Thomas Jefferson has not lacked for biographers and editors, or fans and detractors. Even though Jefferson meticulously saved his papers, he was singularly unlucky in his first editors.
The published papers of the founding fathers served as the bedrock for the first accounts of American nation-building, starting with John Marshall’s “Life of George Washington” in 1803. Whereas an admiring grandson of his great rival, John Adams, saw Adams’s papers into press, Jefferson’s initial editor tampered with his manuscripts, omitted important items and studded the nine volumes with conspicuous inaccuracies. A man who hated contention, Jefferson has remained a controversial figure from the time he left the presidency.
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.”