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Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography

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The definitive life of Jefferson in one volume, this biography relates Jefferson's private life and thought to his prominent public position and reveals the rich complexity of his development. As Peterson explores the dominant themes guiding Jefferson's career--democracy, nationality, and enlightenment--and Jefferson's powerful role in shaping America, he simultaneously The definitive life of Jefferson in one volume, this biography relates Jefferson's private life and thought to his prominent public position and reveals the rich complexity of his development. As Peterson explores the dominant themes guiding Jefferson's career--democracy, nationality, and enlightenment--and Jefferson's powerful role in shaping America, he simultaneously tells the story of nation coming into being.


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The definitive life of Jefferson in one volume, this biography relates Jefferson's private life and thought to his prominent public position and reveals the rich complexity of his development. As Peterson explores the dominant themes guiding Jefferson's career--democracy, nationality, and enlightenment--and Jefferson's powerful role in shaping America, he simultaneously The definitive life of Jefferson in one volume, this biography relates Jefferson's private life and thought to his prominent public position and reveals the rich complexity of his development. As Peterson explores the dominant themes guiding Jefferson's career--democracy, nationality, and enlightenment--and Jefferson's powerful role in shaping America, he simultaneously tells the story of nation coming into being.

30 review for Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    http://bestpresidentialbios.com/2013/... “Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation” by Merrill Peterson was published in 1970 and is considered by many to be the best, and most complete, single-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson. Peterson, who died in 2009 at the age of 88, was a prolific author, having written about Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, among others. He was also a professor of history, teaching at Brandeis and Princeton before moving to the University of http://bestpresidentialbios.com/2013/... “Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation” by Merrill Peterson was published in 1970 and is considered by many to be the best, and most complete, single-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson. Peterson, who died in 2009 at the age of 88, was a prolific author, having written about Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, among others. He was also a professor of history, teaching at Brandeis and Princeton before moving to the University of Virginia in 1962 to succeed Dumas Malone, another legendary Jefferson scholar. Peterson’s “Thomas Jefferson” was my fifth and final biography of Jefferson – counting Malone’s six volume series only once. Having now lived and re-lived Jefferson’s life from the perspective of many authors, I was eager to experience this weighty, thousand-page classic. In most ways I was not disappointed, though there were a few bumps along the way. From an academic perspective, Peterson’s biography serves as a thorough and detailed reference on Jefferson, comprehensively chronicling nearly all of his legislative, diplomatic and political activities. Had I not recently read Dumas Malone’s even more comprehensive series on Jefferson, I would have thought not a single detail could possibly have been left aside. Peterson’s biography is often interesting, usually meticulous, and always informative. Although he seems to skim over certain events rather quickly – such as the Marbury vs. Madison case and the suicide of Meriwether Lewis – I found his treatment of other historical matters such as the Burr Conspiracy and the Louisiana Purchase unusually thorough and interesting. And although Peterson’s sympathies with Jefferson are not difficult to uncover, his partisan tendencies prove much less obtuse than I had been warned to expect. It is only fair to highlight that this biography may not provide the casual Jefferson fan with a fun and carefree experience. Most readers will find this is not a book to be read purely for pleasure. It is often dry and distant, almost appearing to be a lengthy political news story crafted by a punctilious Associated Press reporter without a publication deadline. Except in this case, the story is assembled with paragraphs that routinely take up more than an entire page. Disappointingly, Peterson provides little insight relating to Jefferson’s immediate family, and even less of his friends and more distant relatives. This is a book focused nearly exclusively on Jefferson’s professional, rather than personal, life. Exceptions to this include his academic, scientific and literary interests and talents. Peterson also seems not to follow Jefferson’s attitudes towards slavery to any final conclusions, leaving the obvious contradiction between his stated views and his lifelong ownership of slaves to be judged by history – or the reader. Readers unfamiliar with Jefferson’s life will, at times, become lost in a sea of complex details. Those with some familiarity merely risk losing the forest for the trees, particularly when topics turn to foreign affairs. But for those with a full understanding of the times, Peterson’s biography will fill in interesting details the reader probably did not even know had been missing. In one area, Peterson’s biography does feel stuck in a time warp, however: on the topic of Jefferson’s rumored relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, Peterson had no access to the evidence that has only recently come into existence. In the book he finds the relationship “difficult to imagine” but (wisely) goes little further. Structurally, the book is smartly divided into eleven sections reflecting the major periods of Jefferson’s life (and further subdivided into topical, rather than chronological, chapters). However, it is both weighty and dense. As a result, though Peterson’s writing style is straightforward and easy to read, it is not always as easy to comprehend or completely digest. Overall, however, this is an excellent, substantive and comprehensive study of Jefferson that should appeal to anyone with a serious interest in presidential history. Peterson’s book is designed to be read for enlightenment and with serious purpose, not necessarily for “fun”. It requires some patience and a bit of stamina, but in return is immensely enriching and rewarding. For its nearly pure focus on Jefferson scholarship – devoid of contrived conspiracy theories and imputed psychic intuitions – it is nearly perfect. As an instrument of entertainment, to be read at leisure with a cocktail by the pool, it is less well-suited. Overall rating: 3¾ stars

  2. 5 out of 5

    Bruce

    The best epitaph ever written about Thomas Jefferson came from one of his successors. When John F. Kennedy hosted a group of Nobel Prize winners he said that he was glad to be hosting the greatest collection of human minds ever in the history of the White House except possibly when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Not even his severest critics ever said Jefferson was dumb. His mind ran into so many directions. His plantation Monticello was always a work in progress with Jefferson interested deeply in The best epitaph ever written about Thomas Jefferson came from one of his successors. When John F. Kennedy hosted a group of Nobel Prize winners he said that he was glad to be hosting the greatest collection of human minds ever in the history of the White House except possibly when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Not even his severest critics ever said Jefferson was dumb. His mind ran into so many directions. His plantation Monticello was always a work in progress with Jefferson interested deeply in horticulture. He played the violin well He invented the roll top desk. And as we know he was most interested in political philosophy and wrote one of the greatest works in that field. Jefferson was born in 1743 in Virginia to a prosperous planter family who apparently recognized that they had a prodigy child. He got the best education they could give him which meant William and Mary College. The stirrings for independence from Great Britain interested him and he immersed himself in the struggle especially after being elected to the Second Continental Congress. Where he wrote the document that secured his immortality the Declaration of Independence It is the document that expressed our reasons which he said were self evident for separating from Great Britain. There isn't any subsequent nation being born that hasn't used some variation on his words. He was Governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781 then part of the team negotiating the Treaty of Peace with the British. He became our 2nd Minister to France succeeding Ben Franklin. Jefferson was a Francophile. He was at home with the court of Louis XVI yet kept in touch with the forces for reform there. They tossed the Bourbon monarchy out in 1789 the same year George Washington called him home to serve as Secretary of State. In that Cabinet he clashed with Alexander Hamilton who was Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton even though he served in the military in the Revolution thought we were best served emulating the society there. He was as much an Anglophile as Jefferson was a Francophile. They clashed over foreign policy. And they clashed over Hamilton's financial plans mostly over his idea of a National Bank. The years 1790 to 1793 were those of intrigue and influence as both sought to win Washington over to their point of view. Hamilton served with Washington in the revolution so he had the advantage. Jefferson resigns at the end of 1793 and the opposition to Hamilton crystalizes around Jefferson and James Madison as a two party system emerges. When Washington retires in 1797, Jefferson is elected Vice President serving with John Adams. Adams and he were at one time good companions. But came apart as Adams favored the Hamiltonian policies if not the man himself. Adams was defeated for a second term in 1800 in one of two first times the election went to the House of Representatives. Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr due to a bit of intrigue by several parties received a tie vote in the Electoral College. Jefferson prevailed and became our third president serving two terms from 1801-1809. His first term was a great success and he doubled the size of America with the Louisiana Purchase. We got quite the chunk of real estate and Jefferson sent the exploring team of Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to explore and see what we now had. Lewis and Clark were the first of many expeditions west. They were as much scientific as anything else reflecting the interest of the man in the White House. Jefferson won a smashing re-election and the election was the first under the 12th amendment which allowed for separate ballots for president and vice president. Aaron Burr didn't run again and instead got himself involved in a plot to take over the western territories for which he was arrested and tried unsuccessfully for treason. Jefferson's administration took a hit politically for failing to deliver a guilty verdict. Lots has been written about that, but Burr himself was ruined politically. But what was worse was Jefferson's decision to forbade trade with both Great Britain and France as war was starting again between the countries. Both plundered Amercan shipping with the English impressing American seaman saying many were deserters from them and some probably were. The Embargo plunged his popularity above the Mason-Dixon line into the depths as smuggling became rampant. Jefferson was glad to turn things over to his successor James Madison. In retirement Jefferson was an honored elder statesman. During his ex-presidential years he was best known for founding the University of Virginia. He died as did John Adams on the 4th of July 1826. Jefferson left one giant imprint on the founding of America. With what he preached in his writings and the policies he was indispensable. He articulated our reason for being.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Leslee

    Wow. It only took 2 months, but I finished it :-) And I'm glad I did, even though it was challenging at times. This is the longest of the presidential biographies I have undertaken. As the name implies, it certainly focuses more on TJ's service to the nation than on his personal life. For example on page 950 of a 1000 page book, it introduces us to Francis Walker Gilmer as "like a son" to TJ. What?? Who is this guy and where has he been the first 70 years of the book? But there is still lots of Wow. It only took 2 months, but I finished it :-) And I'm glad I did, even though it was challenging at times. This is the longest of the presidential biographies I have undertaken. As the name implies, it certainly focuses more on TJ's service to the nation than on his personal life. For example on page 950 of a 1000 page book, it introduces us to Francis Walker Gilmer as "like a son" to TJ. What?? Who is this guy and where has he been the first 70 years of the book? But there is still lots of interesting non-US topics - Jefferson's time in the VA assembly and governorship, all of his hobbies between his time in Washingon's cabinet and his own presidency, and his personal views on religion, education, and of course, government. I still would have liked to get a more detailed understanding of his personal relationships with the other founding fathers, not just as they related to the government. Peterson generally has good excuses for Jefferson's falling outs (fallings out?) with Washington, Adams, Monroe, but I'm not completely convinced that Jefferson only had good intentions; the implication is generally that the other person in the argument took Jefferson's actions personally, when they weren't meant as such. You'd think he'd learn his lesson and be a little more diplomatic in his friendships after the first ones took a dive. The challenges of this book are as follows: -Lots of detailed descriptions of foreign policy situations, which were difficult to understand for someone not familiar with treaties and trade policies. -Peterson tends to jump around in time within a chapter. For example, when he starts to address the Jay Treaty, he jumps back several months to the Whiskey Rebellion, then gets back to the Jay Treaty. I really had to focus to understand what happened in what order. -Peterson also rarely includes a first name when mentioning people the second and subsequent times. This is fine for Jefferson and Washington, but when TJ is President, does "Adams" refer to John or JQ? And there are several Smiths, Pinckneys, Randolphs, and Livingstons to keep straight. I recommend taking copious notes to refer back to at each mention :-) -This is a problem with the edition I had, but TONS of typos. This is really distracting and this book does not lend itself to distraction.

  4. 4 out of 5

    John Breker

    A triumph among biographies of Thomas Jefferson. In no small undertaking, Merrill Peterson aptly captured the essence and detail of Jefferson's life in one volume. Peterson gives extensive attention to Jefferson's long public career, from Virginia legislator to U.S. President, focusing on his policy decisions and the reactions from the public and his contemporaries. The 1000-page tome is no introductory text to Jefferson or the early American period; prior knowledge of the events and actors is A triumph among biographies of Thomas Jefferson. In no small undertaking, Merrill Peterson aptly captured the essence and detail of Jefferson's life in one volume. Peterson gives extensive attention to Jefferson's long public career, from Virginia legislator to U.S. President, focusing on his policy decisions and the reactions from the public and his contemporaries. The 1000-page tome is no introductory text to Jefferson or the early American period; prior knowledge of the events and actors is recommended. For new entrants to Jefferson scholarship, I must suggest something more navigable, like American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Tim Horine

    I learned so much from this book. I have to say it wasn’t entirely what I was looking for. I would have liked to have more details about TJ’s personal life. This was a very very good telling of his roles and contributions to the start of our country. It was well written and well researched.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    This book helped me better understand the contribution of Jefferson to the New Republic. Hamilton, Madison, Monroe, and J. Q. Adams remind for me. Recommended!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kelley

    After reading 1070 pages of this biography, I SHOULD feel that I have a good understanding of Thomas Jefferson. I wish I could say that but I can't. This is the second biography (the other being Page Smith's) I've read about Jefferson, and the second which is disappointing. While I felt I gained a good understanding of many of the political events surrounding Jefferson through Peterson, I felt that Jefferson remained very illusive in terms of who he was as a man. I felt I gained a much better After reading 1070 pages of this biography, I SHOULD feel that I have a good understanding of Thomas Jefferson. I wish I could say that but I can't. This is the second biography (the other being Page Smith's) I've read about Jefferson, and the second which is disappointing. While I felt I gained a good understanding of many of the political events surrounding Jefferson through Peterson, I felt that Jefferson remained very illusive in terms of who he was as a man. I felt I gained a much better idea about him through reading McCulloch's biography of Adams or Chernow's biographies of Washington or Hamilton. I also feel that Peterson downplayed some of Jefferson's greatest failings. Chief among them was Jefferson's position on slavery, his probable relationship with Sally Hemmings (which was scarcely mentioned), and little explanation offered for how Jefferson owned 200 slaves yet Peterson presents him as someone (who almost) opposed to slavery. In fact Peterson seems to go out of his way to label Jefferson's slaves as family, servants, etc., rather than what they were really, slaves who were intended to serve as tools to enrich Jefferson and support his wealthy lifestyle. I also felt that Jefferson's key political relationships with Adams and Hamilton weren't examined sufficiently either. While they were both mentioned often, I felt it was often at a superficial level. These men were often political adversaries, who shaped Jefferson's political actions immeasurably -- something Peterson fails to capitalize on adequately. Jefferson was a consummate politician who was often ruthless (i.e., how his political venom poisoned his relationships with Adams -- until it was repaired late in their lives after their political careers were over -- and Washington) and was always opinionated. We don't see that ruthlessness much though through Peterson's pen while we do get his views on many of the key issues of the day. Additionally, Peterson's writing style was often wordy, rarely concise, and sometimes inaccessible. I continued along with this book, despite considerable flaws because I wanted to understand Jefferson better. I did accomplish that goal somewhat. But I will now be reading a third biography about him to hopefully get a better understanding of this complex man. After 1070 pages, I feel I shouldn't have to do that.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Phil

    I first read this book 35 years ago when it came out in paperback. I wondered what it would be like to read it again after 35 years of further study and the reading of many, many more books on the subject and especially on the era. I am really glad I made the decision to do so. From the notes I made in the margins of the book the first time I read it, I could tell I was having problems mentally grasping the concept of who Jefferson really was. There were too many contradictions to have to deal I first read this book 35 years ago when it came out in paperback. I wondered what it would be like to read it again after 35 years of further study and the reading of many, many more books on the subject and especially on the era. I am really glad I made the decision to do so. From the notes I made in the margins of the book the first time I read it, I could tell I was having problems mentally grasping the concept of who Jefferson really was. There were too many contradictions to have to deal with in his life, his attitude toward slavery which bordered on absolute disgust and hatred of the practice but then owning so many for so many years. His desire to be a natural philosopher and farmer and have nothing to do with politics but then his absorption into the political process of doing just that, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice-President and finally a two term President. Lastly, his belief in a small government with the states in the real driver's seat of decision making even at the federal level but then his move to make the Louisiana Purchase which basically insured (and he knew it) that the federal government would be very large and loom over the states like a sovereign king. 35 years ago these contradictions confused me. Not so much any more. We are never who we seem to be or even who we think we are. Jefferson epitomized in his life what the nation itself was becoming, something no one could have imagined. The revolutionary years made brothers of these men and building a nation tore them apart. From the heady days of the Constitutional Congress, the nation almost immediately began moving in two different directions. Federalists and large government, Republicans, small and limited government. There has been no definitive decision made yet on this issue as we now enter into the 2016 election cycle. We are still arguing about it and I think that would have pleased Jefferson. If you want to really know the man he was, this is the book for you. It is extremely well written and thoroughly researched. An added benefit to you if someway you end up with my copy is you get the additional challenge of reading my notes in the margins. I argue with my 35 year old younger self. May our arguments never end!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Craig Bolton

    Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (Galaxy Books) by Merrill D. Peterson (1986)

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mojambo

    Probably the best single volume biography of Jefferson. Takes a very forgiving stance on Jefferson and is a suitable counter-balance to some of the more critical modern Jefferson biographies.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Rosemary

    Really nice one-volume bio and I have read many.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

  13. 5 out of 5

    James Thomas

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

  15. 4 out of 5

    David

  16. 5 out of 5

    Eric

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ken Gould

  18. 5 out of 5

    John D'Alessandro

  19. 4 out of 5

    E. Paul Yarbro

  20. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Haskins

  21. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  22. 5 out of 5

    Frank J

  23. 4 out of 5

    Charles Kerns

  24. 4 out of 5

    Rob

  25. 4 out of 5

    Nathan Casebolt

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Brooks

  27. 5 out of 5

    william pauley

  28. 5 out of 5

    Nicholas Girardi

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jill

  30. 5 out of 5

    James

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