Founding Father: Friend or Foe?

Historian releases book examining Thomas Jefferson’s reputation during his own time. 

Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time, by Robert M.S. McDonald.  

Photo courtesy of University of Virginia Press

The third U.S. president was a jack of many trades (architecture, gardening and more), not to mention being the founder of the University of Virginia, and throughout history has been renowned far and wide for his contributions to society. But what about his reputation during his life? How was he perceived by his colleagues, his political opponents and the general public while he was alive?

A new book, Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image In His Own Time, written by Robert M.S. McDonald and published by the University of Virginia Press, addresses exactly that. McDonald, a history professor at the United States Military Academy who attended UVA as an undergrad, delves deep into the ever-polarized public opinion around the man. Described in the book as “a man with a manner so mild some described it as meek,” Jefferson became a contentious figure in his time, with followers and supporters who lauded his every move as well as detractors like Martha Washington who called him “one of the most detestable of mankind.”

The book covers every element of Jefferson’s life from his views on religion and politics to race and sex. It examines the deep affection or detestation the public held for him as evidenced by the festivals held in his honor and the celebratory reactions to a newspaper’s false rumor in 1800 that he (then president) had died. The book is a scholar’s invitation to decide for yourself whether Mr. Jefferson was a charismatic renaissance man or a radical demagogue.  

McDonald will give a talk about his book, free to the public, Thursday, Oct. 6 in the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Reading Room at the Jefferson Library.

The 238-page book, published in August 2016, is available in both hardcover and ebook for $29.95. UPress.Virginia.edu, Monticello.org/Events 

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