5 Great Books on Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson was no evangelical, but he is of great interest to many evangelicals, just as all the major Founding Fathers are. I am in the midst of research and writing for a moral biography of Jefferson, which has given me a chance to catch up on the vast literature on him. Here are five scholarly but readable books on Jefferson that would be a great start to any reading list on this founder and president.

Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, ‘Most Blessed of the Patriarchs’: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. This is the updated biography of Jefferson that I would recommend first. More of a cultural biography than a political blow-by-blow, Gordon-Reed and Onuf consider perhaps the central dilemma in Jefferson’s intellectual vision: How could Jefferson be both a radical Unitarian democrat, and a man who looked longingly back to ancient patriarchal societies, even dreaming of living at Monticello like the “most blessed of the [biblical] patriarchs”?

Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State. Dreisbach’s meticulous work—which once involved bringing in an FBI handwriting analyst!—has revolutionized our understanding of one of Jefferson’s most-cited and most often misunderstood metaphors, the wall of separation between church and state.

Gordon S. Wood, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas JeffersonWood, one of America’s most distinguished historians, brings a wealth of expertise and storytelling verve to the contentious and fascinating relationship between Jefferson and Adams.

William Howard Adams, The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. A visually evocative book filled with beautiful illustrations, this is as much a portrait of Paris in the 1780s as it is of Jefferson.

Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Gordon-Reed, the key historian in establishing a case that Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings, goes well beyond detailing that argument in her gripping, Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Here she recreates the lives of generations of the Hemings family, one of the core cohorts of slaves at Jefferson’s Monticello.

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