Documents were at the center of Thomas Jefferson’s life and provide the basis of our understanding of him and his world. We know him for his iconic texts, such as his draft of the Declaration of Independence and Notes on the State of Virginia. Yet he wrote and received thousands of other manuscripts. Through his correspondence, he participated in conversations by mail, some of them of long duration and over great distances, about politics and policy, foreign affairs, agriculture, economics, science, family matters, and numerous other subjects. Friends, family, colleagues, and strangers wrote to him. Each communication tells us something about life at the time it was written. He also created documents that were for his own use, recording and organizing information to help him make plans and decisions, arrange his time and activities, and increase his knowledge.
This edition of his papers, which includes items he received as well as those he wrote, begins with letters from the early 1760s, when Jefferson was still a youth who had not yet completed his education and Virginia was a British colony. We are now editing his papers from the early nineteenth century, when he was the third president of the United States. Concurrently, our colleagues at the Papers of Thomas Jefferson Retirement Series, working at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies in Virginia, are publishing Jefferson’s papers from March 1809 to his death in 1826.
The printed edition, published to the highest standards of materials and craft by Princeton University Press, provides convenient access to our work and ensures that it will be available long into the future. Moreover, this project is no stranger to the electronic age, having employed computerized processes since the 1980s. The edition’s content is now available in the American Founding Era Collection of the Rotunda electronic imprint of the University of Virginia Press and through Founders Online of the National Archives.
Our purpose is not to influence interpretations, but to make available this diverse documentary record that centers on Jefferson. His papers provide windows into a period that was formative both for the United States and for the modern world.
James P. McClure