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Jefferson’s judgment


Merrill Peterson, a historian, noted this in his classic study The Jefferson Image in American Mind (1960) The popular image that Thomas Jefferson is known for has been through many variations over the years. Peterson, in his introduction to the 1998 book’s reprinting, pointed out the continued interest in Jefferson in films, documentaries, historical fiction, and movies. He also highlighted the Library of Congress’s renaming and an exhibition at National Gallery of Art. Also, the pre-inaugural pilgrimage of President-elect William Jefferson Clinton to Monticello and Sotheby’s record-setting auction of a Jefferson correspondence. Jefferson’s portrait had undergone changes over time in response to changing political currents. This was largely because of rival claimants for his image as a champion and champion of equality and liberty, not Jefferson’s merits.

In the quarter century that has passed since Peterson wrote his introduction, this image has been transformed dramatically. Already after Peterson’s introduction, there were stains on Jefferson’s liberal and egalitarian image. This was triggered by Leonard Levy’s 1963 challenge (by Jefferson himself) to Jefferson’s…

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