Merrill D. Peterson is one of the most noted scholars alive on the life and thought of Thomas Jefferson. A professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia, he has written or edited 37 books, including Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography, which was first published in 1975. Though more than 1,000 pages in length, it remains one of the most thorough and compelling single-volume biographies of Jefferson available. No surprise: Very few scholars have spent as much time as Peterson attempting to understand the fundamental ideas that influenced Jefferson’s concept of liberty and his importance to the American concept of democracy. His grasp of Jefferson as a thinker, political figure, human being, and occasional “living contradiction” is impressive, as a PBS interview in conjunction with Ken Burns’ 1996 documentary on the third president revealed.
For readers interested in the Declaration of Independence and its significance, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation examines how Jefferson formulated the words that defined the United States. He answers basic questions: What was Jefferson’s concept of liberty? Why did an aristocrat who often had doubts about the capacity of people to govern themselves become a revolutionary for the idea that ordinary people could govern themselves? How did his vision of a republican form of government compare with the ideals of self-government he described in the Declaration? What were his philosophy of revolution and his philosophy of nationalism? (Both are certainly influences that shaped the purpose of the Declaration.) Certainly, the book examines Jefferson’s life and thought as a whole, but the book does live up to its name. Peterson examines Jefferson, his relationship to a new nation called the United States, and the principles of democracy he helped establish in a way that allows the reader to comprehend one of the nation’s most gifted political minds.
One passage of the book captures Peterson’s ability to explain the importance of the Declaration to world at large:
Jefferson managed to compress a cosmology, a political philosophy, a national creed into the second paragraph of the Declaration. This was a triumph. It raised the American cause above parochialism, above history, and united it with the cause of mankind. A philosophy of human rights attained timeless symbolization in words that inspired action; action became thought and thought became action. It was, as Hannah Arendt has said, “one of the rare moments in history when the power of action is great enough to erect its own monument.” (pp. 90-91)
Though published more than two decades ago, Peterson’s scholarship in Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography remains one of the best lenses through which Thomas Jefferson’s words can be examined for clearer understanding.