Frequently Asked Questions

We have more than 70,000 photocopied items of letters Jefferson wrote or received as well as other Jefferson documents. This includes approximately 18,000 letters written by him (and some of these in multiple copies) in addition to the more than 25,000 letters written to him. It also includes documents of historic significance, private notes, and some topical collections of material.

 

No, we are not a repository of original Jefferson material, which would require high standards of preservation, security, and insurance. Rather, we have the largest collection of Jefferson correspondence in photocopy or digital form, from hundreds of libraries, archives, and private individuals.  We  have been systematically and chronologically publishing this material with editorial and contextual additions to make the complete archive accessible to the widest possible audience.

Princeton University, our host institution, has about 30 original items of Jefferson manuscript, correspondence or miscellaneous materials in its holdings of Rare Books and Manuscripts. A finding aid for Princeton University’s Special Collections holdings of Jefferson material is available online.

 

The original manuscript material resides in approximately 900 libraries, archives, and private collections around the world.  The repositories with the largest collections of Jefferson original materials are: the Library of Congress, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the University of Virginia, and the Missouri History Museum.  When repositories digitize or display these collections, often called “The Jefferson Papers,” they refer only to the original manuscripts in their holdings and not the entire known extant corpus.  See also the Related Links section of this website.

 Little of Jefferson’s correspondence was published during his lifetime and of that which was printed, much was unauthorized. Very few of the letters written to Jefferson had been published before, although he kept a careful record of them for himself.  Even when Jefferson’s papers appeared in several nineteenth-century published editions, letters to him were excluded, the editions were highly selective, and they often lacked scholarly rigor and context.  

The first of these early editions, Memoirs, Correspondence, and Miscellanies: from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson was produced by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson's grandson. Published in 1829 shortly after Jefferson's death, it included only a small portion of Jefferson's total correspondence, introduced changes in spelling and wording, avoided controversial topics, and attempted to secure Jefferson's legacy and keep his family financially solvent.

A second edition, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and other Writings, Official and Private, edited by Henry A. Washington, appeared in 1853-1854. Featuring Jefferson’s public letters, which the federal government had recently purchased and deposited at the Library of Congress, the edition was marred by faulty transcriptions, poor organization, and the suppression of Jefferson's comments on slavery.

Paul Leicester Ford was the third editor to produce a major Jefferson edition. His multi-volume Works of Thomas Jefferson, published from 1892 to 1899, was the best-edited of the nineteenth-century editions and contained letters from multiple sources that focused on Jefferson as a statesman.  Ford checked documents against original manuscripts, provided source information, and compared—and sometimes collated—multiple versions of texts.

Editors Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh produced another edition of Jefferson's letters between 1903 and 1907 as The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Their edition contained both private and public correspondence, with reprints from the earlier compilations as well as some never-before published letters from manuscript. While lacking editorial and source notes, the Lipscomb and Bergh volumes included an index, illustrations, and original topical essays. The edition featured modernized spelling, punctuation, and orthography.

It was not until 1950 with the first published volume of our authoritative edition of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson under the editorship of Julian P. Boyd that all surviving public and private letters, both incoming and outgoing from numerous sources worldwide, received their fullest treatment in chronological sequence and editorial thoroughness. It remains the most comprehensive and scholarly edition of Jefferson's writings today.

For further reading, see the Project History of this site as well as the following:

* Francis D. Cogliano, "Jefferson's Papers," in Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy (Charlottesville, 2006), 74-105.

* Worthington Chauncey Ford, "The Jefferson Papers," in Thomas Jefferson, Architect by Fiske Kimball (Boston, 1916), 3-9.

* Paul G. Sifton, "Introduction" to the Index to the Thomas Jefferson Papers (Washington, D.C., 1976), vii-xvii.

* "Editions of Jefferson's Writings," an article courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.

In an arrangement with our publisher, Princeton University Press, the University of Virginia Press launched an electronic, fully searchable, subscription-based edition of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson in 2009. This evolved into a shared platform with other Founding-Era papers projects on the University of Virginia Press’s Rotunda imprint.  A free, open access Founders Online model was released in beta version in June 2013 and is supported by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). 

The project began in the 1940s as the brainchild of Julian P. Boyd, Princeton Librarian who served on the national Jefferson Bicentennial Commission. Originally conceived as taking about 42 volumes and at least a decade to complete, the sheer size of the edition grew as more documents came to light. With the first volume published in 1950, the project is currently on a steady pace of producing a volume each year. Based on the experience of other Founding Fathers projects dealing with the presidency, a reasonable estimate of the total number of volumes projected for the edition is 62.

It takes roughly one year to edit a volume and submit it to the Press. No two documents are exactly the same but every document goes through a careful process of transcription, multiple verifications, annotation, checking of all citations, and a final review and indexing.  After submission, it takes approximately 9 to 12 months until bound volumes appear. By an agreement between Princeton University Press and the University of Virginia Press, there is an 18-month interval between a volume’s publication and its inclusion in the digital edition.

The edition has had two supplements, included at the end of Vols. 15 and 27, that incorporated new documents found since the original date of publication. Now, any new documents as well as editorial corrections are updated regularly by Rotunda at the University of Virginia Press for the digital edition. We welcome any feedback or queries about documents that appear to be absent from our volumes. We try to account for every known letter by publishing it in full, summarizing, or discussing it briefly in annotation. We also encourage you to look in our appendixes of Letters Not Found and Letters Not Printed in Full, found at the back of recent volumes.

One can find the published volumes of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at several college or university libraries. According to the (OCLC) Online Computer Library Center's catalog of libraries in World Cat, there are approximately 1,400 libraries or institutions worldwide that own select volumes or a complete run of the volumes published to date.  One can borrow individual volumes through interlibrary loan or purchase them directly from our publisher, Princeton University Press.

Yes, each volume includes about eight contemporary images that illustrate topics or individuals covered in that volume. These are accompanied by illustration descriptions in the front matter.

Editor Julian P. Boyd intended to create a cumulative index upon the completion of the edition and thus eschewed individual volume indexes. In the interim, he envisioned several temporary paperbound indexes, each for a well-defined chronological time period that could span several volumes, and enlisted non-historian indexers to create three of them. Boyd’s successor, Charles T. Cullen, revised the indexing design for the edition and produced Volume 21, a permanent cumulative index to the first twenty volumes, in 1983, after Boyd’s death. Each subsequent volume has included its own index. While our hope is that in the long run we will compile a complete index for all volumes, no work is being done on this at present. You can find the individual volume indexes on our website under the Our Volumes link.

This is one of the most common questions we get and it is logical to think that Jefferson’s Papers would be edited at the university he created in Virginia and not in New Jersey!  The Princeton connection has to do with Julian P. Boyd, the first editor of the Jefferson Papers who was himself a prominent scholar of the Declaration of Independence and the librarian at Princeton University from 1940 to 1952.  He served as a member of the Jefferson Bicentennial Commission in the early 1940s and when the idea arose of publishing a comprehensive and authoritative edition of not just the letters Jefferson wrote but those he received as well, Boyd stepped up to the plate to serve as editor.  With Princeton as his professional affiliation, he was able to get the university’s commitment to serve as institutional host for the project. Boyd established the editorial office in Firestone Library and contracted with Princeton University Press which has been publishing the volumes ever since Volume 1 appeared in 1950.

Yes, our latest volumes provide brief identifications, including birth and death dates, of the individuals who corresponded with Jefferson. Our volume indexes are a good place to explore whether your ancestor appears in Jefferson correspondence. Sometimes the fact that someone wrote to a famous person helps prevent an otherwise obscure individual from being lost in the pages of history.  We also frequently turn to published genealogical histories to help us fill in the blanks on some of the subjects we identify.

Our staff currently consists of seven professional historians, an editorial associate, and an editorial assistant.

The project has had five general editors: Julian P. Boyd (Vols. 1-20), Charles T. Cullen (Vols. 21-23), John Catanzariti (Vols. 24-28), Barbara Oberg (Vols. 29-41), and James P. McClure (Vol. 42-  ). The work has been carried on with the efforts of numerous staff over the years including senior associate editor: Elaine Weber Pascu, Eugene R. Sheridan; associate editors Fredrick Aandahl, Mina R. Bryan, Lyman H. Butterfield, R. R. Crout,  Tom Downey, William H. Gaines, Jr., Joseph H. Harrison, Jr., Elizabeth I. Hutter, Martha J. King,  J. Jefferson Looney, W. Bland Whitley; assistant editors: Shane Blackman, Alfred L. Bush, Andrew J. B. Fagal, George H. Hoemann, Ruth W. Lester, F. Andrew McMichael, Merry Ellen Scofield, Amy Speckart; editorial assistants Elizabeth Peters Blazejewski, Linda Monaco; editorial associate Linny Schenck; research associate John E. Little; consulting editors: Jean-Yves M. Le Saux and Lucius Wilmerding, Jr.; and several foreign language translators including Robert W. Hartle, Reem F. Iverson, Simone Marchesi, François P. Rigolot, Carol Rigolot, and several technical advisers. A separate roster of editors who have worked on the Retirement Series volumes can be found on the Monticello website.

Yes, we maintain an in-house database and control file of all Jefferson’s known correspondents, the dates of the letters, the locations of the original manuscript material, and our own internal control numbers.

Unfortunately, we do not have the physical space and the project was not designed as a research center for Jefferson studies.  As our time permits, we are happy to answer relevant questions or assist researchers with targeted queries. Although the project has occasionally hosted postgraduate fellows in the NHPRC’s fellowship program in Historical Editing, we do not have the space to provide internships for students.

For a helpful overview, see Barbara B. Oberg and James P. McClure, “For Generations to Come”: Creating the ‘Definitive’ Jefferson Edition” in  A Companion to Thomas Jefferson, ed. Francis P. Cogliano  (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). 

See also, Mark F. Bernstein, “History, Letter by Letter,”  Princeton Alumni Weekly, May 14, 2003

 

We are not in the business of authentication but, because of Jefferson’s amazingly detailed epistolary record of every letter he wrote and received, his Summary Journal of Letters (SJL), we can be fairly certain if Jefferson corresponded with an individual on a specific date.  We are happy to receive copies of Jefferson materials, especially those for which we have only a record entry of the correspondence. In return, we can provide whatever information about the document that we have. We believe, as do most manuscript dealers and collectors, that the publication of a previously unknown letter to or from Jefferson contributes to scholarship and enhances the value of the manuscript.

Julian P. Boyd, editor of Volumes 1-20 of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, intended that the early volumes would contain a greater degree of annotation  than the later ones. Indeed, the extended historical essay was one of Boyd’s contributions to modern editorial design. He also introduced “file folder” treatment of a topic that included an editorial essay accompanying a grouping of related documents printed together. Many of his editorial notes are works of scholarship in and of themselves and could have appeared as separate scholarly articles. Nonetheless, Boyd’s lengthy editorial notes, especially in his later volumes, became targets for criticism about the slowed pace of progress on the edition and the decreased amount of space that could be dedicated to inclusion of transcribed documents. The editorial practice of lengthy notes was subsequently abandoned for the edition  in 1986 (see Vol. 22: vii) and the completed volumes have appeared more rapidly in print ever since as current editors continue to provide what is minimal and essential for understanding the context of a document.

The project was initially funded through a $200,000 endowment by the New York Times Foundation. Since that time, the Jefferson Papers has been the recipient of federal funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. The project, in recent years, has increasingly benefited from the generous contributions of private foundations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Packard Humanities Institute, and others as well as many philanthropic individuals.

We believe the documents we provide are wonderful teaching tools and primary source materials suitable for research and learning at all levels. We currently do not offer supplemental educational resources but we do recommend searching the Monticello website and the National Archives and Library of Congress sites where qualified educators have posted activities customized for different age and grade levels.

We encourage you to make use of our edition! If it is helpful to you, please spread the word, especially to your schools, legislators, civic groups and others who can be reminded about the importance of this authoritative work and our nation’s documentary heritage. Of course, we welcome and are most grateful for monetary donations.