At U-Va., Jefferson Scholar Examined the Links in Liberty's Legacy

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."

Merrill Daniel Peterson was born March 31, 1921, in Manhattan, Kan., and was a 1943 graduate of the University of Kansas. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he received a doctorate in American civilization from Harvard University in 1950.

Early in his career, he taught at Brandeis in Waltham, Mass., and Princeton University. At the University of Virginia, Dr. Peterson chaired the history department from 1966 to 1972 and was dean of faculty of the College of Arts & Sciences in the early 1980s.

He was noted for recruiting African American faculty members and, in 1965, made a memorable speech on the steps of the university's central building, the Rotunda, called "Sympathy for Selma."

He saw the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights marches in Selma, Ala., and throughout the South as a "link in the heritage of American liberty."

"No university in America, or in the world, has a clearer title to speak for that heritage in the present crisis than the University of Virginia," he said. In 2001, U-Va. named a professorship in Dr. Peterson's honor.

In 1997, when he was 76, Dr. Peterson joined the Peace Corps as its second-oldest volunteer and served in Armenia, where he helped develop a university curriculum. He later wrote a book about the U.S. response to the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks early in the 20th century.

His wife of 51 years, Jean Humphrey Peterson, died in 1995. Survivors include two sons, Jeffrey W. Peterson of Falls Church and Kent M. Peterson of Lenexa, Kan.; a brother; and a grandson.

In a 1995 interview with National Public Radio, Dr. Peterson described his visits to the Washington memorials of the two presidents he had studied most.

"I'm always dumbfounded by the power of the Lincoln Memorial," he said. "I have great admiration for the Jefferson Memorial. . . . But it does not move me the way the Lincoln Memorial does, and that's, you see, the difference about Lincoln. Lincoln brings up chokes in the throat or maybe even tears to the eyes."

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