Merrill Peterson, Jefferson scholar, dies at 88





Merrill D. Peterson, a noted Thomas Jefferson scholar and University of Virginia history professor, died Wednesday in Charlottesville.

He was 88.

Peterson was author or editor of 37 books, including the definitive Library of America edition of the writings of Thomas Jefferson and a 1994 study of Abraham Lincoln titled “Lincoln in American Memory” that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

UVa’s Board of Visitors established a professorship in his name eight years ago, calling him “without a doubt the most distinguished living Jefferson scholar in the country.”

Peterson’s scholarly work focused primarily on Jefferson and what he called the “second generation of American statesmen,” as well as on Lincoln and his place in “American thought and imagination.”

His first book, “The Jefferson Image in the American Mind,” won the Bancroft Prize — one of the most prestigious awards in American history — in 1961.

His second book, which Peterson considered his best, was a biography of Jefferson called “Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation.”

“His one-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson is still considered among the very best that have ever been written on our university’s founder,” Edward Ayers, a historian and former dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, said in 2005.

Peterson’s son, Jeffrey W. Peterson of Falls Church, said: “He had a real consciousness of the importance of American democracy and how individuals can make an important contribution to that.”...

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