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20.00.01 The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, by Clyde N. Wilson.

Even if THOMAS JEFFERSON  (1751—1836) of Virginia had not been third President of the United States, his writings would  still make him of lasting interest and importance to Europe and America.  Jefferson lived a long time, played a prominent role in important events, enjoyed a long and reflective retirement, had a spacious and well-stocked mind, and wrote constantly all his life for both public and private purposes.  He was Revolutionary leader and Governor of Virginia, member of the Continental Congress and the Congress’s Minister to France, the first Secretary of State, leader of the Democratic-Republican party which thwarted (at least for a time) the plans of the Federalists for a centralized and insufficiently limited federal government, Vice-President, President, and founder of the University of Virginia.  His offices do not account entirely for the esteem he enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic as a wise and good man.

Even so, Jefferson wrote only one published book in his lifetime:  Notes on the State of Virginia, first printed anonymously in Paris in 1782 and then in popular editions in France, England, Germany, and America [03.01.03].  In this work Jefferson describes and interprets  nearly every aspect of his beloved home country.  He does so primarily for the information of European  readers eager for information about America and often badly misguided on the subject. 

Known to the public in his time were  many official documents:  reports , letters, memoranda, inaugural addresses, Presidential messages, etc., written while in office.  There is a 23-page pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, published at Williamsburg two years before the Declaration of Independence, which learnedly and defiantly marshaled the Constitutional case against Parliamentary rule of the thirteen colonies, and which first brought  Jefferson to public attention [02.04.01].    Then there are unascribed writings, the most important of which is the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which established that the States were sovereign and the federal government only their agent.  (It  was later denied, unsuccessfully, that Jefferson was the author of this document.)

The larger part of  the products of Jefferson’s pen  were not published in his lifetime:  letters to family and friends and to prominent people all over the civilized world , private memoranda and recollections, and much else.  A true renaissance man, Jefferson’s knowledge encompassed the classics, history, law, economics, religion,  education, agriculture, architecture,  the ancient Anglo-Saxon and Native American languages, botany, geology, and much else.  The private letters expressing his thoughts are perhaps the best guide to understanding  the real Jefferson.  To understand the real Jefferson it is necessary to cast off exaggerated ideas of Jefferson’s role in history that were invented in the 19th century.  He was not a saint or guru or really a radical.  He did not get the Declaration of Independence from Heaven and single-handedly launch a world revolution for liberty and equality.  He had neither the power nor the inclination for such a thing.  He was simply the draftsman chosen to draw up a statement justifying the rightness of the thirteen colonies becoming free and independent States.  As a public man Jefferson was always a representative of the people and not a preacher of a personal revelation.

There are many biographies and a multitude of works claiming to interpret Jefferson.  All a non-specialist reader really needs is Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time, a full and balanced biography by a master historian (see 07.01.10).  Otherwise, rather than reading  interpretations of Jefferson, it is better to read the writings of the man himself, which can provide years of pleasure and enlightenment.

Princeton University began in 1950 publishing a comprehensive chronological  edition of   The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.  This edition has reached so far 36 volumes covering up to 1803.   It is available online by subscription.  An older selective collection of Jefferson’s writings which is still useful and is also online is  Paul L. Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson, 12  volumes, 1904—1905.  Worthwhile selected collections fairly readily available are Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Modern Library) and Merrill D. Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson.   Many more recent selected editions of Jefferson’s works tend to neglect  the Southern and decentralist aspects of  his thought.  There are many other partial collections online and in print.  It should be pointed out that like most  great men, Jefferson has sometimes been given quotations that are bogus or seriously out of context.

Clyde N. Wilson

Other Web-site pages:

  • Biography by Dumas’ Malone  . . . .  [Click here] 
  • A Summary View of the Rights of British America . . . . [Click here]