Forty years later Paul Leicester Ford brought out a fuller, more professional edition of Jefferson’s papers, but Ford, a crusty Northern conservative, lacked the political imagination to grasp that Jefferson’s presidency might actually have had merit. Writing when Jefferson’s reputation was at its post-Civil War nadir, Ford retailed every nasty thing that had ever been said about Jefferson, telling readers that his subject had been charged with “contradictions and instability,” with “hypocrisy, opportunism, and even lack of any political principles,” to the embarrassment of “his most devoted adherents.”
Not counting himself a devoted adherent, Ford struggled to account for Jefferson’s success, finally conceding that the people in some subtle way had understood him and realized that his controlling aim was neither national independence nor state sovereignty, but rather to secure for them “the ever enduring privilege of personal freedom.”
Jefferson’s luck turned when the publishing family of the New York Times and Princeton University underwrote an edition of his voluminous collections of letters, reports, speeches and legislative notes. With former Princeton librarian Julian Boyd at the helm, this edition set the standard for all subsequent editions of presidential papers.
With tens of thousands of items and pamphlet-length notes that became the hallmark of Boyd’s editorship, progress was slow. The first volume appeared in 1950, and now, three editors and 62 years later, the series has finally reached Jefferson’s presidency.
In the half-century between the Ford and Boyd volumes, Jefferson’s reputation recovered much of its luster. With the Democratic Party eager to claim him as a founder, Congress in 1943 established the Jefferson Bicentennial Commission and celebrated his 200th birthday by breaking ground on a Jefferson Memorial in the capital. The democratic ideals Jefferson articulated became the goals behind America’s war effort.
Since then, biographies of Jefferson have abounded. Those biographers born north of the Mason-Dixon line, particularly in Massachusetts, have leavened the loaf of praise, showing less tolerance for the slaveholder who provocatively yoked equality and liberty in the Declaration of Independence. Jon Meacham, a newcomer to the group, hails from the border state of Tennessee, which may account for his appreciative treatment of Jefferson’s life. Meacham, who has written best-selling biographies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”