Memory  /  Book Review

Historians Write About a Different Jefferson Now: Four Books Show How Different

Four new books show how different, and maybe also why.
Statue of Thomas Jefferson holding a piece of paper, survey equipment behind him.
tldagny/Wikimedia Commons

Twenty-mile-per-hour winds pressed on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt inside the grandstand when he dedicated the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, as did the national mood. Wartime weighed on public spirits and complicated just about every aspect of a ceremony intended to lift them.

Organizers of the event wanted to display the original Declaration of Independence, except that it had been removed from the capital in the weeks after Pearl Harbor, according to the National Park Service account. A military detail had to be sent to retrieve it from its secret location, the U.S. Bullion Depository at Fort Knox. Under the dome of the memorial, a U.S. Marine cordon stood 24-hour watch over one of the dearest of national treasures, the handwritten, signed parchment, sealed in a bulletproof case. The Marines had placed it at the feet of a 19½-foot statue of its author.

They were feet of plaster. It was artist Rudulph Evans’ prototype, painted brown for the occasion. Wartime shortages would postpone a bronze casting of Jefferson for four more years.

Shortly after noon on that Tuesday, FDR steadied himself behind a lectern along the Tidal Basin and reintroduced a national radio audience to a faded historical figure. The president’s words would linger in the air for more than a generation: “To Thomas Jefferson, Apostle of Freedom, we are paying a debt long overdue.” The date was April 13, 1943—Jefferson’s 200th birthday.

And his rebirth.

Merrill D. Peterson, Jefferson biographer and a giant on the UVA history faculty in the latter 20th century, called the FDR dedication “the most important thing to happen to Jefferson since July Fourth 1826,” his death date on the Declaration’s semicentennial. The “Apostle of Freedom” moment ushered in the golden era of Jefferson’s image in the works of scholars and the minds of Americans. That same year Dumas Malone began his nearly 40-year labors on his rich and reverent six-volume biography of Jefferson, Jefferson and His Time, publishing the first installment in 1948. Two years after that, Princeton University scholar Julian P. Boyd would publish the first set of the Thomas Jefferson Papers. Like Malone’s, Boyd’s work was groundbreaking, meticulous and enamored of its subject.

During the climb out of the Great Depression, the fighting of World War II and into the Cold War, Jefferson became the embodiment of American ideals—liberty, equality, democracy, reason and the overthrow of tyranny. He was Thomas Jefferson statesman, philosopher, architect, inventor, the Sage of Monticello. If you took your degree from the University up through roughly 1990, that was the Mr. Jefferson you studied, came to know and heard spoken of as if he were in the next room.

That’s not the Jefferson historians write about today. Four new books this season offer new perspectives on Jefferson and the early University of Virginia. The two most significant, representing significant advances in Jefferson scholarship, are the harshest. The third, a collection of essays on the founding, is the widest ranging.

But it’s the fourth that holds the key to gaining perspective on the other three. It’s a history of the history of Jefferson, a meta look at how UVA’s founder has been portrayed across a more than 200-year arc of memoir and biography. It provides vital context to understanding the ongoing Jefferson progression—why, when and how treatment of Thomas Jefferson shifted from Apostle of Freedom to the new apostasy.