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.
The martyred Lincoln's former law partner "Billy" Herndon scoured the backwoods of Illinois and Kentucky for Lincoln reminiscences of every degree of reliability, from fact to pure fancy. Herndon's endeavor (especially his unresting effort to dash sentimental notions of Lincoln's piety) became the overture to an endless process of mythologizing. Rarely has the power of myth been so cogently or interestingly inspected as it was by Peterson in Lincoln in American Memory (1994). On these two great and original works--the Lincoln study and The Jefferson Image in the American Mind--as on his one-volume Jefferson biography and his magisterial study of the Compromise of 1850--rests Merrill Peterson's reputation. It is formidable, and will endure.
A personal footnote: When the late Staige Blackford, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, asked Peterson to review one of my books (from which the opening quotation is drawn), he politely declined. I was disappointed, of course. But Peterson told Blackford that, since he had been favorably mentioned in the book, he feared being less than objective. Nothing was said about that great bugaboo, "the conflict of interest." Good historians rise well above such conflicts, which smack of personal favor and whim and do small justice to their professional standards and scruples.
For Peterson, the integrity of the past was a legacy approaching the sacred. Had he reviewed my amateur history, professional candor might have obliged him to note differences of interpretation and even an error or two; so he had to choose between friendship and history; and he chose history--rightly so. His was no frivolous or finicking scruple. It was Merrill Peterson's obeisance to the contours of the past. And that, after all, is the first obligation of a great historian.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former columnist and editor in Washington, is the author, most recently, of Lions at Lamb House.