Project History and Purpose

– President Harry S Truman, 17 May 1950

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

From Left to Right: 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)
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)



Portrait of Jeff Boyd in suit in a libraryThis 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. 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. 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 director of Princeton University Library 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renewed interest in the nation’s documentary heritage and set new standards for the organization and presentation of historical documents.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.

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 documents such as messages, speeches, travel journals, and minutes of proceedings. 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 annotation.

The first twenty volumes of the main series, published from 1950 to 1982 and containing Jefferson’s papers from January 1760 to August 1791, do not contain indexes or biographical notes identifying correspondents. The original design of the edition called for a “biographical register” and a comprehensive index in separate volumes at the end. As the work proceeded, the need for an index to each volume grew evident. Julian Boyd’s successor, Charles T. Cullen, became a pioneer in the development of computerized systems for indexing complex documentary editions. Under Cullen’s direction, the project produced Volume 21, an almost 600-page index of Volumes 1–20 published in 1983. Beginning with Volume 22, each volume has had its own index. And from Volume 24 on, the editors have systematically provided biographical notes on correspondents appearing for the first time.

Charles Cullen also transformed the edition’s work process. Originally the editors had transcribed and annotated the texts using typewriters, and everything was rekeyed by Linotype operators for publication. Since the 1980s, the editors have prepared the full content of each volume in encoded electronic files that go directly into the publication process without rekeying. Cullen’s successors John Catanzariti and Barbara Oberg standardized and revitalized the editorial method while maintaining the edition’s original vision and high standards.

Barbara J. Oberg sitting in a library, working.The second series of Boyd’s plan focuses on important nonepistolary documents that are better suited to a topical arrangement than to the chronological sequence of the main series. These commissioned volumes are coordinated through the Princeton editorial office and are edited independently. The first volume of the Second Series, Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels: The Philosophy of Jesus and The Life and Morals of Jesus, edited by Dickinson W. Adams, appeared in 1983. The series consists of five titles to date, published by Princeton University Press.

In 1999, by an agreement between Princeton University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, editors now based at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello began work on the Retirement Series. This series proceeds concurrently with the main series edited at Princeton and publishes the documents from Jefferson’s retirement years, from the completion of his second term as president of the United States until his death on 4 July 1826. The Retirement Series maintains the original edition’s goals and standards. Its volumes are also published by Princeton University Press. The editorial project at Princeton will continue to publish the materials through the final day of Jefferson’s presidency, 3 March 1809.

Since 2009, the volumes of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson have been available online as part of the Rotunda digital imprint of the University of Virginia Press; and since 2013 they are also available on the free-access platform Founders Online prepared under the auspices of the National Archives. The documents from each volume of the Princeton series and the Retirement Series go into Rotunda and Founders Online eighteen months after print publication by Princeton University Press.

Editors of the Jefferson Papers


Julian P. Boyd


Charles T. Cullen


John Catanzariti


Barbara B. Oberg


James McClure

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.