Historian Peter S. Onuf first saw the light as a Connecticut Yankee. Powerful of intellect even in his teens, he met the American Revolution as the subject of serious study in a Johns Hopkins graduate seminar (in which he was the sole undergraduate) taught by the greatest scholar of colonial America, Jack P. Greene.
Onuf's earliest work focused on the kinds of legal/constitutional topics Greene has explored best. Students interested in “independent” Vermont, the Northwest Ordinance, or any of the several other subjects on which Onuf published his early books and articles find themselves starting, and most often finishing, with what he said about them.
For the last three decades, however, Onuf focused, with important exceptions, on one general topic: Thomas Jefferson. Successor to the two preeminent Jefferson scholars, Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson, in a chair at the University of Virginia named for their subject, Onuf took to it a sensibility notably different from theirs. Where his august predecessors in writing the very best books on the third President had been at once scholarly and celebratory, at times even defensive, of Jefferson, Onuf approached his topic from what he always called a “conflicted” perspective.