Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson

Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson (1879-1966), second Edwards Professor of American History, was born in Charlottesville and took his bachelor's and his doctor's degrees at the University of Virginia, where his grandfather, appointed librarian by Thomas Jefferson, had served for half a century.

He made his reputation with his doctoral thesis, Patrician and Plebeian in Virginia, which he followed with his Virginia under the Stuarts, and his master work, The Planters of Colonial Virginia. In all of these, his student and colleague Joseph R. Strayer has written, ``he showed the same complete honesty, historical insight, and appreciation of the role of the common man in our early history.''

Brought to Princeton as a preceptor by Woodrow Wilson in 1910, Wertenbaker was a member of the History Department for thirty-seven years and its chairman from 1928 to 1936. He encouraged good undergraduate teaching; his own course on Colonial American history, familiarly known as ``House and Garden,'' was a student favorite. He was a popular preceptor among undergraduates and in great demand for ``alumni preceptorials.'' For many years he carried, with Dana C. Munro, the major burden of graduate instruction in history and strove to advance the scholarly reputation of the department.

His three volumes, The Founding of American Civilization, ``added new dimensions of social and cultural history to what had been the standard economic-political treatment of the colonial period.'' His other works include a general history of the American people, and a history of Princeton's first one hundred and fifty years, written for the University's Bicentennial in 1946.

Wertenbaker was president of the American Historical Association and a member of the American Philosophical Society. He was twice appointed Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford and was a visiting professor at the University of G”ttingen. Even in retirement he continued to receive important appointments, e.g., as visiting professor at the University of Munich, Thomas Jefferson Research Fellow at the University of Virginia, and John Hay Whitney Professor at Hampden-Sydney College.

Besides being one of the leading historians of his time, Wertenbaker was also a newspaper editor and an amateur architect; he designed his own home in Princeton, enclosing the garden with a serpentine wall modeled after Jefferson's at the University of Virginia. A courtly gentleman and scholar, he endeared himself to generations of students and colleagues. He was even-tempered in argument with his associates and went out of his way to be helpful to younger men. ``In character and versatility,'' his faculty colleagues declared in their memorial minute, ``he was a worthy representative of his beloved Golden Age of Virginia.''

When he died, his friends established the Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker Memorial Fund for the purchase of University Library books in American colonial history.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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