Working with the Papers of Thomas Jefferson and TJ as a Window into the Varieties of Early American Experience

Bland Whitley

Given that I’m new to both historical editing and the intensive study of Thomas Jefferson (about eight months on the job), I feel a bit unqualified to write about the work of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. So what follows is something of a hybrid between the perspective of an outlier and that of an insider. The Papers, as some may know, consist of correspondence (incoming and outgoing) and other writings of our nation’s much celebrated and much deprecated third president and polymath. The project has made the lives of researchers easier by collecting all of Jefferson’s known papers, which are scattered among many archives and private collectors, into carefully annotated chronological volumes. Volume 36, which covers the months from December 1801 to March 1802, is now in press, while the first 33 volumes are now available online through UVA Press’s Rotunda imprint.

In researching and annotating documents, precision is essential. Transcriptions are verified against the originals to ensure accuracy. Supporting evidence is assessed carefully—if we are not reasonably certain of a given fact’s accuracy, it will not appear. If an interesting point or idea is not relevant to the document in question, we have to ignore it and move on. It’s not for nothing that documentary editing has been characterized as nuts-and-bolts, or blue-collar history. As much care and hard research goes into providing the context of particular documents, the goal always remains making Jefferson’s papers readily available and comprehensible to readers and researchers. Although like all documentary editors we must be engaged with the latest historiography, not just on Jefferson, but on seemingly the entire range of early American history, it is not necessarily our role to participate in the historiographical debates that tend to define the parameters of contemporary scholarship.

And there can be little doubt that Jefferson, or TJ as we know him, inspires more impassioned debates than any other founder. From reveries spun from his soaring rhetoric to anguish over his failure to extend the ideals embedded in his singular prose (a sub-genre that seemingly demands pairing with the adjective “Jeffersonian”) to anyone other than white men, he has become the catalyst of our own musings about America’s founding contradictions. That he likely carried on a long-term relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves and quite possibly the half-sister of his dead wife, has only added to this racial (and now gendered) dramaturgy. Of course, fascination with TJ goes beyond these ideological concerns. As anyone who visits Monticello can attest, Jefferson the tinkerer and inventor (and he was certainly more the former than the latter) may be his most enduring image. His technical prowess only reinforces a sense that TJ can serve as a stand-in for the early American character—he is at once egalitarian and racist, nationalistic and provincial, visionary and practical (thus the constant tinkering). Presenting TJ, the binary code of early America.

That’s something of my outlier’s perspective but one to which I still partially subscribe. I say partially because although working on the Papers has deepened my appreciation of TJ’s multi-faceted nature, it has made me more leery of the ideological work that his image continues to allow commentators of all stripes to perform. One of the real virtues of a comprehensive documentary edition is that it places us students of history in the flow of events. It’s as close to a real time presentation of early American history as one can probably achieve. For this student, that heightens the sense that the set of wise men at the center of our story (TJ, Albert Gallatin, James Madison—our current volumes cover the presidency) had both a clear mission and understanding of what they wanted to accomplish but also had to muddle along, responding to contingencies as anyone else might. They appear as both the authors and subjects of events. One could certainly use the documents in our volumes to explore the binary TJ of the previous paragraph: the idealistic republican v. the hard-nosed, partisan Republican, the advocate for yeoman farmers v. the defender of planter slaveholders, and so on. But it’s even more evident to me, now, that laying all of these weighty themes at TJ’s feet and presenting him as either the hero of democracy or as America’s original sinner can be counter-productive. Nor does it represent the work that the Papers project performs.

Julian P. Boyd the founding editor of the TJ Papers, might have disagreed. The last five volumes that he produced served as platforms for his original and highly partisan analyses of TJ’s place in early America (central and exalted, one might say). And while the end of Boyd’s tenure became notorious for the slow pace of publication that his mini-monograph explications mandated (a pace I’ll point out is no longer a characteristic), it is the aggressive analytical posture that seems to me most problematic. With so many documents to and from Jefferson, which can and do speak for themselves (often with a push from the project editors’ annotations), there is little need to use the Papers as a platform to defend or attack Jefferson. The documents will naturally inform the more pointed analyses of other scholars, but in our work here we neither damn nor praise the man. Rather, it seems more appropriate to use TJ as a window into the varieties of early American experience.

And what a window! I won’t claim TJ as some kind of magic key, but I know of no other early American figure who can put a student into contact with so many different aspects of that period. During my short tenure, I have helped research and annotate documents concerning such topics as improvements in steel-yards, or weight balances, the efforts of Quakers to provide education for African-American children, the late career of English scientist and religious dissenter Joseph Priestley, some of Jefferson’s slaves, smallpox vaccination, tobacco marketing, the variable quality of Virginia hams, the invention of the lifeboat, and the early American publishing and bookselling industry. Even while president when he was often consumed by party-building, patronage requests, and foreign policy, Jefferson retained his diverse interests. And because people recognized him as a man of science and learning, he attracted correspondence on an enormous range of subjects.

It is this variety that keeps me excited throughout the workday. And it also points out the irony of this project. Jefferson is absolutely at the center of our little scholarly kingdom (er, I mean republic). The project is defined by documents that emanated from his pen or passed through his hands. Yet, for me its greatest value is the light it casts on the various people, objects, ideas, and events with which TJ engaged. Perhaps that merely reflects my training during a period that prized decentering and debunking the “great white men.” I’ll own up to that. But it also seems to me that the vastness of documentary projects such as ours precludes (or at least should) the kind of narrative coherence that a tight analysis requires. What such editions achieve is not a biography in documents. Rather, they foster multifaceted, sometimes chaotic, portraits of the social milieus in which the primary subjects and their peers acted.

For students of Jefferson (detractors, boosters, and others) the Papers project remains an unparalleled resource. Yet anyone interested in some small corner of the early republic can profitably consult its volumes. And the same might be said for documentary projects of all stripes. Don’t think of them as limited by their primary subjects, however rich and contentious.