-Prize winner The Hemingses of Monticello.

For foreign policy, Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson's Foreign Policy by Frank Cogliano is the best resource.

To learn more about how Jefferson saw himself in the world, Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed's thoughtful "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs:" Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination is worth a look.

Explore Jefferson's presidency here