Jefferson Scholar Merrill D. Peterson Dies at 88

September 25, 2009 — Merrill D. Peterson, the noted Jeffersonian scholar who was a University of Virginia history professor, former chairman of the History Department and dean of the faculty of the College of Arts & Sciences, died Sept. 23 in Charlottesville. He was 88.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Rotunda Room of Westminster Canterbury of the Blue Ridge.

Peterson wrote or edited 37 books. A noted Jeffersonian scholar, he was the editor of the Library of America edition of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. His 1994 study of Abraham Lincoln, "Lincoln in American Memory," was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in history. For his dedication to scholarship and writing, the Library of Virginia honored him in 2005 with its Literary Lifetime Achievement Award. Among his many other awards was a Guggenheim fellowship in 1962-63.

At the age of 76, he joined the Peace Corps. The time he spent in Armenia resulted in a book, "Starving Armenians: America and the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1930 and After."

Peterson grew up in a family that prized education. His mother opened a boarding house to support her family, rearing her three sons in close proximity to Kansas State University so they could receive a college education.

While his brothers attended Kansas State, Peterson chose to attend the University of Kansas in Lawrence. World War II broke out while Peterson was working on a bachelor's degree in political science. He took summer classes to accelerate his graduation and in January of 1943 received his degree. He and his mother moved to North Adams, Mass., to await his call to duty.

By night, Peterson worked as a soda jerk and fry cook; by day he could be found at nearby Williams College, listening to lectures by distinguished scholars simply for his own enrichment.

A few months later, he was drafted and sent to Chicago's Navy Pier on Lake Michigan. It was there that he noticed a simple flier on a bulletin board that would change his life.

It was an announcement for a 12-month training course for the U.S. Navy Supply Corps at the Harvard Business School. Peterson jumped on the opportunity. He applied, was accepted, and soon shipped out to Cambridge.

In 1944, between tours of duty in the South Atlantic, Mediterranean and South Pacific, he married the former Jean Humphrey; they had been married 51 years when she died in 1995. After his discharge in January 1946, he entered a new doctoral program in American civilization at Harvard University.

It was there that he encountered Thomas Jefferson, the subject who would define his career. Peterson came up with an innovative approach to the study of Jefferson: he traced Jefferson's influence on American thought and imagination since his death in 1826. Peterson's doctoral dissertation would become the foundation for his first critically acclaimed book.

"The most important thing in my education was my dissertation," he said in 2005. "If I had any words of wisdom for Ph.D. students in history, it would be that the most important thing that they will do is select a dissertation subject, as it could potentially set the stage for their careers."

In 1950, he received his doctorate and began to teach American history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Five years later, he accepted a three-year appointment at Princeton that included time to revise his dissertation. He jumped at the chance, and moved his wife and young son Jeffrey to Princeton, where their second son Kent was born.

In 1960, "The Jefferson Image in the American Mind" was published. It won the Bancroft Prize, awarded to authors of distinguished work in American history, and established Peterson as a Jeffersonian scholar.

After his stint at Princeton, Peterson and his family returned to Brandeis where he taught for five more years.

Then-U.Va. President Edgar Shannon was looking for a Jefferson scholar to replace Dumas Malone, who was up against the mandatory retirement age of 70. Peterson was interested. "Once I got to U.Va., I never wanted to leave," he said.

During his second year at U.Va., his colleagues asked him to head the history department. He served as chairman for five years, then accepted a yearlong fellowship in Palo Alto, Calif., to finish his second book, "Jefferson and the New Nation" (1970) which he considered his most important book.

Upon his return, he chaired the department for two more years before returning to full-time teaching. He also served as dean of faculty of the College of Arts & Sciences for four years.

A long-time friend and fellow teacher, Paul Gaston, credited Peterson with pioneering the recruitment of black faculty at a turbulent time in Virginia history. His speech during a 1965 "Sympathy for Selma" civil rights march, Gaston recalled in 2005, "was one of the greatest speeches that has ever been made on the steps of the Rotunda."

"He linked Jefferson's principles and legacy of freedom to the Civil Rights Movement," Gaston said. "It really made me proud to know him."

Survivors include two sons, Jeffrey W. Peterson of Falls Church and Kent M. Peterson of Lenexa, Kansas, and a grandchild, James W. Peterson.

— By Marian Anderfuren