Haven't Jefferson's letters ever been published before?
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.