Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Le Veillard, with Enclosures, 9 May 1786

To Le Veillard, with Enclosures

Tuesday May 9.

Mr. Jefferson presents his compliments to Monsr. Le Vieillard and will be happy to hear that himself, Madame et Mademoiselle le Vieillard are well. He is but just returned from England, and will avail himself of the first leisure moment to pay his respects to Monsr. le Vieillard in person. In the mean time he returns with many thanks the papers relative to Dr. Franklin which he was so kind as to lend him.

RC (NNP); the year supplied in date from internal evidence; addressed in part: “à Passy.” Not recorded in SJL. All of the identifiable enclosures are printed below in literal form.

The papers relative to Dr. Franklin enclosed in this letter evidently pertained to the autobiography that Abel James, Benjamin Vaughan, Le Veillard, and others had encouraged Franklin to complete. This is conjectural, but the evidence makes it all but certain that the texts here printed as enclosures are copies of the documents returned. Le Veillard is known to history chiefly because he encouraged Franklin to complete his memoirs, because he made a careful translation of the famous autobiography into French, and because he came into possession of the original manuscript and the most important copy of the outline that Franklin had used. It is natural that he should have discussed with TJ a matter so close to his heart and so near to TJ’s interests. If such materials as those copied by Short and here printed were not the texts of documents returned by TJ, one wonders what papers relative to Doctor Franklin there might have been in Le Veillard’s custody suitable for TJ’s borrowing. No other documents seem to fit the plausibilities. There may have been others besides the three texts that Short copied (and TJ endorsed) as two; but this seems unlikely. These documents related to the simplest and most famous of memoirs, but they became involved in a maze of textual problems so complex that even the researches of assiduous and competent Franklin scholars have not fully established the relevant facts. Among the sources to be consulted are the following: Max Farrand, “Benjamin Franklin’s Memoirs,” Huntington Lib. Bull., No. 10 (Oct. 1936), 49–78; Carl Van Doren, ed., Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiographical Writings (New York, 1945), 209–15, 616–21, 633–6; Max Farrand, ed., with preface by Godfrey Davies, Benjamin Franklin’s Memoirs: Parallel Text Edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1949), xx–xxi, xxiii–xxix, 184–98, 419–22; and Francis S. Philbrick, “Notes on Early Editions and Editors of Franklin,” Am. Phil. Soc., Procs., xcvii (Oct. 1953), 525–64.

Before returning the copies that Le Veillard had lent him, TJ caused copies to be made by Short. Since it is obvious from the present letter that TJ had not seen Le Veillard after his return from England, the papers must have been borrowed before TJ made his hasty departure on 6 Mch. and Short must have made the retained copies during the eight weeks of TJ’s absence. Despite the fact that Abel James’ letter (Enclosure i) has been given an enormous circulation by reason of Franklin’s decision to insert the first part of it in his memoirs, the full text evidently exists only in the copy made by Short and has not been printed at length heretofore. The copy of the notes about Franklin’s life taken “from himself” by Le Veillard at Passy (Enclosure ii) also exists only in the copy made by Short and has not been printed heretofore except in the English translation in Van Doren, ed., Franklin’s Autobiographical Writings, p. 633–6. Nor has Short’s copy of the familiar outline or notes of topics made by Franklin been printed heretofore, though the text from which it was ultimately derived has been printed several times since its first publication by Bigelow in 1868, including Van Doren, ed., same, p. 209–13, and Farrand, ed., Franklin’s Memoirs, p. 419–22. Of Short’s copy of the outline, Farrand stated merely that it was “a contemporary copy… which, except for some omissions, is substantially the same textually” as the MS in NNP, which he identified as the copy transmitted in 1782 by Abel James. Van Doren noted that the Short copy contained “some omissions that may be accidental, and two variations that require comment” these two variations resulted from errors (but not the only ones) that were made by Bigelow, whose text of 1868 Van Doren followed. Because of the number and nature of the variations between the text in Short’s hand and the only known text bearing any writing in Franklin’s hand (that in NNP) and because of the inferences to be drawn from them in respect to the important textual history of Franklin’s memoirs, Short’s copy is printed here, along with an analysis of its variations.

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