May 14, 2003: Features

Above, portrait of Thomas Jefferson, after an original painting by Alonzo Chappel. Undated engraving. (Bettmann/corbis)

Below: The Jefferson researchers — and a bust of their subject— in Firestone Library. The Jefferson papers team: from left, senior associate editors James McClure and Elaine Pascu, research associate John Little, general editor Barbara Oberg, associate editor Martha King, and editorial assistant Linda Monaco. (Ricardo Barros)

Former Jefferson papers editor Julian P. Boyd. (Princeton University Archives)

History, letter by letter
Princeton researchers have been compiling the papers of Thomas Jefferson
for 60 years. Twenty-three more to go.

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83

To flip through the pages of the most recent volume of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, published this spring by the Princeton University Press, is to find a very busy man. There, late in the year 1798, one sees the vice president of the United States writing on affairs of state. Turn the page and one finds the leader of a nascent political party criticizing the incumbent administration. On one page, he receives thanks from the British Board of Agriculture for a shipment of Virginia wheat. On the next, he seeks help collecting some debts so he might have pocket money. A day later, he sets forth a long course of reading for a young protégé, including books on mathematics, moral philosophy, law, fine arts, and “politicks.” Traveling from Monticello back to the capital in Philadelphia, he corresponds with his daughter, reminds his son-in-law to lend another friend a book, and sifts through accounts of the latest political intrigues from James Madison, all while preparing for a possible war with revolutionary France.

And that is just in the month of December.

The latest installment of Jefferson’s papers, which covers all of 1798 and the first month of 1799, is the product of the Jefferson papers project, which operates in a few unremarkable-looking rooms on the C floor of Firestone Library. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of that project; even under hopeful estimates it will not be finished for another 23 years. So far, 35 volumes have been published: five in a topical series and now the 30th in a chronological series. When complete, the project will encompass 75 volumes, containing approximately 20,000 letters written by Jefferson and another 30,000 received by him, as well as all his public papers and many of their drafts.

The goal of the Jefferson papers project, says senior research historian Barbara Oberg, its current editor, is “to make available to the public in authoritative form the text of all documents Jefferson wrote or received that bear some imprint of his mind.” The systematic achievement of that goal has won commendation ever since the first volume of the series was published in 1950.

“I can’t praise the papers highly enough,” says Jefferson biographer Joyce Appleby, a professor at U.C.L.A. “They’ve set the standard.”

Professor Gordon S. Wood of Brown, who has won both the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes for books on early American history, echoes Appleby, saying that the papers are “of immense value, not only to the present, but for years to come. This project is not going to have to be done again.”

Excerpts of Jefferson’s papers have been published before. Four collections were produced between 1829 and 1904, but all were highly selective in terms of what they included and were full of typographical errors and garbled transcriptions. “People picked and chose the letters they thought were interesting or that created for them the Jefferson they wanted,” Oberg explains. None of the earlier collections included Jefferson’s incoming correspondence.

The shelves of the offices Oberg and her five collegues occupy in Firestone are lined with more than 70,000 photocopies of everything in existence that Thomas Jefferson wrote or received, sometimes in multiple version, and important letters and documents about him. Those documents are drawn from more than 900 repositories around the world, including the Library of Congress, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the University of Virginia, which hold the largest collections of original Jefferson papers. Others, however, come from libraries as far away as Paris, London, and Moscow, and even at this late date calls come in from auction houses and autograph dealers when a previously unknown piece of Jeffersoniana surfaces. In terms of completeness, organization, and legibility, the photocopies in Firestone comprise the world’s largest collection of Jefferson’s papers.

That collection, which is slowly and painstakingly being presented to the public, is filling in a portrait of the country’s greatest political philosopher, one that heretofore had been remarkably incomplete. Before the Jefferson project got under way in 1943, no more than 20 percent of Jefferson’s papers ever had been published in any form, and a significant percentage of his public papers never had been made available. If that comes as a surprise, Oberg is less diplomatic.

“It’s a national disgrace that the papers of the Founding Fathers are not available at the beginning of the 21st century,” she says.

The process for assembling such a body of material is a collaborative one, as Oberg freely admits. It is collaboration on three levels: among the current staff of historians, between the staff members and their predecessors, and finally between the staff and Jefferson himself. The “sage of Monticello,” it seems, was an editor’s dream.

For one thing, “Jefferson’s handwriting is incredibly wonderful,” Oberg says, no small praise when there are tens of thousands of documents to decipher. “It’s the people who write to him that cause the problems.” According to associate editor James McClure, James Monroe, the fifth president of the U.S. and Jefferson’s Charlottesville neighbor, is one correspondent whose writing frequently was illegible. Nevertheless, there are quirks of the Jefferson style that must be accommodated. He usually did not capitalize the first word in a sentence, and even in an age when spelling was not standardized, Jefferson stuck to his own idiosyncratic formulae.

Jefferson was meticulously organized, keeping for most of his adult life a Summary Journal of Letters (S.J.L.) in which he tracked every letter he wrote or received. Jefferson also copied many of his letters, both by means of a mechanical copying device and also by a letterpress, which produced duplicates by pressing a thin sheet of tissue paper upon the original letter while the ink was still wet. If a letter was important and he was too busy to use the letterpress, Jefferson sometimes re-created what he had written after the fact, with a surprisingly accurate memory.

If the current editors work daily with Jefferson himself, they also work almost as closely with their predecessors on this project, chiefly former Princeton librarian Julian Parks Boyd.

A South Carolinian descended from the planter society that Jefferson knew so well, Boyd made his reputation as a historian and editor before coming to Princeton in 1940. Among Boyd’s many achievements while at the University, he was instrumental in designing Firestone Library and spoke out against attempts to curb freedom of the press, activities which Jefferson certainly would have approved. He also led an effort to preserve the site of the Battle of Hastings, for which he was named an honorary Commander of the Most Honorable Order of the British Empire. That, however, was a distinction the Anglophobe Jefferson certainly would not have approved.

Boyd conceived the Jefferson Papers project in 1943 while serving as historian of the Thomas Jefferson Bicentennial Commission. Spurred by a $200,000 contribution from the New York Times, the project formally got under way the following year when Boyd was hired as its editor. He would remain the project’s driving force until his death in 1980.

Boyd’s fingerprints, so to speak, remain all over the documents. He assembled the cabinets full of index cards, which the staff still uses, tracking every document both chronologically and by name. A blue card means that a letter is listed on Jefferson’s S.J.L. but no copy of the document itself has been found. For all the researchers’ efforts, a few chunks of Jefferson’s documentary life are lost to history. A fire at his birthplace destroyed all his early papers, and Jefferson deliberately burned his correspondence to and from his wife after her death in 1782. Other letters simply have been lost or destroyed over the centuries, although those gaps, too, are noted in the published volumes.

Boyd also supervised the copying of almost all the documents in the series. Some of the photocopies the current staff consults date back to shortly after the end of World War II, although if the original copy of a document is at the Library of Congress, the editors can now check its image on the Internet. Each letter or document was given its own folder, many of which are now brittle with age.

Oberg, who is a member of the faculty just as Boyd had been, continued Boyd’s standards when she arrived at Princeton four years ago as the project’s fourth editor, following 12 years editing the Benjamin Franklin papers at Yale and five editing the Albert Gallatin papers at Baruch College. It was in 1979, as a fledgling editor working on the papers of Florentine merchant, surgeon, and horticulturalist Philip Mazzei at Fairleigh Dickinson University, that she first ventured to Firestone Library to do some research on early correspondence between Mazzei and Jefferson and called on Boyd, who occupied the very office Oberg herself now uses.

“He was very intent on his work,” she recalls. “He didn’t have a lot of time to chat.”

Although Boyd had most of the handwritten Jefferson documents transcribed in the 1950s, Oberg and her colleagues continue to check and recheck those transcriptions word for word, as well as trying to determine what sort of document each one is, its date, and its source. Frequently, they will come across notes made decades ago by one of their predecessors, often by Boyd himself. Frequently, too, they will leave a note, explaining something they have discovered, in one of folders that their successors, working on subsequent volumes, will discover a decade or two from now.

Oberg also has made some changes to the project. She has begun, for example, to include translations of letters written in foreign languages, which begin to appear more frequently in the volumes covering Jefferson’s years as secretary of state. To speed up the project, Princeton collaborated with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to transfer responsibility for Jefferson’s postpresidential papers to an editorial team at Monticello. Those volumes will continue to be published by Princeton University Press.

One casualty over the years seems to have been accuracy in predicting how long the Jefferson project would take. A 1943 article in PAW stated that the series would comprise 35 to 40 volumes and take 10 to 15 years to complete. By 1952 that estimate had been revised upward to include 52 volumes over 20 years. Today, 35 volumes and 60 years since it started, the project still has another 40 volumes to go and Oberg says she hopes the project will be finished by July 4, 2026, the bicentennial of Jefferson’s death. Those who have labored on the project, in other words, have found themselves crawling through Jefferson’s life in something very close to real time.

One reason the number of volumes has grown and the time to produce them has lengthened is because of the number and extent of the annotations provided, but it is those annotations that give the books their depth. Boyd, one of the preeminent Jefferson scholars of the 20th century, insisted on writing copious annotations to many of the documents in order to put them in context. One such annotation, which follows a letter written by Jefferson in 1791 complaining about the Senate’s refusal to go into mourning upon the death of Benjamin Franklin, covers 30 pages of small type.

“People wanted both speed and the notes,” Oberg says, defending Boyd. “That’s the trade-off.” Though she has shortened the notes, they remain, as she calls them, “mini-articles,” presented to help the reader understand the document in question. Not only do the notes explain the source of the letter and perhaps some background about the recipient, they indicate where Jefferson made revisions or emendations.

As complete as the volumes are, they do not include the many documents that simply crossed Jefferson’s desk and upon which he took no action – commissions, routine reports, and the like – though they do include almost everything else. And even the most mundane details can provide fascinating insights.

“People have often said, ‘Well, you don’t mean you’re going to publish every laundry list.’ But of course that’s exactly what social historians are fascinated by,” Oberg says. “The laundry list is quite interesting.” Although the latest volume does not include any laundry lists, it does include, for example, a list of Jefferson’s monthly expenses while living in Philadelphia, including notes on where to get a good meal: “Bossée (Fifth Street) will furnish a soupe, two dishes of meat . . . (of which one may be Bouillie [stewed beef] if desired) and two dishes of vegetables for one person, two dollars a day, per week.” As the list suggests, Jefferson was chronically short of money, despite tracking his expenditures with the same scrupulous attention with which he tracked his mail.

“He did keep track of every penny he spent,” Oberg says, laughing. “The trouble is, he never added it up.”

If John Adams was, in historian Joseph Ellis’s phrase, a “passionate sage,” the Jefferson that comes across in these papers is much more dispassionate. “His letters to his daughters make me very sad,” Oberg says. “He is very restrained, controlling.” A typical letter from Jefferson to his daughter Martha in early 1799 begins with some rather transparent nagging: “The object of this letter, my very dear Martha, is merely to inform you I am well, and to convey to you the expressions of my love. It will not be new to tell you that your letters do not come as often as I could wish.” Also amidst Jefferson’s correspondence in the 13 months covered by the current volume is a letter in which he thanks his son-in-law for disciplining slaves caught growing tobacco in their own small gardens. “I have ever found it necessary to confine them to such articles as are not raised for the farm,” he writes. “There is no other way of drawing a line between what is theirs and mine.”

Although the volumes contain much material never before seen by scholars, they contain few of what the casual reader might call bombshells. Oberg says we are unlikely, for example, to find correspondence in subsequent volumes about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, simply because that was not the sort of thing likely to be addressed in a letter. Rather the revelations, particularly about the fine points of Jefferson’s political philosophy, come in the details, between the lines. By meticulously noting all of Jefferson’s revisions, one can gain insights into his thoughts as he composed his papers. We can watch him edit himself. By reading his incoming correspondence, scholars can better divine Jefferson’s motives for what he wrote, noting what he responded to or chose to ignore. Finally, by gathering the documents together, one can watch history unfold.

As an example of this, Oberg cites the Kentucky Resolutions, which are contained in the current volume. Jefferson’s resolutions, which he wrote anonymously and which were adopted by the Kentucky General Assembly in November 1798, advanced the doctrine that states could nullify acts of Congress (in this case, the Alien and Sedition Acts) that they believed to be unconstitutional. That doctrine of nullification would be taken up again by Southern states as a defense against encroachments on slavery. Although it had been known that Jefferson wrote the resolutions, the details of his role in their creation are explained in a very detailed and informative annotation. And never before had Jefferson’s first draft, finished draft, and the completed resolutions, along with related correspondence, been collected together in one place, enabling a scholar to trace their development from Jefferson’s pen to the final document.

In part because of Jefferson’s uneasy coexistence with slavery, revelations about the Hemings affair, and the celebration of his Federalist rival, John Adams, in recent popular biographies, Jefferson’s reputation has waned in recent years. He has been called duplicitous and inconsistent by scholars such as Adams biographer David McCullough.

Still, as the Princeton papers show, the Jefferson who owned slaves also wrote ringing declarations of freedom. In a letter dated June 18, 1799, to William G. Munford, which will appear in the next volume, Jefferson discourses on the nature of knowledge. “What is once acquired of real knowledge can never be lost. To preserve the freedom of the human mind then and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for so long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.” As Julian Boyd observed, “If all other writings of Jefferson were destroyed, the essential quality of the man would remain fully and brilliantly portrayed in this single document.”

And so, according to Brown’s Gordon Wood, Jefferson remains today “a crucial figure – if not the crucial figure – in American history.” No one else articulates the vision of a democratic America in the same way, and if that vision fell short of reality, if it was sometimes clouded by inconsistency, it is a vision that compels us still. More than two centuries after he first took the oath of office, biographer Joyce Appleby says, Jefferson is still cited more frequently than any other president. “We can’t really do without Jefferson.”

If we can’t do without Jefferson, we can’t do with him unless his words and papers are available for all to see. The philosophy behind the project is that we can learn from the past, and that those dead white males still have something worth saying to us. Speaking at a ceremony upon the publication of the first Jefferson volume in 1950, when the cold war was growing colder, President Harry Truman declared, “At a time when democracy is meeting the greatest challenge in its history, we need to turn to the sources of our own democratic faith for new inspiration and new strength.”

Truman ordered the National Historical Publications Commission to support the completion of similar projects for other historical figures. To a large extent, the projects that have followed – among them the Benjamin Franklin papers at Yale, the papers of John Adams and other prominent Adams descendants at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Alexander Hamilton papers at Columbia, and the George Washington and James Madison papers at the University of Virginia – have followed the model of the Jefferson papers at Princeton, in their meticulous attention to detail, their comprehensiveness, their inclusion of incoming correspondence, and their use of explanatory annotations. The highest honor awarded by the Association for Documentary Editing is called the Julian P. Boyd Award.

Not surprisingly, perhaps the ultimate reason for the Jefferson papers project comes from Jefferson himself, from one of those thousands of letters that have been, that are, and that will be so carefully checked, rechecked, recorded, and annotated. In a letter returning two volumes of documents relating to old colonial records, Jefferson urged that the same care be taken to preserve our own national historical legacy.

“The lost cannot be recovered,” he wrote, “but let us save what remains: not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use, in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.”

Mark Bernstein ’83 is a freelance writer and cartoonist.

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