Essential Books on Thomas Jefferson
There are countless books on Thomas Jefferson, and it comes with good reason, aside from serving as America’s third President (1801-1809), he was a founding father and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.
“Determine never to be idle,” he remarked. “No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time, who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done, if we are always doing.”
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of history’s most consequential figures to the heights of societal contribution, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best books on Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
Thomas Jefferson hated confrontation, and yet his understanding of power and of human nature enabled him to move men and to marshal ideas, to learn from his mistakes, and to prevail. Passionate about many things – women, his family, books, science, architecture, gardens, friends, Monticello, and Paris – Jefferson loved America most, and he strove over and over again, despite fierce opposition, to realize his vision: the creation, survival, and success of popular government in America.
Jon Meacham lets us see Jefferson’s world as Jefferson himself saw it, and to appreciate how Jefferson found the means to endure and win in the face of rife partisan division, economic uncertainty, and external threat. Drawing on archives in the United States, England, and France, as well as unpublished Jefferson presidential papers, Meacham presents Jefferson as the most successful political leader of the early republic, and perhaps in all of American history.
The father of the ideal of individual liberty, of the Louisiana Purchase, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and of the settling of the West, Jefferson recognized that the genius of humanity – and the genius of the new nation – lay in the possibility of progress, of discovering the undiscovered and seeking the unknown.
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade
When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, America faced a crisis. The new nation was deeply in debt and needed its economy to grow quickly, but its merchant ships were under attack. Pirates from North Africa’s Barbary Coast routinely captured American sailors and held them as slaves, demanding ransom and tribute payments far beyond what the new country could afford.
Over the previous 15 years, as a diplomat and then as secretary of state, Jefferson had tried to work with the Barbary states (Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco). Unfortunately, he found it impossible to negotiate with people who believed their religion justified the plunder and enslavement of non-Muslims.
These rogue states would show no mercy – at least not while easy money could be made by extorting America, France, England, and other powers. So President Jefferson decided to move beyond diplomacy. He sent the US Navy’s new warships and a detachment of marines to blockade Tripoli – launching the Barbary Wars and beginning America’s journey toward future superpower status.
American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis
For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight – and not only during his active political career. After 1809, his longed-for retirement was compromised by a steady stream of guests and tourists who made of his estate at Monticello a virtual hotel, as well as by more than one thousand letters per year, most from strangers, which he insisted on answering personally.
In his twilight years Jefferson was already taking on the luster of a national icon, which was polished off by his auspicious death (on July 4, 1826); and in the subsequent seventeen decades of his celebrity – now verging, thanks to virulent revisionists and television documentaries, on notoriety – has been inflated beyond recognition of the original person.
For the historian Joseph J. Ellis, the experience of writing about Jefferson was “as if a pathologist, just about to begin an autopsy, has discovered that the body on the operating table was still breathing.” In this gem among books on Thomas Jefferson, Ellis sifts the facts shrewdly from the legends and the rumors, treading a path between vilification and hero worship in order to formulate a plausible portrait of the man who still today “hover[s] over the political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams.”
Jefferson and Hamilton by John Ferling
The decade of the 1790s has been called the “age of passion.” Fervor ran high as rival factions battled over the course of the new republic – each side convinced that the other’s goals would betray the legacy of the Revolution so recently fought and so dearly won. All understood as well that what was at stake was not a moment’s political advantage, but the future course of the American experiment in democracy. In this epochal debate, no two figures loomed larger than Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
Both men were visionaries, but their visions of what the United States should be were diametrically opposed. Jefferson, a true revolutionary, believed passionately in individual liberty and a more egalitarian society, with a weak central government and greater powers for the states. Hamilton, a brilliant organizer and tactician, feared chaos and social disorder. He sought to build a powerful national government that could ensure the young nation’s security and drive it toward economic greatness.
This is the story of the fierce struggle – both public and, ultimately, bitterly personal – between these two titans. It ended only with the death of Hamilton in a pistol duel, felled by Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice president.
Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty by John B. Boles
John B. Boles plumbs every facet of Jefferson’s life, all while situating him amid the sweeping upheaval of his times. We meet Jefferson the politician and political thinker – as well as Jefferson the architect, scientist, bibliophile, paleontologist, musician, and gourmet. We witness him drafting the Declaration of Independence, negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, and inventing a politics that emphasized the states over the federal government – a political philosophy that shapes our national life to this day.
Boles offers new insight into Jefferson’s actions and thinking on race. His Jefferson is not a hypocrite, but a tragic figure – a man who could not hold simultaneously to his views on abolition, democracy, and patriarchal responsibility. Yet despite his flaws, Jefferson’s ideas would outlive him and make him into nothing less than the architect of American liberty.
Madison and Jefferson by Andrew Burstein
The third and fourth presidents have long been considered proper gentlemen, with Thomas Jefferson’s genius overshadowing James Madison’s judgment and common sense. But in this revelatory book about their crucial partnership, both are seen as men of their times, hardboiled operatives in a gritty world of primal politics where they struggled for supremacy for more than fifty years.
With a thrilling and unprecedented account of early America as its backdrop, this gem among books on Thomas Jefferson reveals these founding fathers as privileged young men in a land marked by tribal identities rather than a united national personality. Esteemed historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg capture Madison’s hidden role – he acted in effect as a campaign manager – in Jefferson’s career. In riveting detail, the authors chart the courses of two very different presidencies: Jefferson’s driven by force of personality, Madison’s sustained by a militancy that history has been reluctant to ascribe to him.
Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams could scarcely have come from more different worlds, or been more different in temperament. Jefferson, the optimist with enough faith in the innate goodness of his fellow man to be democracy’s champion, was an aristocratic Southern slaveowner, while Adams, the overachiever from New England’s rising middling classes, painfully aware he was no aristocrat, was a skeptic about popular rule and a defender of a more elitist view of government.
They worked closely in the crucible of revolution, crafting the Declaration of Independence and leading, with Franklin, the diplomatic effort that brought France into the fight. But ultimately, their profound differences would lead to a fundamental crisis, in their friendship and in the nation writ large, as they became the figureheads of two entirely new forces, the first American political parties. It was a bitter breach, lasting through the presidential administrations of both men, and beyond.
Jefferson and the Virginians by Peter Onuf
In Jefferson and the Virginians, renowned scholar Peter S. Onuf examines the ways in which Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Virginians – George Washington, James Madison, and Patrick Henry – both conceptualized their home state from a political and cultural perspective, and understood its position in the new American union. The conversations Onuf reconstructs offer glimpses into the struggle to define Virginia – and America – within the context of the upheaval of the Revolutionary War.
Onuf contends that Jefferson and his interlocutors sought to define Virginia’s character as a self-constituted commonwealth and to determine the state’s place in the American union during an era of constitutional change and political polarization. Thus, the outcome of the American Revolution led to ongoing controversies over the identity of Virginians and Americans as a “people” or “peoples;” over Virginia’s boundaries and jurisdiction within the union; and over the system of government in Virginia and for the states collectively.
“Those Who Labor For My Happiness” by Lucia Stanton
Our perception of life at Monticello has changed dramatically over the past quarter-century. The image of an estate presided over by a benevolent Thomas Jefferson has given way to a more complex view of Monticello as a working plantation, the success of which was made possible by the work of slaves. At the center of this transition has been the work of Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, recognized as the leading interpreter of Jefferson’s life as a planter and master and of the lives of his slaves and their descendants.
Stanton’s pioneering work deepened our understanding of Jefferson without demonizing him. But perhaps even more important is the light her writings have shed on the lives of the slaves at Monticello. Her detailed reconstruction for modern readers of slaves’ lives vividly reveals their active roles in the creation of Monticello and a dynamic community previously unimagined.
The essays collected here address a rich variety of topics, from family histories (including the Hemingses) to the temporary slave community at Jefferson’s White House to stories of former slaves’ lives after Monticello. Each piece is characterized by Stanton’s deep knowledge of her subject and by her determination to do justice to both Jefferson and his slaves.
During his remarkable lifetime, Thomas Jefferson served his country in many capacities – among them, as President of the United States. But ultimately, this great and talented man – an accomplished architect, naturalist, and linguist – wished to be remembered primarily as the author of the Declaration of Independence.
In his autobiography, begun in 1821 at the age of 77, Jefferson presents a detailed account of his young life and the period during which he wrote the Declaration. A first draft of the document is included in this edition, as are his comments on the Articles of Confederation, his experiences as a wartime governor of Virginia, minister to France and observations during the French Revolution.
Also featured here are rich remembrances and insights as Jefferson recalls his roles as Washington’s secretary of state and vice president under John Adams, and his life in retirement.
If you enjoyed this guide to books on Thomas Jefferson, be sure to check out our list of The 10 Best Books on President George Washington!