The best books on Thomas Jefferson from a historian's view

Francis D. Cogliano Author Of Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson's Foreign Policy
By Francis D. Cogliano

Who am I?

I've spent three decades teaching the history of the United States, especially the American Revolution, to students in the UK. Invariably some students are attracted by the ideals they identify with the United States while others stress the times that the US has failed to uphold those ideals. Thomas Jefferson helped to articulate those ideals and often came up short when it came to realizing them. This has fascinated me as well as my students. I'm the author or editor of eight books on Jefferson and the American Revolution including, Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy and The Blackwell Companion to Thomas Jefferson. I'm currently completing a book about the relationship between Jefferson and George Washington.


I wrote...

Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson's Foreign Policy

By Francis D. Cogliano,

Book cover of Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson's Foreign Policy

What is my book about?

This book, the first in decades to closely examine Thomas Jefferson’s foreign policy, offers a reinterpretation of Jefferson’s attitudes and accomplishments as a statesman. Beginning with Jefferson’s disastrous stint as wartime governor of Virginia during the War of Independence and proceeding to his later roles as a diplomat in France, secretary of state, and vice president, I considered how these varied experiences shaped Jefferson’s thinking about international relations during his two terms as president. Contrary to the received wisdom, I show that Jefferson was comfortable using deadly force when he deemed it necessary and prioritized the defense of the American republic. His failures as a statesman were often the result of circumstances beyond his control, notably the weakness of the fledgling American republic in a world of warring republics.

The books I picked & why

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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

Book cover of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Why this book?

Gordon-Reed’s 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, was a paradigm-shifting landmark that examined the different ways that historians had used the existing evidence for a relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved. The next year DNA testing confirmed a genetic link between Jefferson and one of Hemings’s children. In The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed provides the most complete study we have of the many complicated relationships between the Hemings and Jefferson families.

It is a beautifully written, deeply-researched account that demonstrates, among other things, the degree to which slavery imprecated all aspects of Jefferson’s life. Most importantly, Gordon-Reed centers the Hemings family, not just Sally, in this book. We see them playing key roles in many aspects of life at Monticello making Jefferson’s mountaintop home was their mountaintop home. This is the book I recommend to everyone interested in Jefferson to start with. It’s a book I often return to.

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Hemingses of Monticello as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This epic work-named a best book of the year by the Washington Post, Time, the Los Angeles Times, Amazon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a notable book by the New York Times-tells the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president had been systematically expunged from American history until very recently. Now, historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed traces the Hemings family from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to the family's dispersal after Jefferson's death in 1826.


Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello

By Andrew Burstein,

Book cover of Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello

Why this book?

Beginning with Jefferson’s death in 1826 Burstein seeks to answer some of the most vexing questions that confronted Jefferson (and have preoccupied historians) including the consequences of mortality, the nature of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s attempts to reconcile his dependence on slavery with his belief in liberty, and his attitudes toward women. Drawing on a subtle and sophisticated study of Jefferson’s library and his reading habits, Burstein offers an original and engaging book that helps us to understand Jefferson’s heart by studying the thoughts in his head. A remarkable book.

Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello

By Andrew Burstein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jefferson's Secrets as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, he left behind a series of mysteries that have captured the imaginations of historical investigators for generations. In Jefferson's Secrets, Andrew Burstein draws on sources previous biographers have glossed over or missed entirely. Beginning with Jefferson's last days, Burstein shows how Jefferson confronted his own mortality. Burstein also tackles the crucial questions history has yet to answer: Did Jefferson love Sally Hemings? What were his attitudes towards women? Did he believe in God? How did he wish to be remembered? The result is a profound and nuanced portrait of the most complex…


The Women Jefferson Loved

By Virginia Scharff,

Book cover of The Women Jefferson Loved

Why this book?

The study of Jefferson has been dominated by men and has largely focused on politics and Jefferson’s relationships with men. Scharff presents an alternative perspective. She focuses on the women in Jefferson’s life—his mother, sisters, wife, sisters-in-law, daughters, granddaughters, and the enslaved mother of his mixed-race children. The result is an original entry in the vast corpus of books on Jefferson. It’s beautifully written, imbued with sympathy for its subjects. Scharff offers a new perspective on Jefferson but also sheds light on the varied experiences of women of different races and classes in early America. The result is a study about much more than a “Founding Father.”  

The Women Jefferson Loved

By Virginia Scharff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Women Jefferson Loved as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A focused, fresh spin on Jeffersonian biography.” —Kirkus Reviews

In the tradition of Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello and David McCullough’s John Adams, historian Virginia Scharff offers a compelling, highly readable multi-generational biography revealing how the women Thomas Jefferson loved shaped the third president’s ideas and his vision for the nation. Scharff creates a nuanced portrait of the preeminent founding father, examining Jefferson through the eyes of the women who were closest to him, from his mother to his wife and daughters to Sally Hemings and the slave family he began with her.


Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood

By Peter S. Onuf,

Book cover of Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood

Why this book?

Onuf, who held the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Chair at the University of Virginia, is the most accomplished student of Jefferson’s thought. In Jefferson’s Empire, Onuf interrogates Jefferson’s thinking about the meaning of the American Revolution. He places Jefferson’s thinking in the context of the Enlightenment showing that his vision of the American future arose from his idealized notions of nationhood and empire. Rather than see the US as the antithesis of empire, Onuf shows that Jefferson believed that Americans should craft a new form of republican empire that he believed would be a model for the rest of the world. Onuf recognizes, as Jefferson didn’t, that this vision depended on enslaved labor and the displacement of Indigenous people and he explores these contradictions. Onuf’s reading of the Declaration of Independence transformed my own thinking about that foundational document.   

Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood

By Peter S. Onuf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jefferson's Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Thomas Jefferson believed that the American revolution was a transformative moment in the history of political civilization. He hoped that his own efforts as a founding statesman and theorist would help construct a progressive and enlightened order for the new American nation that would be a model and inspiration for the world. Peter S. Onuf's new book traces Jefferson's vision of the American future to its roots in his idealized notions of nationhood and empire. Onuf's unsettling recognition that Jefferson's famed egalitarianism was elaborated in an imperial context yields strikingly original interpretations of our national identity and our ideas of…


The Jefferson Image in the American Mind

By Merrill D. Peterson,

Book cover of The Jefferson Image in the American Mind

Why this book?

Peterson was Peter Onuf’s predecessor as the Thomas Jefferson Chair at the University of Virginia. He was the author of two landmark studies of Jefferson—a one-volume biography, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, probably the best single-volume biography of Jefferson, and The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. In The Jefferson Image, Peterson traces the history of Jefferson’s reputation from his death on July 4, 1826 until Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Jefferson Memorial on April 13, 1943. He shows that in death, as in life, Jefferson and his beliefs remained at the center of debates over what it means to be an American. This is an astounding work of intellectual and cultural history and deep erudition. Peterson concluded that by 1943 Jefferson had come to embody the nation’s ideals. Of course subsequent historians, as evidenced by this list, have continued to revisit and revise Jefferson.

The Jefferson Image in the American Mind

By Merrill D. Peterson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Jefferson Image in the American Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since its publication in 1960, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind has become a classic of historical scholarship. In it Merrill D. Peterson charts Thomas Jefferson's influence upon American thought and imagination since his death in 1826. Peterson's focus is "not primarily with the truth or falsity of the image either as a whole or in its parts, but rather with its illuminations of the evolving culture and its shaping power. It is posterity's configuration of Jefferson. Even more, however, it is a sensitive reflector, through several generations, of America's troubled search of the image of itself."

In a…


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