Merrill D. Peterson, 88

Merrill D. Peterson, 88; U-Va. Scholar of Jefferson, Lincoln

Merrill D. Peterson wrote influential studies of Abraham Lincoln as well.
Merrill D. Peterson wrote influential studies of Abraham Lincoln as well. (Dan Addison -- University Of Virginia)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

Merrill D. Peterson, 88, a University of Virginia professor whose writings on Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and other figures made him a renowned historian of 19th-century America, died Sept. 23 at a retirement home in Charlottesville. He had pneumonia.

Dr. Peterson was teaching at Brandeis University when he wrote his first book, "The Jefferson Image in the American Mind" (1960), which explored the relatively new field of intellectual history by focusing less on Jefferson's life than on the wide-ranging influence of his ideas. The book won the Bancroft Prize, a prestigious award for the study of history, and helped him gain a faculty appointment in 1962 to the University of Virginia, which Jefferson had founded in 1819.

He cemented his reputation as a Jefferson scholar in 1970 with a full-fledged biography of more than 1,000 pages, "Jefferson and the New Nation."

"More than any of his great contemporaries," Dr. Peterson wrote in his book, "Jefferson had given form to the ideas, the values, even the dilemmas of the new nation, and thus involved himself with its destiny."

Writer Edwin M. Yoder Jr. praised the book in The Washington Post as "the best of many fine one-volume biographies" of Jefferson.

In later years, however, Dr. Peterson stepped away from the study of Jefferson, particularly as other scholars began to concentrate on Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings.

"He did not believe in any sexual connection between Jefferson and Sally Hemings," Paul M. Gaston, a longtime U-Va. colleague, said yesterday in an interview.

When the evidence for such a relationship became more persuasive in recent years, Gaston said, Dr. Peterson "didn't argue with it. He just distanced himself from that discussion."

Instead, he turned his attention to other historical matters, writing books on abolitionist leader John Brown, President Woodrow Wilson and 19th-century statesmen Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun.

His 1994 historical study, "Lincoln in American Memory," explored how generations of Americans have viewed the legacy of Lincoln through the veil of myth, as well as historical fact:

"As the Civil War faded into the past and new generations rose to maturity, Abraham Lincoln became -- more than an affectionate memory -- a sacred possession of the nation . . . Lincoln was not only saluted but sanctified."

The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In his review, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote, "Among the thousands upon thousands of books that have been written about this greatest of all Americans, 'Lincoln in American Memory' occupies a very high place."

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