Thomas Jefferson Papers
Created and maintained by the Library of Congress.
Reviewed June 11–16, 2004.
Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive
Created and maintained by the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.
Reviewed June 11–16, 2004.
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote about twenty thousand letters and received many more, may well have amassed one of the largest and most consequential collections of correspondence in American history. He did so not only by devoting a significant portion of his life to the enterprise but also by systematically copying, preserving, filing, and cataloging these and other texts, such as public addresses, legal documents, and the prose and poetry that he extracted in his literary commonplace books. The result is an extraordinarily rich body of work reflecting the drama of Jefferson’s era, the diversity of his interests, and the importance of his contributions. Thus these two excellent Web sites—which make available to an unprecedented number of people an unprecedented number of Jefferson’s papers—perform a remarkable public service. They also serve as instructive examples of how Internet archives can and cannot replace traditional resources such as manuscripts collections and edited compilations.
The Thomas Jefferson Papers Web site provides high-quality digital images (and sometimes transcriptions) of the Library of Congress’s unparalleled collection of Jefferson’s incoming and outgoing letters, legal and literary commonplace books, financial records, and other written items. Taken together, these 27,000 documents consist of about 83,000 manuscript pages. Users of the site can either browse the collection, which is divided among ten categories (General Correspondence, Account Books, Commonplace Books, Miscellaneous Bound Volumes, etc.), or search by keyword. Most will find the latter method more useful and efficient, for all of the documents are searchable by date, author, and (in the case of letters) recipient. Some, moreover, are linked to searchable full-text transcriptions taken from collections such as Paul Leicester Ford’s Works of Thomas Jefferson (12 vols., 1904–1905) and John C. Fitzpatrick’s Writings of George Washington (39 vols., 1931–1944). As a result, typing “Monroe and 1815” into the search engine yields links to a total of four documents containing both words. These include two 1815 letters (January 1 and July 15) from Jefferson to James Monroe as well as letters from Jefferson to William H. Crawford (February 14, 1815) and Spencer Roane (October 12, 1815). In his notes to Crawford and Roane, both of which appear in Ford’s Works of Jefferson, the third president refers by name to the future fifth president.
Clicking on the link to a document produces a screen that features a photographic image of the manuscript taken from the Library of Congress’s sixty-five-reel microfilm edition of Jefferson’s papers. Although the handwriting is generally too small to be easily read in these images, they can be magnified, with a generously high resolution. In addition, when a transcription is available for a document, a link to the text appears on the screen.
The Thomas Jefferson Papers, a well-designed and wonderfully useful Web site, renders obsolete the Library of Congress’s cumbersome microfilm compendium of Jefferson’s papers, which was never available at more than a small number of research libraries. Yet it possesses some of the same limitations as the microfilm from which its images of documents are taken. First among them is the fact that the microfilm did not constitute a complete reproduction of the library’s collection. Images usually do not include the back sides of the sheets of paper on which Jefferson’s correspondents wrote, even though this is where he sometimes made notations. Moreover, enclosures such as newspaper clippings—mentioned in some of his letters and preserved alongside them in the manuscripts collection—also were oftentimes not microfilmed. A separate group of several dozen newspaper clippings (a few of which were annotated by Jefferson) cataloged by the library as volume 10 of “Series 7: Miscellaneous Bound Volumes” was never microfilmed and therefore does not appear on the Web site. A second limitation is that the presentation of documents alone is no match for the usefulness of the accompanying explanatory notes that appear in the painstakingly edited Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., 31 vols. to date, 1950- ). Most important among these caveats, however, is the fact that, although the Library of Congress’s collection of the third president’s papers constitutes the bulk of his correspondence, it does not include many of the letters in the possession of institutions such as the Huntington Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the University of Virginia.
The Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive, a project of the Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia Library, helps to bridge this gap. About 1,700 items of Jefferson’s correspondence contained within the university’s manuscripts collection, most of them compiled and rendered keyword-searchable by Frank E. Grizzard Jr., appear on this site. So does Grizzard’s Documentary History of the Construction of the Buildings at the University of Virginia, 1817–1828 (1996, 2003), a masterly account to which these letters to and from Jefferson relate. Another highly useful feature is Frank Shuffelton’s Thomas Jefferson: Comprehensive, Annotated Bibliographies of Writings about Him, 1826–1997 (2001), an exhaustive and fully searchable collection based on two printed volumes containing synopses of and astute commentaries on the four thousand books and articles relating to Jefferson published since his death. So valuable is Shuffelton’s bibliography that, as a point of departure for Jefferson research, it surpasses highly regarded online tools such as jstor and America: History and Life.
These sites contain or provide links to other resources that should interest people seeking to learn more about Jefferson. The Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive, for example, includes John P. Foley’s nine-thousand-entry Jeffersonian Cyclopedia (1900), a veritable Bartlett’s of Jefferson quotations. It lists links to organizations such as Monticello’s International Center for Jefferson Studies and sites such as the university’s interactive tour of Jefferson’s original campus in Charlottesville, which he dubbed the “academical village.” The Thomas Jefferson Papers site, meanwhile, includes a detailed chronology of Jefferson’s life, popular quotations of Jefferson’s, and an explanation of how the “Jamestown Records” of Virginia’s early settlement found their way into the Library of Congress’s collection of Jefferson’s papers.
Such features constitute fine resources for teachers and students in high schools and colleges and can serve as handy references for all individuals interested in the life, times, and legacies of America’s most polymath founder. The greatest benefactors of these Web sites, however, are researchers who now have access to thousands of letters, many of which are keyword-searchable, not included in printed editions of the third president’s papers. Thomas Jefferson, who in 1823 wrote that “it is the duty of every good citizen to use all the opportunities, which occur to him, for preserving documents relating to the history of our country,” no doubt would extol these two fine Web sites, which not only preserve but also propagate his words as well as the writings of the multitudinous individuals who constituted his own world and—with him—helped to shape ours.
Robert M. S. McDonald
United States Military Academy
West Point, New York