History and Purpose

"This edition will be of lasting value to our Nation for generations to come."

-President Harry S Truman, 17 May 1950

Julian P. Boyd (Princeton University Archives)Julian P. Boyd (Princeton University Archives)
This project is preparing the authoritative edition of the correspondence and papers of Thomas Jefferson.  It is designed to supplant the four highly selective and unreliable compendiums of his writings published between 1829 and 1904, and to ensure that the task will not have to be redone.  No more than 20 percent of Jefferson’s papers had previously been published in any form. An outgrowth of a congressional mandate to the Thomas Jefferson Bicentennial Commission to consider the feasibility of a comprehensive edition of Jefferson’s works, the enterprise was launched in December 1943 at Princeton University with a major gift from The New York Times Company. The Princeton University Press pledged to publish the volumes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Bicentennial Commission expressed enthusiastic support for this initiative, and Julian P. Boyd, the Librarian of Princeton University and an authority on the Declaration of Independence who had written a feasibility study as Historian to the Commission, agreed to serve as Editor.  Publication of the first volume of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson in 1950 was a landmark in American historical scholarship. Its appearance kindled renewed interest in the nation’s documentary heritage and set new standards for the organization and presentation of historical documents.  Projects to edit and publish the papers of other major figures in American history began at other universities and historical societies, using the Jefferson Papers as a model.    

1950 presentation ceremony for Vol. 1 in Washington, D.C.L to R: Verner W. Clapp, President Harry S Truman, George C. Marshall, Princeton University president Harold W. Dodds at the 17 May 1950 presentation ceremony for Vol. 1 in Washington, D.C.                    (photo courtesy George Catlett Marshall Papers)
In 1943, when the project started, the editors projected a minimum of fifty volumes, in two series. The first, in chronological order, would include every available letter written by or to Jefferson, as well as messages, speeches, travel journals, minutes of proceedings, etc. While the original estimate has expanded as more and more documents were found, the project’s mission remains the same. Each document is scrupulously transcribed and checked for accuracy and presented with contextual and explanatory information sufficient to make it understandable. A detailed index offers multiple ways into the rich content of the volumes.

The Jefferson Papers continues to publish the materials through the final day of Jefferson’s presidency, 3 March  1809. The Jefferson Retirement Series, sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and begun in 1999, proceeds concurrently with the presidential volumes and focuses on Jefferson’s retirement years until his death on 4 July 1826. This series will present the written legacy of the last seventeen years of Jefferson’s life in an estimated twenty-three volumes. The Retirement Series maintains Boyd’s goals and standards and published its first volume with Princeton University Press in 2004.

Barbara B. Oberg transcribing documentsBarbara B. Oberg  (photo by Sarah J. Glover, 2008) 

In addition to the chronological series, a Second Series comprises other important documents or writings by Jefferson that are better suited to a topical arrangement. These commissioned volumes are coordinated through the Princeton editorial office and are edited independently. The Second Series began in 1983 and consists of five titles published to date by Princeton University Press.

In April 2009, the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, in partnership with Princeton University Press announced the launch of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition as part of the American Founding Era digital collection hosted by Rotunda at the University of Virginia Press.  All the documents of the Jefferson Papers will now be available in digital form, eighteen months after the date of print publication.  A subscription-based XML edition, it includes electronic versions of each volume and is fully searchable by keyword, date, recipient, and correspondent and includes all editorial annotation and indexes. A free, open-access  version of this platform was developed by the National Archives and  released in beta form as Founders Online in June 2013.


Editors of the Jefferson Papers

Julian P. Boyd                    1943-1980

Charles T. Cullen               1980-1986

John Catanzariti                1986-1998

Barbara B. Oberg              1999-2014

James P. McClure             2014-


For further reading:

Mark F. Bernstein, Jefferson's Great Bargain, Princeton Alumni Weekly, 1 April 2015, 25.

Mark F. Bernstein, “History, Letter by Letter,”  Princeton Alumni Weekly, 14 May 2003, 20-23.

Charles Creesy, Monticello: The History of a Typeface, Printing History, Vol. 25, No. 1 (2006), 3-19.

Philip Sean Curran, “Jefferson Papers Project Now in 70th Year at University, Princeton Packet, 12 August 2013.

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), 491-509.

Barbara B. Oberg, “A New Republican Order, Letter by Letter,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring 2005), 1-20.  

Herbert E.  Sloan, “Julian Parks Boyd” in  American National Biography Online.

Lewis Wood, President Terms Jefferson Beacon in War on Tyranny, New York Times, 18 May 1950, 1, 26.