Thomas Jefferson Papers

Editorial Note

Editorial Note

Between 6 Jan. and 29 July 1821, Jefferson overcame his oft-expressed aversion to writing about himself and produced his longest description of his life. In just over 32,000 words, he covered the period from his birth in 1743 until his arrival in New York in 1790 to take up his duties as secretary of state. Following brief accounts of his parentage, education, and marriage, Jefferson devoted most of his attention to his public life—especially his role in the revolutionary movement, his time in the Continental Congress, his legislative contributions while sitting in the Virginia House of Delegates, and his years in France. He based it largely on, and in some cases copied liberally from, notes and letters he had written at the time of the incidents described. For example, in his detailed portrayal of the early days of the French Revolution, Jefferson made extensive use of letters he wrote to Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay during the summer of 1789.

Although historians have mined the work for specific statements of fact and portrayals of events, they have often been disappointed by its lack of introspection and personally revealing anecdotes. This negative reaction is somewhat unfair, as it was never Jefferson’s intention to bare his soul, but simply to create “some memoranda … for my own more ready reference & for the informn of my family.” This disclaimer notwithstanding, what he did produce is both interesting and valuable. Jefferson’s reminiscences detail his activities during and reflections on the years leading up to and immediately following American independence and contain flashes of insightful eloquence, shrewd word portraits of his contemporaries, and penetrating discussions of the important issues of his day.

Jefferson’s memoir has been published in each of the four previous editions of his papers, starting with that produced by his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph in 1829, in innumerable selections of his writings, and in a few stand-alone editions. Full or partial translations have also appeared in Chinese, Hungarian, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and other languages. Despite the proliferation of versions, none are fully reliable and a number of critical questions remain unanswered.

As Jefferson himself gave it no title, what should it be called? His grandson described it as a “Memoir.” In the 1850s Henry A. Washington became the first to refer to it as the “Autobiography,” and subsequent editors have generally followed his lead. The use of that word, however, promises too much and has influenced the way people think about the work. Calling it Jefferson’s notes on his early career is more accurate and less open to misconstruction.

Why did Jefferson set aside his scruples about writing about himself and take up the project in 1821? He had long proclaimed his disinterest in doing so. In 1809, for example, Jefferson wrote Skelton Jones that “nothing could be more repugnant to my feelings” than “writing the history of my whole life,” and he told Joseph Delaplaine in 1816 that “to become my own biographer is the last thing in the world I would undertake.” By contrast, during his retirement Jefferson had willingly supplied other writers with biographical material about people he had known and with whom he had worked. Over the preceding decade he wrote to Walter Jones about President George Washington; Paul Allen about the explorer Meriwether Lewis; William Wirt about the famed orator Patrick Henry; Peyton Randolph (d. 1828) about his uncle, the Virginia revolutionary of the same name; and John Sanderson about Jefferson’s mentor, friend, and colleague George Wythe. Perhaps these activities lessened Jefferson’s resistance to writing about himself. In addition, he had tried and failed to get someone to write an American history to counter what he regarded as the Federalist bias in John Marshall’s biography of Washington. Jefferson might have concluded that only by taking up the pen himself could the record finally be set straight.

A related question is why Jefferson ended his reminiscences so abruptly at 1790 and did not go on to discuss his time as secretary of state, vice president, president, and presidential retiree? He certainly seems to have intended to do so. In the entry for 7 Feb. 1821, Jefferson indicated that he would “recur again” to his many attempts to promote education “towards the close of my story,” a likely reference to his ongoing efforts to found the University of Virginia during his retirement. The gloss for his final entry, which reads “so far July 29. 21,” also holds out the prospect of a continuation.

The resolution to continue past 1790 subsided, perhaps in part because Jefferson doubted that he could do justice to the period after that point with the sources at his disposal. Later in 1821 he explained to his son-in-law John Wayles Eppes that, “in parting with my library to Congress, I parted with my whole collection of newspapers, journals, state-papers, documents Etc. without the aid of which I have been afraid to trust my memory.” When Eppes dutifully offered to provide him with such resources, Jefferson replied early in 1822 that “the information I need is generally from 1789. to 1809. and nothing at all after 1809.” Though the ex-president’s interest in obtaining additional documentation suggests that he did hope someday to return to the project, that aspiration ultimately proved illusory. When he made a final effort to recruit a Republican historian in 1823, he informed United States Supreme Court justice William Johnson that his own letters “(all preserved) will furnish the daily occurrences and views from my return from Europe in 1790. till I retired finally from office.”

Lastly, did Jefferson expect his memoir to be published? The manuscript itself provides some clues that he did. Jefferson almost certainly copied it out fair at least once, and certain anomalies suggest that he returned to it more often than that, possibly after the final inscribed date. With three exceptions, the ninety sheets on which it is written all have blank versos. Most of the pages are quite clean, with only a handful of the cancellations and interlineations usually found in his drafts. Jefferson habitually wrote his drafts with wide margins in order to allow plenty of room for emendations. Yet only two pages are in this typical draft format. The rest have narrow margins, with the text generally filling the entire page. At certain points, moreover, Jefferson let a page run short and explicitly indicated that a specific document was to follow.

Jefferson also numbered the pages, with a change in the pattern that could reflect two different rounds of copying. The first set of pages is numbered from 1 to 71, with only every fourth page assigned a number and with the blank versos included in the count, so that pages 2, 4, etc. are blank. But then the page that should have been numbered 77 by this method is actually numbered 69. From that point Jefferson numbered every written page through to the end, as 71, 73, 74 (the only full page on a verso), 75, 77, etc. Later in the manuscript Jefferson began using marginal glosses to reference specific documents as evidence, and during a discussion of one phase of the French Revolution he suddenly shifted into the present tense. The two instances in which he placed notes on versos may be cases where he added these comments during a later review of the manuscript, and he probably left the versos blank to allow for this possibility. At some point after he numbered the pages, Jefferson evidently decided to interfile his 1776 Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress, at which time he may have revised that document and replaced a page with a shorter version that made the congressional proceedings fit better at their intended point of insertion. Finally, Jefferson’s reference to “the example of 4. Presidents voluntarily retiring at the end of their 8th year” would appear to point to that section, at least, having been revised well after 1821, unless Jefferson simply assumed or was already aware that James Monroe would not seek a third term. Taken as a whole, these variations point to an ongoing process of reflection and revision by Jefferson with an eye to eventual, though possibly posthumous, publication (TJR description begins Thomas Jefferson Randolph, ed., Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1829, 4 vols. description ends , 1:1–89; HAW description begins Henry A. Washington, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 1853–54, 9 vols. description ends , 1:1–110; Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Letterpress Edition, 1892–99, 10 vols. description ends 1:1–153; L & B description begins Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert E. Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Library Edition, 1903–04, 20 vols. description ends , 1:1–164; J. Jefferson Looney, “‘Merely Personal or Private, with Which We Have Nothing to Do’: Thomas Jefferson’s Autobiographical Writings,” in Thomas Jefferson’s Lives: Biographers and the Battle for History, ed. Robert M. S. McDonald [2019], 25–46; PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, James P. McClure, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 44 vols. description ends , 1:299–329; TJ to Skelton Jones, 28 July 1809; TJ to Joel Barlow, 8 Oct. 1809; TJ’s Notes on Patrick Henry, [before 12 Apr. 1812], enclosed in TJ to Wirt, 12 Apr. 1812; TJ to Allen, 18 Aug. 1813; TJ to Walter Jones, 2 Jan. 1814; TJ to Delaplaine, 9 Feb. 1816; TJ’s Biography of Peyton Randolph (ca. 1723–75), [ca. 26 July 1816], enclosed in TJ to Peyton Randolph (d. 1828), 26 July 1816; TJ’s Explanations of the Three Volumes Bound in Marbled Paper (the so-called ‘Anas’), 4 Feb. 1818; TJ’s Notes for a Biography of George Wythe, [ca. 31 Aug. 1820]; TJ to John Sanderson, 31 Aug. 1820; Eppes to TJ, 15 Oct., 27 Nov. 1821; TJ to Eppes, 23 Oct. 1821, [by 17] Jan. 1822; TJ to William Johnson, 27 Oct. 1822, 4 Mar. 1823; Johnson to TJ, 10 Dec. 1822, 11 Apr. 1823; except as noted, letters to and from TJ and his legislative papers referenced below can be found in PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, James P. McClure, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 44 vols. description ends ).

Index Entries

  • Allen, Paul; and N. Biddle’s history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition search
  • biography; TJ on search
  • Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (J. Sanderson) search
  • books; biographical search
  • Continental Congress, Second; TJ’s Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress search
  • Delaplaine, Joseph; and biography of TJ search
  • Delaplaine, Joseph; Delaplaine’s Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished Americans search
  • Delaplaine’s Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished Americans (J. Delaplaine) search
  • Eppes, John Wayles (TJ’s son-in-law); urges TJ to write history search
  • French Revolution; TJ on search
  • Henry, Patrick (1736–99); TJ’s recollections of search
  • Jay, John; TJ’s correspondence with search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; as record of his life search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; drafts described search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; publication of papers search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; education search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; writing his autobiography search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; and founding of University of Virginia search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as minister to France search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as president search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as secretary of state search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as Va. burgess search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as vice president search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; in Continental Congress search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Biography of Meriwether Lewis search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Biography of Peyton Randolph (ca.1723–75) search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Notes for a Biography of George Wythe search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Notes on Patrick Henry search
  • Johnson, William (1771–1834); and TJ’s letters search
  • Jones, Skelton; mentioned search
  • Jones, Walter (1745–1816); and biographies of prominent Americans search
  • Lewis, Meriwether; TJ’s biography of search
  • Library of Congress; TJ sells personal library to search
  • Life of George Washington (J. Marshall); TJ on search
  • Marshall, John; Life of George Washington search
  • Monroe, James (1758–1831); presidency of search
  • Randolph, Peyton (ca.1723–75); TJ’s biography of search
  • Randolph, Peyton (d.1828); and J. Delaplaine’sRepository search
  • Randolph, Thomas Jefferson (TJ’s grandson; Jane Hollins Nicholas Randolph’s husband); publishes first edition of TJ’s papers search
  • Republican party; historical work proposed from perspective of search
  • Sanderson, John; Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence search
  • Washington, George; biographies of search
  • Washington, Henry Augustine search
  • Wirt, William; and TJ’s recollections of P. Henry search
  • Wythe, George; TJ’s Notes for a Biography of George Wythe search