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Jefferson, Thomas - Writings

Thomas Jefferson


Autobiography • Notes on the State of Virginia • Public and Private Papers • Addresses • Letters

"[T]he lucid and elegantly phrased prose in these pages is the reflection of a sophisticated and well-read man. The energy of his convictions enlivens for contemporary readers many of the debates central to the founding of the United States... Dipping into this collection of public and private writings, the reader derives an extraordinary intimacy with Jefferson. You cannot fail to admire him."
—Los Angeles Herald Examiner
Overview  |  Note on the Texts  |  Reviews  |  Table of Contents

Thomas Jefferson published few of his writings during his lifetime. Most of what he wrote served governmental or private purposes: state papers, drafts of legislation, public addresses, autobiographical reminiscences, and letters to a variety of correspondents. The bulk of his writing, therefore, was published only posthumously, and has come down to us mainly through the mediation of several nineteenth-century editors.

Five major editions of Jefferson's writings have been published. The first, The Memoirs, Correspondence and Private Papers of Thomas Jefferson, appeared in four volumes in Charlottesville in 1829. Edited by Jefferson's grandson and executor, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, it first published the Autobiography and the Anas as well as a large selection of personal letters. For previously unpublished material, Randolph worked from manuscript and document sources, but, in accordance with the accepted editorial practice of his time, he made certain changes in spelling, punctuation, and wording. Henry A. Washington, Librarian of the Department of State, prepared the nine-volume Congress Edition, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, published in Washington, D.C. in 1853-54, following the federal government's purchase of Jefferson's public papers. In addition to these papers, Washington reprinted many items from the Randolph edition, and like Randolph, he routinely made editorial changes.

Paul Leicester Ford's edition, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 vols. (New York, 1892-99), was undoubtedly the best-edited of the nineteenth-century collections. The large majority of the items in this edition were freshly transcribed from Jefferson's manuscripts following conservative editorial principles. Ford indicated the provenance of each manuscript; in the few cases where he reprinted a document from an earlier published source, he indicated that source. For writings not published by Jefferson himself, Ford's edition has been the preferred source of the texts in this volume.

The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 20 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1903-04), sometimes called the Memorial Edition, prepared by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, is the most comprehensive edition and has a highly useful index. Unfortunately, the edition is largely a compendium of reprints. Sources for specific items are not indicated, but comparison with other texts has shown that in most cases Lipscomb and Bergh reprinted documents from Ford, or from Washington, or elsewhere, without reference to manuscripts. Also, Lipscomb and Bergh routinely modernized spelling, punctuation, and orthography. Several documents in their edition, unavailable in any printed source, were newly edited from manuscript: Vol. XVII, comprising the "Miscellaneous Papers," "Thoughts on English Prosody" in Vol. XVIII, and all of Vol. XIX except two letters. The Lipscomb and Bergh edition, therefore, is the only printed source for those items, and has been the source for those texts in this volume that were published for the first time in that edition.

These older editions are destined to be superseded (eventually) by the edition in progress at Princeton University, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian Boyd, Charles Cullen, et al., 20 vols. to date [1984] (Princeton, 1950-82). This edition, of which Jefferson's writings form only the core, is still incomplete. Even that edition makes some alterations in spelling and punctuation; its lengthy and detailed historical notes are invaluable.

The first choice of texts for this volume has been those versions which Jefferson himself supervised or which were published during his lifetime, in the three instances where such a text exists: A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Notes on the State of Virginia, and the Observations on the Whale-Fishery. The text of A Summary View is taken from the pamphlet edition, published in Williamsburg in 1774.

The text of the Notes on the State of Virginia reprinted here is the edition published by John Stockdale in London in 1787. Jefferson had previously arranged for a small private edition of the book, limited to 200 copies, printed without the author's name on the title page. Upon learning that a French publisher had obtained a copy of this edition and was planning an unauthorized French translation, he agreed to collaborate on an authorized translation; but his dissatisfaction with the product of his collaboration with the Abbıı Morellet led him to commission Stockdale to issue an authorized English edition for general distribution. The Stockdale edition, which carried Jefferson's name, and which he closely supervised, therefore best represents his intentions, and is the text selected for this volume. Three appendices in that edition (a commentary by Charles Thomson, a draft constitution of 1783 for Virginia, and the Statute of Religious Freedom) are omitted from the present volume. (Earlier versions of the draft constitution and the Statute of Religious Freedom are printed elsewhere in these pages.) The view of Madison's cave is reprinted here courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Jefferson had the Observations on the Whale-Fishery (1778) printed in Paris by Jacques-Gabriel Clousier. It appeared in identical format in both English and French. Only a few of the small number of copies printed are extant. The present volume reprints the text from the copy in The Library Company of Philadelphia, which may have been the copy Jefferson kept for his files; several notes in his handwriting which appear at the head and at the end of the printed text are quoted in the Notes to the present volume.

In selecting texts of documents not prepared for publication by Jefferson, the order of preferred sources has been: contemporary publications (books, newspapers, published government reports), then the Ford edition, the Randolph edition, the Washington edition (where no other source has been found), and the edition of Lipscomb and Bergh (only for selections they transcribed from manuscript) . A slightly different order of preference has governed the selection of texts in the last section, the letters. Among the many editions of selected Jefferson letters, representing all aspects of his large and varied correspondence, several have been preferred because of their superior textual reliability. All letters from Jefferson to John and Abigail Adams, for instance, are reprinted from The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 2 vols., ed. Lester J. Cappon (1959). Several letters from Jefferson to members of his family have been taken from The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Edwin M. Betts and James A. Bear, Jr. (1966). A few letters to various other persons have been chosen from the large number printed in the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 7th Ser., Vol. I (1900). A small number of letters has been transcribed for the present volume from manuscript, or from microfilm or photostatic copies of manuscript, when no acceptable printed source was available. After these exceptional cases, the order of preference stated earlier (Ford, then Randolph, Washington, Lipscomb and Bergh) has governed the selection of texts of the letters. In some instances, omissions in previously published versions of letters have been restored from manuscript text or microfilm copy.

The standards for American English continue to undergo modification, and in some ways were conspicuously different in earlier periods from what they are today. In eighteenth and nineteenth-century writing, for example, a word might be spelled in more than one way, even in the same work (and sometimes in the same sentence), and these variations might be carried into print. In Jefferson's lifetime the institution of rigid linguistic norms was frequently recommended as a way of halting the process of linguistic change. Jefferson, however, did not spell consistently, nor, apparently, did he care to. Most editors have not been careful to preserve Jefferson's own spellings, which they have characterized as errors; nor have they preserved the punctuation, italics, and capitals that Jefferson used (as was the ordinary practice at the time) to suggest the movements of voice and to give words significances and emphases they might not otherwise have. Most editors have supplied capitals at the beginnings of sentences (a practice that was not Jefferson's), expanded abbreviations, substituted "and" for "&", etc. The texts in the present volume, since they are printed from different editions, represent varying degrees of regularization, according to the policies and habits of their editors. Examples of Jefferson's writing in an unmodernized and unregularized state can be found in the several letters edited from manuscript for the present volume, which present Jefferson's least official prose in its most characteristic and (except for the use of capitals to begin sentences) unmodernized form. The texts of Notes on the State of Virginia and Observations on the Whale-Fishery are also relatively close to Jefferson's own practice, since they are printed from editions he supervised or annotated, though some of the spelling and punctuation no doubt reflect the habits of the printers of these works.

The presence of brackets at various points in the text calls for brief comment. Some of the previous editions used brackets for different purposes. Ford, for instance, frequently placed his conjectural readings of faded manuscript words or passages inside brackets and in italics. In some cases, however, brackets in the text are Jefferson's own. Usually it is clear from the context whether brackets are Jefferson's or an editor's, and what their function is. Where it is not clear, the information can be sought in the edition from which the text is taken.

The drawings in the text are reproduced from Jefferson's handwritten manuscripts .

This volume is concerned only with representing the texts of the various pieces included; it does not attempt to reproduce features of the typographic design of the editions from which the texts are taken--such as the display capitalization and headings of letters, or the exact placement of drawings. The short titles over individual letters have been supplied by the present editor. Typographical errors have been corrected.

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