Atlantic History Thomas Jefferson
by
Maurizio Valsania
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0196

Introduction

Third president of the United States (1801–1809), coauthor of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia during troublesome times (1779–1781), president of the American Philosophical Society (1797–1815), the mind behind the Louisiana Purchase (1803), and the sanguine “founding father” of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly an achiever. His stature as a public figure and an internationally renowned politician has produced an enthusiasm that, after almost two centuries since his death (on 4 July 1826), does not seem to waver. Both academics and the wider audience, regardless of their political orientation, are still eager to identify with this leader, or at least to extol his greatness and exemplarity. “If Jefferson was wrong,” has prophesized James Parton, a famous 19th-century biographer, “America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.” Jefferson’s prominence as a leader matches his achievements in the intellectual realm. Greatness must be bestowed on Jefferson also when we take him as a philosopher. A polymath spanning over a number of scientific disciplines as well as literature, art, classical languages, geographical explorations, architecture, and, of course, political science, Jefferson helped define the vocabulary of his days. Albeit not a systematic thinker, he delved extensively into numberless concepts, including human nature, virtue, happiness, nation, and government. While achievements and exemplarity are thus well attested, the scholarship underwent a dramatic turn in the early 1980s, when Jefferson the private man entered the scene. Scholars have begun questioning the characteristics of Jefferson as a model and a symbol hovering above historical time. They have stopped asking exclusively what Jefferson could mean to us, to civilization, and to future generations. More and more, this 18th-century man has emerged as trapped in a distant culture, ensnared in a far-off society far more complex than previous generations of scholars used to believe, and with which we cannot identify. Issues of inner life, anxiety, emotion, a romantic heart, gender, race, the dynamics of slavery, and many other aspects related to his mind have justly captured the attention. Increased specialization has splintered Jefferson the symbol into a myriad of fragments. Whether or not Jefferson was actually a sphinx, or a living contradiction, research has repeatedly shown that this real man—a Virginian slave owner, a hapless tobacco grower, a restless letter writer, an obsessive journal keeper, an aristocrat mansion dweller, and a romantic Enlightenment devotee—belonged to himself.

Primary Sources

Even though collections of Jefferson writings began to circulate right after his death, it was only with the publication of Papers of Thomas Jefferson that scholarship arrived at mature editorial criteria. This major project covers Jefferson’s correspondence and other types of documents (see especially the Second Series), but it is still ongoing. Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Boyd, et al. 1950–) has been complemented by Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series (Looney 2004–), which focuses on the retirement-era correspondence (1809–1826). Both projects are expected to be drawn to completion sometime between 2025 and 2030. Most volumes of these series are also available in Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Digital Edition (Oberg and Looney 2009), a fully searchable text. Works of Thomas Jefferson (Ford 1904–1905) is the second-best choice. Accurately transcribed from manuscripts, freely accessible online, and still valuable, this edition is not as comprehensive as Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Lipscomb and Bergh 1903–1905). This last edition, basically a compendium of reprints, is the most comprehensive, to date, but it is highly unreliable, does not indicate sources for specific items, and recklessly modernizes spelling and punctuation. Thomas Jefferson: Writings (Peterson 1984) is the best single-volume selection of documents, a recommended starting point for every research project. The letters Jefferson and John Adams sent each other over the several decades of their friendship stick out as a first-rate philosophical treatise on several subjects. They are fortunately available in Adams-Jefferson Letters (Cappon 1959). Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia has been adequately commented and annotated in Peden 1995 (originally published in 1954).

  • Boyd, Julian P., Lyman H. Butterfield, and Mina R. Brian, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 38 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950–.

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    The most reliable and updated collection of letters by and to Jefferson, private notes, and other documents. Historical notes by the editors (in many cases actual scholarly essays) provide the context for the printed material. Upon completion, this edition will supplant the older editions.

  • Cappon, Lester J., ed. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. 2 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

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    The complete correspondence between Adams and Jefferson. Arranged in chronological sequence, this collection introduces readers into the vigor and broadness of these two minds. Fully annotated and well edited. Reprinted as recently as 1990.

  • Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. The Works of Thomas Jefferson: Federal Edition. 12 vols. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s, 1904–1905.

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    Reasonably well-edited albeit incomplete edition of Jefferson’s writings. Republished as recently as 2009 (New York: Cosimo). Text available online.

  • Lipscomb, Andrew A., and Albert Ellery Bergh, eds. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. 20 vols. Washington, DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1903–1905.

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    Still the only printed source for many of Jefferson’s documents, this edition suffers from a general lack of editorial accuracy. It contains little or no annotation. Text available online.

  • Looney, J. Jefferson, ed. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series. 8 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004–.

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    Focuses on Jefferson’s correspondence after the third president returned to private life in March 1809. Editorially accurate, this series covers some material that has never been published before.

  • Oberg, Barbara B., and J. Jefferson Looney, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Digital Edition. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Fully searchable edition of most volumes both from the main series of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson and the Retirement Series.

  • Peden, William, ed. Notes on the State of Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

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    Fully annotated edition of Jefferson’s masterpiece. The introduction gives important information on the vicissitudes and complicated history of this book. Originally published in 1954.

  • Peterson, Merrill D., ed. Thomas Jefferson: Writings. Library of America 17. New York: Viking, 1984.

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    Single-volume selection of Jefferson’s writings, including the so-called “Autobiography,” “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” the Notes on the State of Virginia, the Declaration of Independence, addresses and messages, public papers, and letters. Well edited.

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