The Magazine

Scholar-Craftsman

Merrill Peterson, 1921-2009.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), Merrill Peterson of the University of Virginia patented a new kind of history--the history of a great reputation. Peterson traced the "image" of Jefferson as it evolved and showed that Jefferson had been a mirror in which each age saw itself reflected . . . [as] the touchstone of democratic legitimacy. Thirty-five years later, Peterson added an illuminating companion piece, Lincoln in American Memory. . . . From the outset, as Peterson
showed, the problem of distinguishing the cultic from the historical has been almost as formidable in Lincoln's case as Albert Schweitzer found it to be when, a century ago, he conducted his "quest for the historical Jesus."

I wrote those words more than a decade ago, and there is no reason to qualify them at Merrill Peterson's death at the age of 88 in Charlottesville, where he served for decades as professor of history.

Peterson was one of a magisterial cadre of 20th-century American historians (including C. Vann Woodward, David Donald, and David
Potter), most of whom happened to be specialists in Southern history. He himself was a tall, genial Kansan by origin; but his translation to the University of Virginia in mid-career anointed him, by association, as a sort of honorary Southerner.

That, in turn, exposed him to an ironic hazard. He was one of two great Jefferson biographers--the other was Dumas Malone--who were occasionally caricatured as a "Charlottesville mafia," fiercely defending Jefferson from imputations of an improper sexual relationship. To know Merrill Peterson even slightly, as I did, was to see the absurdity of the caricature, not less in his case than in Malone's. They did not care about the possible clay feet. They cared about evidence. And yet the canard persisted. At Peterson's death a colleague in the University of Virginia history department told the Washington Post that, as supposed "evidence" of Jefferson's liaison with Sally Hemings grew, Peterson "didn't argue with it. He just distanced himself from that discussion."

My own guess about that "distancing" is this: Peterson knew that historical inquiry rarely, if ever, lends itself to demonstrating negatives. I imagine that it was that conviction that led him to ignore the unfolding Hemings controversy. But thereby hung the irony. For Peterson was, indeed, one of the authoritative guardians--one might even say modern creators--of what he called (in the title of his Bancroft Prize masterwork) "the
Jefferson image in the American mind." No one had more carefully examined Jefferson's life and influence or the mysterious processes by which national heroes take on a nimbus of mixed worship and detraction.

Which is to say that his specialty was the evolution and power of ideas--the ideas that Jefferson and Lincoln generated, as well as the ideas their countrymen later came to entertain about their ultimate significance. Intellectual history, so-called, has been out of fashion lately, especially among apostles of "bottom-up" social history--who are almost invariably devoted to some form of determinism. Yet ideas, far more than social or economic forces, are often the chief propellant of human history, as Keynes insisted when he wrote in The General Theory that "the world is governed by little else."

Merrill Peterson's brand of the history of ideas required its practitioners to delve into the caprices of popular memory. Jefferson was the great ideologue of democracy, eventually claimed as Founder by nearly every shade and school of political opinion--with the proving exception of Jefferson's original Federalist foes. Those who remembered Jefferson as the prophet of human equality could cite his Declaration of Independence (as Lincoln did at Gettysburg); the would-be Confederate states with which Lincoln was at war could view the Jefferson of the Virginia Resolution of 1798 as the prophet of "interposition," even secession. What
Jefferson himself would have thought of these ultimate evolutions of his thought none can say.