The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, as Henry Steele Commager has said, “will illuminate, as does no comparable body of private papers, the whole course of our history from the 1760’s to the 1820’s – the period of the Revolution, the launching of the Constitution, the formation of basic political institutions, the establishment of political parties, the development of the West, the emergence into world politics, the evolution of characteristic social and cultural institutions.”
Few if any of Jefferson’s contemporaries recognized an obligation to history so clearly as he did, and none exceeded him in his effort to discharge the debt. Countless records, compiled throughout his career at the cost of an untold amount of time and energy, reveal the consciousness of his effort to preserve for posterity a full account of the major events through which the country passed in its formative years, and of his own part in those events.
Yet the range of Jefferson’s interests is not comprehended even by the tremendous events of the period in which he lived. “He was a man of sentiment; he was a man of reason. He was the perfect provincial, never happy but at Monticello; he was the complete cosmopolitan, at home in every society. He was the transcendentalist, guided in his search for truth by an inner light; he was the scientist, experimenting on his farm or in his laboratory. He was the shrewd politician, cunningly building a political party; he was the aloof philosopher, criticising Plato and celebrating Locke. He was engineer and inventor, musician and architect, philologist and bookman, agronomist and horticulturalist, scholar and educator, lawyer and statesman, administrator and diplomat.”
Thus Jefferson touched every side of the life of his time. His compulsion to investigate all avenues of human knowledge was purposeful—as Henry Adams wrote of him, “Jefferson aspired beyond the ambition of nationality and embraced in his view the whole future of man.” Here was to be tried the grand experiment of self-government. And because of the universal character of Jefferson’s mind and genius his writings have a freshness and immediacy for the twentieth century exceeding that of almost any other among the great Americans of the past. Before this edition was undertaken, Waldo G. Leland wrote: “The publication of Jefferson’s correspondence would be a contribution not only to the history of American politics, but also, and especially, to the history of American intellectual life and of scientific and technological progress in this country, unequaled by that of any other body of correspondence now in existence or ever likely to come into being.”
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, “the richest treasure-house of historical information ever left by a single man,” is to be a 52-volume series including not only the 18,000 letters written by Jefferson but also, in full or in summary, the more than 25,000 letters written to him. Also included will be Jefferson’s public papers and all other writings on subjects as diverse as political philosophy and scientific agriculture. The editors have conceived their assignment to be preparation of a series which will stand for all time as the most nearly definitive edition that is feasible.
No previous edition has included more than 15 per cent of the total, and only about a fifth of the documents have ever been published anywhere.
Among the fresh contributions made by the documents in Volume 1, which covers the years 1760-1776, are the following: new light on the Declaration of Independence, hitherto unpublished material; full assessment of the part played by Jefferson in the drafting of the Virginia Constitution; full presentation of his efforts in 1776 to disestablish the Church of Virginia and to establish religious toleration; complete presentation of bills and statutes drawn by Jefferson in 1776 in the beginning of his great legislative reforms by which he hoped to “eradicate every fibre of aristocracy”; settlement of the disputed authorship of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms; first publication of Jefferson’s comments on Franklin’s Plan of Union, 1775.