Thomas Jefferson once called the letters of A person "the only full and genuine journal of his life." By that standard, Princeton University Press's exhaustive Papers of Thomas Jefferson, the 31st volume of which will be released this week, is one colossal diary. Begun in 1943 and scheduled to be completed by 2026--the bicentennial of Jefferson's death--the project includes more than 20,000 letters the prolific Virginian wrote in his lifetime as well as an abundance of correspondence he received. From the newest volume, edited by Princeton historian Barbara B. Oberg, we offer a sampler that includes never before published writings by Jefferson on Napoleon Bonaparte, the controversial presidential election of 1800 and the death of a favorite slave. Covering 1799 through early 1801, when Jefferson served as Vice President under John Adams, the epistles reproduced here are faithful to the Founding Father's spellings and grammar except for his habit of beginning sentences with a lowercase letter, which has been changed for clarity. The eloquence and the complexity of the man, however, are in full view.
ON THE HUMAN POTENTIAL FOR EDUCATION
June 18, 1799 To: William G. Munford
"I am among those who think well of the human character generally. I consider man as formed for society, and endowed by nature with those dispositions which fit him for society ... his mind is perfectible to a degree of which we cannot as yet form any conception. It is impossible for a man who takes a survey of what is already known, not to see what an immensity in every branch of science yet remains to be discovered, & that too of articles to which our faculties seem adequate."
Jefferson answered virtually every letter he received, including screeds from lunatics and pleas from strangers for money. In particular he could not resist a request for advice. When a young student wrote him seeking some suggested reading, Jefferson picked up a regular correspondence with the youth and even personally hunted bookshops for texts for him. The student, William Munford, turned out to be a scoundrel who would spread political gossip about Jefferson. But historians consider this letter from the then Vice President to Munford to be essential Jefferson: a statement of his fundamental optimism, his faith in the possibility of progress through learning, and the clearest expression of his views on the role of learned young men in the Republic. Also in his note, Jefferson took time to remind Munford to study his trigonometry.
ON THE FRENCH REVOLUTION'S AFTERSHOCKS
April 8, 1800 To: Everard Meade