Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Ebenezer Hazard, 18 February 1791

To Ebenezer Hazard

Philadelphia Feb. 18. 1791.


I return you the two volumes of records, with thanks for the opportunity of looking into them. They are curious monuments of the infancy of our country. I learn with great satisfaction that you are about committing to the press the valuable historical and state-papers you have been so long collecting. Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices. The late war has done the work of centuries in this business. The lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains: not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use, in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident. This being the tendency of your undertaking be assured there is no one who wishes it a more complete success than Sir Your most obedient & most humble servt.,

Th: Jefferson

RC (PHi). PrC (DLC). Enclosure: The two unbound manuscript volumes (DLC: Hazard Papers) comprising Hazard’s copy made in Plymouth in 1779 and 1781 of the Records of the United Colonies of New England, the text of which made up the major part of the second of the only two volumes to be published of Hazard’s pioneering effort to preserve and publish American historical documents, Historical collections; consisting of the state papersintended as materials for an history of the United States (Philadelphia, 1792–1794). See Sowerby No. 3044.

This brief, eloquent, and timeless philosophy for archivists, curators of historical manuscripts, and editors of historical documents sprang from TJ’s own life-long concern to protect the sources of American history against loss and to disseminate them for use (see TJ to Wythe, 16 Jan. 1796). His interest in Hazard’s bold undertaking went back to 1774 (see text of Hazard’s first printed prospectus under 23 Aug. 1774; TJ to Hazard, 30 Apr. 1775). In Notes on Virginia TJ had printed the list of documents he had made in 1775 for Hazard’s use, and stated: “An extensive collection of papers of this description has been for some time in a course of preparation by a gentleman fully equal to the task, and from whom, therefore, we may hope ere long to receive it” (Notes, Peden ed., p. 179, 296n.). Hazard’s duties as postmaster-general from 1782 to 1789, among other obstacles, disappointed this expectation. Like his friend Charles Thomson, Hazard was not continued in office under the new government, but, unlike him, he was not given a glowing testimonial for faithful public services extending back to the beginning of the government (Washington to Thomson, 24 July 1789; Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxx, 358–9). Indeed, Washington did not even inform the incumbent that another would take his place, but left Hazard to learn on the streets that Samuel Osgood would be his successor. The cause of this unceremonious dismissal is attributable, first, to Washington’s mistaken belief that Hazard was opposed to the Constitution, and second, to opposition from the struggling stage lines that had been under contract to deliver the mail. The latter may have given TJ an additional motive for assisting Hazard, for he had long been concerned about the need for “speedy and frequent communication of intelligence” (TJ to Adams, 16 May 1777) and Hazard, thinking that owners of stage lines had sacrificed safe and expeditious handling of mails for the sake of greater gains through passenger revenue, had failed to renew their contracts (Fred Shelley, “Ebenezer Hazard: America’s First Historical Editor,” WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly, 1892- description ends , 3rd. ser., xii [Jan. 1955], 60–1; W. E. Rich, History of the United States Post Office to the year 1829, p. 64–7). The historically minded intellectual was one of the few incumbents of his office to manage the postal service without a loss, but his zeal for dispatch and efficiency brought him into collision with those who believed mail contracts should be awarded to a young and struggling transportation industry in order to meet another public necessity. This was an enduring conflict, but the first manifestation of it left Hazard at 44 with no means of support for his young and growing family. TJ had been unable to supply him with the clerkship in the Department of State for which he applied early in 1790 (Hazard to TJ, 20 Feb. 1790). But Hazard, stunned by a dismissal for which he had been unprepared and whose causes he did not fully grasp, turned to his compilation of documents in the belief that a patriotic public would support a venture illuminating the political progress of the country and “clearly point[ing] out different advances from persecution to comparative liberty, and from thence to independent empire” (Hazard’s memorial to Congress, 11 July 1788; JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, 1904–1937, 34 vols. description ends , xi, 682). The confidence was as bold as the long-pursued plan, and it was in the full tide of this hope that Hazard appealed to TJ.

To TJ’s prompt response Hazard replied the same day: “Mr. Hazard presents his respectful Compliments to Mr. Jefferson.—He has received the Records of the United Colonies of New England, and is much obliged to Mr. Jefferson for his Letter which accompanied them” (RC in DLC; dated “Friday Evening” and recorded in SJL as received 18 Feb. 1791). The testimonial had been solicited for publication, was composed with that end in view, and of course was employed in newspaper advertisements and in Hazard’s broadside, Proposals for printing by subscription, a collection of state papers intended as materials for an history of the United States of America (Philadelphia [Thomas Dodson], 24 Feb. 1791; Gazette of the United States, 5 Mch. 1791; Hazard to TJ, 17 Feb. 1791). Hazard’s own copy of the prospectus, a scroll with a double-column appendage of signatures of subscribers, is now in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, at once an object and a champion of the purposes of such indispensable repositories. Its list of signatures begins with the bold autograph of the President who had dismissed the faithful and competent public servant without grace or ceremony, and is followed by those of the Vice-President, members of the Cabinet, Senators, Representatives, and civil servants. TJ’s signature is thirty-third on the list.

The apposite words of TJ’s letter were quoted by the Editor in the fore front of the document that led to the present edition (Report to the Thomas Jefferson Bicentennial Commission on the need, scope, proposed method of preparation, probable cost, and possible means of publishing a comprehensive edition of the writings of Thomas Jefferson [Princeton, N.J.], mimeographed text, 25 Sep. 1943), and Hazard’s copy of the prospectus with its imposing array of signatures of subscribers was reproduced in facsimile in the document that led to the first general appropriation by the Federal Government authorizing grants for the collection, reproduction, and publication of documentary source material significant to the history of the United States (Hearing … on H. R. 6237, 88th Cong., 1st. sess., Washington, 1963, p. 23). Thus TJ’s timeless testimonial in support of the pioneer editor of historical sources in the eighteenth century continued to sustain the similar purposes of his successors in the twentieth. But Hazard, whose bold conception, self-sacrificing industry, and intellectual integrity won for him “a place of first rank in the roster of American antiquaries,” was mistaken in his belief in public support. His two volumes served historians well for over half a century but their fate at the hands of the purchasing public was, as a business venture, “just short of disastrous.” Hazard bore his loss with equanimity and even labored in the hope of issuing a third volume, but it never appeared (Shelley, “Ebenezer Hazard: America’s First Historical Editor,” WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly, 1892- description ends , 3rd. ser., xii [Jan. 1955], 45).

Index Entries