BOOKS (ADULTS & ADVANCED STUDENTS)


Beran, Michael Knox. Jefferson’s Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind. New York: Free Press, 2003.

While historians often differ on interpretation of Jefferson, one trait that all seem to at least acknowledge is his optimism. Even with his flaws, Jefferson often saw the potential in the nation and its people. Michael Knox Beran, however, explores Jefferson’s darker side. Events such as a mysterious illness that left him practically bed-ridden for six weeks just before he wrote the Declaration of Independence and the bouts of depression he suffered during anxious periods in his life. The worst was following his wife’s death in 1782. Beran goes on to chronicle Jefferson’s recovery when two years later he was sent to Europe as a diplomat and fell in love. When this affair ended, he once again became ill. A trip to the Mediterranean where he became enchanted with the insights of the ancient Greeks and Romans went far to revive him mentally and spiritually. He immerged from this as the man Americans recognize.


Bernstein, R.B. Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Jefferson is a short biography that strives to cover the founding father’s entire lifetime. Bernstein looks at Jefferson from the perspective of his epitaph that Jefferson himself wrote: “Author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” Bernstein contests that the key to understanding Jefferson is not to see him as a political figure, but as a leader in a revolution of ideas.


Burstein, Andrew. The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1995.

In The Inner Jefferson, Burstein focuses on portraying Jefferson’s personality by examining his extensive correspondence with his many friends and colleagues. The book looks at his many relationships, including the truths and misconceptions about his romantic life.


Cohen, I. Bernard. Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995.

Science was a driving force and passion in the lives of many of the U.S.’s founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin were well known for their scientific endeavors. Cohen explores the role of science in shaping the opinions and practices of Jefferson and Franklin along with John Adams and James Madison. Specifically, Cohen explores how the scientific process is applied to politics and he looks at the Constitution as a Newtonian document. Special attention is given to Jefferson’s interest in natural science and Sir Isaac Newton’s work and in Franklin’s experiments.


Crawford, Alan Pell. Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Random House, 2008.

Jefferson’s retirement to Monticello from 1809 to his death in 1826 is the focus of Twilight at Monticello. The book explores Jefferson’s attitudes and values as he was tested by illness, debt, family conflicts, and his continued participation in the political arena through his correspondence with leaders such as then President James Madison, his son-in-law Virginia Governor Thomas Randolph, and former President John Adams, to name a few. Crawford looks at Jefferson’s self-examination of his own beliefs as he aged and looked back with hindsight on the consequences of his actions. Jefferson especially reflects on slavery and its effect on the young nation and his and the other founding fathers’ failure to quash it from the beginning.


Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

This biography of Thomas Jefferson follows his career and contradictions from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to his retirement from public service to Monticello. The author, Joseph Ellis pays close attention to the inconsistencies between Jefferson’s ideals and his actions throughout his lifetime. This book was the winner of the National Book Award.



Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.

In this short biography, Hitchens strives to bring the character of Jefferson to life by portraying him as a man of his time and a student of the Enlightenment. He brings out Jefferson’s accomplishments such as authoring the Declaration of Independence, strengthening the Navy, and the Louisiana Purchase. He also brings to light such contradictions as Jefferson’s prediction that slavery would shape the nation and his proclaimed desire for emancipation, yet he was a slaveholder and freed only a handful of his slaves in his will. Hitchens also explores how the French Revolution (which Jefferson supported) took the ideals of the Enlightenment and distorted them until that revolution descended into an excessively bloody and brutal mess.


Kennedy, Roger G. Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Roger Kennedy uses Jefferson as the vehicle to examine the expansion of the plantation system throughout the South. Publicly, Jefferson extolled the virtues of the yeoman or small, self-sustaining farmer, but his polices supported the planter. Kennedy looks at the economic and environmental effects of the plantation system with its reliance on slave labor and its soil eroding practices. Kennedy revels how Jefferson’s policies promoted the continuance of the disastrous plantation system while juxtaposing it with his stated aspirations for a society of small farmers. Kennedy also makes the argument that the American Revolution actually benefited the British due to the growth of the British textile industry that made planters dependent on British trade. The book looks at how the decisions made by Jefferson led to the expansion of the plantation system which depended on soil-depleting crops like cotton and tobacco, which led to the growth of the slave trade, and the displacement of Native Americans off of land to feed the ever-growing need for more healthy farmland. Kennedy argues against the inevitability of the consequences that shaped our country and continues to do so today.


O’Brien, Conor Cruise. The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Seen as one of the more controversial biographies of Thomas Jefferson, The Long Affair examines Jefferson’s beliefs, values, and legacies through the lens of his support for the French Revolution. O’Brien sets out to challenge the commonly held views by historians of Jefferson.

Simon, James F. What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

It was a well-known fact that Thomas Jefferson did not care for John Marshall. The two men often found themselves on opposite sides of the issues facing the new nation. Many of their conflicts centered around the growing pains of being in the early stages of hashing out their roles in the Republic. The struggles between then President Thomas Jefferson and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall went far in dictating the basic interpretation of the constitutional roles and limitations we still see today between the executive and judicial branches of the U.S. federal government.


Wallace, Anthony F. C. Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.

One of Jefferson’s scientific interests lay in archeology. He excavated Native American burial mounds and waxed poetic about the cultural treasures he found and mourned the tragic passing of these first peoples. However, when the time came to make policy decisions about Native Americans and their lands, the love affair stopped. Forced cessions of land and threats of war to expand the white agrarian system became the policy of the nation under Jefferson and set the precedent for decades to come. Wallace examines the duality of Jefferson’s treatment of the Native Americans and how the policies he put in place affected them and the rest of the nation.


Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.

Many are familiar with the line in “The Marines’ Hymn” that says “To the Shores of Tripoli.” Jefferson’s War gives readers the history behind this lyric. The book tells the story of the years 1801-1805 when then President Jefferson ordered the newly created United States into its first war on foreign soil. The war was against the Barbary pirates who sailed the Mediterranean Sea striking the American merchant fleets. The author forwards the argument that this war helped to erase doubts of the nation’s naval power.


Willis, Garry. Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

In history education, a largely unacknowledged effect of using population to determine representation in the House is the profound consequences of the “three-fifths clause.” Garry Willis explores how this gave the less populated slave states the power in Congress to continue and expand the slave trade and how it helped to get Thomas Jefferson elected President. This phenomenon led Federalists to label Jefferson the “Negro President.” As the slave concern shaped Jefferson’s policies, Willis also examines the impact of his abolitionist (and largely forgotten) political rival, Timothy Pickering. The book looks at how Pickering and Jefferson battled over the expansion of slavery into the Northwest Territory and the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.


Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805. New York: Hyperion, 2005.

Sounding like a tale from a modern day novel of espionage and intrigue, The Pirate Coast reveals the remarkable story of then President Jefferson and the United States’ first test of foreign policy. It starts with the declaration of war by Tripoli in 1801 and escalates in 1803 when disaster struck. The USS Philadelphia ran aground on Halloween night in Tripoli Harbor where it was immediately captured by the Moslem ruler and renamed “The Gift of Allah.” The three hundred sailors and Marines aboard were taken into custody with the intention that they would be sold as slaves. The incident was a disaster and embarrassment to America’s fledgling Navy. As diplomats were sent to bargain for the release of hostages, a secret mission was also put into motion. Unexpectedly, William Eaton was chosen to lead a mission to find exiled Prince Hamet in Egypt and convince him to lead a rebellion in Tripoli. Eaton was an odd choice since he was a failed diplomat and he had even had his Army career end in a court-martial. Even though Jefferson got cold feet and withdrew the government’s financial support, Eaton was able to find the prince, convince him to fight, and lead a group consisting of European mercenaries, Bedouin fighters, and eight U.S. Marines on a brutal five hundred mile desert march to launch a surprise attack on Tripoli. The battle was a success by freeing the American prisoners and gaining the U.S. international respect. The battle has been immortalized in the “Marine Hymn” in the line “To the Shores of Tripoli.” Eaton’s success was short-lived when Jefferson set out to disgrace him for revealing that the President had abandoned him.