The Jeffersons at Shadwell Susan Kern

The Lamar Series in Western History
Publication date:
04 Dec 2012
Yale University Press
320 pages: 229 x 148mm
56 b-w illus.
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An original study of Shadwell, Thomas Jefferson's boyhood home, providing new insights into the founding father’s formative years

Merging archaeology, material culture, and social history, historian Susan Kern reveals the fascinating story of Shadwell, the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson and home to his parents, Jane and Peter Jefferson, their eight children, and over sixty slaves. Located in present-day Albemarle County, Virginia, Shadwell was at the time considered "the frontier." However, Kern demonstrates that Shadwell was no crude log cabin; it was, in fact, a well-appointed gentry house full of fashionable goods, located at the center of a substantial plantation.

Kern’s scholarship offers new views of the family’s role in settling Virginia as well as new perspectives on Thomas Jefferson himself. By examining a variety of sources, including account books, diaries, and letters, Kern re-creates in rich detail the daily lives of the Jeffersons at Shadwell—from Jane Jefferson’s cultivation of a learned and cultured household to Peter Jefferson’s extensive business network and oversight of a thriving plantation.

Shadwell was Thomas Jefferson’s patrimony, but Kern asserts that his real legacy there came from his parents, who cultivated the strong social connections that would later open doors for their children. At Shadwell, Jefferson learned the importance of fostering relationships with slaves, laborers, and powerful office holders, as well as the hierarchical structure of large plantations, which he later applied at Monticello. The story of Shadwell affects how we interpret much of what we know about Thomas Jefferson today, and Kern’s fascinating book is sure to become the standard work on Jefferson's early years.

Susan Kern is currently visiting assistant professor of history at the College of William and Mary. She lives in Virginia.

“Kern’s re-creation of the daily routines at Shadwell is both painstaking and path-breaking. All future students of Jefferson will turn to this as the standard account of his childhood world.”—Lauren Winner, Duke University


"In this ground-breaking and original work, Susan Kern marvelously re-creates the lost world that gave us one of the most important Americans who ever lived. Kern's research is impeccable, her writing fluid, and no one will ever again be able to consider Jefferson without taking this terrific book into account. A great achievement."--Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston

"A scholarly portrait of life in the pre-revolutionary South that overturns some popular perceptions and historians' views . . . . [Kern] provides an intensely fact-based account of the young Jefferson's 'well-ordered, well-connected world.'"—Publishers Weekly

"[A] vivid account of life at Jefferson's boyhood home."—John E. Dockall, Library Journal

Winner of the 2011 Richard Slatten Award for Excellence in Virginian Biography, sponsored by the Virginia Historical Society

“[A] fine book . . . a learned and skillfully crafted portrayal of Shadwell . . . a fascinating story . . . a wonderfully rich narrative of eighteenth-century life .”—Barbara B. Oberg, William and Mary Quarterly

Winner of the 2011 Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize given by the Vernacular Architecture Forum