- Resources for Early American StudiesCompanion Texts
The stately majesty of this project is such that its first volume appeared in 1950—before this reviewer, and most readers, were born. It must be a matter of pride for all concerned with this fantastic publishing project over the years that it will now likely be completed. The series has been rightly garlanded with praise for its ambition, its production values, its scholarly apparatus and the staggering erudition displayed in its editorial annotations. The current volume more than maintains standards. It offers the reader clarity. Correspondents are identified, foreign language writing translated, and there is an index. Groups of related documents are contextualized in brief essays. However, like others in the series, this volume also offers the luxury, never abused, of space. For example, pages 546 through 554 concern the theories of Ohio shoemaker and "claimant to divine authority" [End Page 573] Gabriel Crane, who sent Jefferson an Essay on Light as an Element, reproduced in full here. Robert Miller, who had not "practised study" and knew "not any of the dead languages, and scarcely my own," sent Jefferson his Notes on Occult Knowledge, again reproduced in full, including its illustrations, and accompanied by a learned and exceptionally useful editorial note (256–68). Other gems in the volume need little comment, for example Jefferson's letter of condolence to John Adams on the death of Abigail Adams (392).
Jefferson's main business in this period was to persuade Virginia's legislature to build what became the University of Virginia on his preferred site and according to his intellectual design. The documents associated with this struggle, notably those emanating from the meeting of commissioners at Rockfish Gap, are relatively well known, having been widely reproduced elsewhere. Still, the intellectual energy Jefferson expended justifying Charlottesville as a site near central to the distribution of Virginia's population emerges strikingly. One is also struck by how much Jefferson's success owed to the efforts of Joseph Cabell, his floor manager in the Virginia legislature. In late August 1818 Jefferson journeyed south to Warm Springs. The extensive correspondence he conducted with his farm manager, Joel Yancey, adds substance to our knowledge of Jefferson's estate and his finances. Elsewhere Jefferson took steps to authorize his version of the nation's founding, by aiding John Trumbull to rebut attacks on the accuracy of his monumental painting depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but also by withholding cooperation from would-be biographers and by writing his own remembrance of Benjamin Franklin (465). The editors have unearthed a rare, brief letter to Jefferson from one of his slaves, Hannah (393). Any volume in the Papers contains an arresting suggestion: here we find Jefferson claiming credit for the introduction of the tomato to America (28).
Here, as elsewhere in the series, the reader can observe Jefferson recycling in the space of a few days the same thought in substantially the same language (letters to Joseph Gales, Thomas Ritchie, and William Duane, December 7 and 9). Previous generations of readers—the term is appropriate to the longevity of the project—have tended to take an uncritical approach to such repetition, regarding it is as understandable in a serial correspondent and potentially revelatory of core beliefs. Indeed in 1821 Jefferson received 1,267 letters and he answered nearly all of them, usually [End Page 574] keeping copies of his answer. But why? What exactly is captured in the collected correspondence? To say that Jefferson was "unusual" might be a coded way of suggesting he was weird. In these pages, we see a gracious man of seventy-five writing on the same day (Nov. 8) of bookbinding, swiss cheese, and the character of Benjamin Franklin. We appreciate the breadth of his interest and acquaintance, and also the egalitarianism implied by the act of replying to letters as opposed to the bombast of posting tweets. However, digitization has made...