Second only to Abraham Lincoln in books written about him in the past century, Thomas Jefferson functions as a prism through which we refract our cultural questions, insecurities and aspirations. But why do we repeatedly look to our third president for cues?
"It's not any man who can become every man," says Joseph Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, in an interview. "Everyone projects his or her own convictions and values onto him."
One could say people look to Jefferson's life for foundational truths, though confirmation for many different viewpoints can be found there. "He can be different people, in different parts of his life, in different times," says Ellis. "You can find what you're looking for if you want to find it.
"He wrote the magic words of American history, and he was simultaneously a slave owner and a racist," says Ellis. "The best and worst in American history are combined in him, and that's fascinating."
Below, four recently released books examine different aspects of Jefferson's life, and their authors weigh in on what makes our third president such a compelling figure.
The Jeffersons at Shadwell
Kern's book offers new perspectives on Jefferson by examining the time spent at his boyhood home, Shadwell plantation. Drawing on account books, diaries and letters, she details day-to-day life on the farm, and how Jefferson cultivated the skills he would later apply at Monticello.
Currently a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary, Kern was an archaeologist for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and helped conduct a five-year excavation of Shadwell, which lies on land adjacent to Monticello. Many artifacts were buried after the main house burned down in 1770, and it was there that she found inspiration for her book. "It's a book that could not have been written before the archaeological excavations that we did there, so it's new material," she says. "It's a niche in the larger history of Jefferson studies."
Jefferson's Shadow: The Story of His Science
While researching a book for Monticello on Jefferson and natural history, something else occurred to him. "I realized there was not a book that discussed his general interest in science, or his ability with inventions and tinkering and whatnot.
"I discovered that historians of science don't pay attention to Jefferson, and historians of Jefferson don't pay attention to the fact that he was very interested in science," says Thomson.
Thus Jefferson's Shadow: The Story of His Science was born. The book examines how the president's passion for science intersected with his political philosophy and religion, as well as the contributions he made to the fields of geography, paleontology, climatology and scientific archeology. "Here was this extraordinary man making these contributions to science with one hand, and doing everything else with his other."
Thomson also reveals how the study of science was central to Jefferson's world view. "He got hold of it very early in his life—the importance of having facts that you can really hold on to, that you can work from. Where there were not facts, such as climate, he set out to measure the temperature every day.
"It's the vanity of the author that you can get it right," says Thomson, of trying to capture Jefferson in a book. "I've tried to put an emphasis on an aspect that other people have ignored."
Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves
"I was interested in discovering Jefferson as an on-the-ground manager," says Wiencek, "how slavery actually worked, the business of it and the financial aspects.
"It's my view that life at Monticello was harsher than we thought. When you examine the documents relating to overseers, you see that one after another, Jefferson hired and kept on his payroll overseers who were very cruel."
Drawing from new evidence and archaeological work done at Monticello, Master of the Mountain asserts that after the ideological excitement of the Revolution had died down, Jefferson started to see slavery with a more calculating eye. "Planters began to see the immense profitability," Wiencek says.
"We look to him to try to figure out how it is that we fought a revolution for universal liberty and kept slavery," says Wiencek. "Jefferson represents our notions of liberty and individual freedom, and he is also intimately tied up with the vexing legacy of slavery."
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
A comprehensive biography, the book examines Jefferson's life with an eye toward understanding him as a leader who could think like a philosopher and maneuver like a politician, as well as one who could navigate the wilds of bipartisanship.
"I thought that Jefferson's long life in the arena of practical politics—from pre-Revolutionary Virginia forward—was at once less appreciated and more interesting than many people tended to believe," says Meacham in an email interview. "My goal, then, was to capture him as a political figure, a man whose chief concern for many years was the building of coalitions to solve particular problems in particular moments."
To Meacham, the third president's complexity and the contributions he made to such a critical moment in American history account for the continued enigma. "In Jefferson we have a man whose own drama unfolded during one of the most pivotal periods in the long history of the world," says Meacham. "And so Jefferson will live on and on."