On 6 March 1809, as Thomas Jefferson eagerly prepared to depart for the last time from Washington to Monticello, he exulted to John Armstrong that he was now writing “merely as a private individual, which I am now happily become. within two or three days I retire from scenes of difficulty, anxiety & of contending passions to the elysium of domestic affections & the irresponsible direction of my own affairs.” Safely ensconced at Monticello, in another of many similar variations on this theme Jefferson wrote Charles Willson Peale on 5 May that “I am totally occupied without doors, & enjoying a species of happiness I never before knew, that of doing whatever hits the humor of the moment without responsibility or injury to any one.”
Jefferson lived for seventeen years after leaving the presidency. He enjoyed generally good health and many happy hours with his family and friends, but due especially to steadily worsening and ultimately catastrophic financial troubles, this long retirement was not always the elysium he had anticipated. It was also far more productive than his initial anticipation of undirected pleasure might have foretold. Early in this period Jefferson was sued by Edward Livingston for his decision as president to seize the Batture Sainte Marie in New Orleans as public property, and Jefferson devoted a great deal of time and energy to researching and writing a lengthy brief defending his actions and otherwise preparing for the case, which was dismissed in 1811. These years also saw the composition of Jefferson’s memoirs and his sale to the nation of his library, among the largest owned by an individual in America at the time and certainly one of the most varied, a transfer that helped transform the Library of Congress from a legislative reference tool into a great scholarly institution. Jefferson’s major preoccupation was, however, a long and difficult but ultimately successful campaign to found the University of Virginia, which he regarded as one of his three greatest accomplishments. He devoted countless hours, not just to obtaining the necessary legislation and resources but also to recruiting the faculty, designing and supervising the construction of the buildings, choosing books for the library, and drafting the school’s curriculum and regulations.
Even more important than such individual achievements is the sheer breadth and depth of material represented in Jefferson's late correspondence. Freed from the direction of public affairs and able to risk somewhat less circumspection in expressing himself, Jefferson had the time, energy, and inclination to write on a dazzling variety of subjects, including agriculture, architecture, astronomy, biography, botany, education, gardening, geography, history, law, linguistics, philosophy, politics, religion, slavery, and states' rights. His retirement-era correspondence with John Adams and James Madison is rightly regarded as a priceless literary treasure, but his extensive exchanges with other writers are almost equally rich and not nearly as well known, such as his letters to and from Thomas Cooper, Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, Albert Gallatin, Louis H. Girardin, William Lambert, Robert Patterson, Charles Willson Peale, Horatio Gates Spafford, Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, and William Wirt.
Jefferson often complained about the demands unsolicited correspondence placed on him, and the quantity of paper that crossed his desk during his retirement is impressive. After he left office Congress conferred on him, as it had on his predecessors, the franking privilege on incoming as well as outgoing letters, which only increased the flow of letters from persons rich and poor, learned and unlettered, American and foreign, all seeking his views. He did not in fact reply to everyone, especially those who sought favors or charity, nor did he try to match the output of such frequent writers as Adams. Nonetheless, Jefferson maintained a vast correspondence. He was careful to retain file copies of his own epistles, using a polygraph or stylograph in most cases to make exact replicas.
Despite its subsequent dispersal, most of his own archive has survived, making Jefferson’s literary legacy for his last years surprisingly complete. After six decades of collecting reproductions of texts from hundreds of public institutions and generous private owners, the Editors now have access to at least one version of some thirteen thousand retirement-period documents of which Jefferson is either the author or recipient. Due to his careful practice of recording almost all of his incoming and outgoing correspondence in an epistolary register, it can be inferred that for the same period fewer than fifteen hundred letters that he wrote or received are missing. Thus, the Retirement Series will be able to work with at least one text of almost ninety percent of the total corpus of Jefferson documents written during this period. More incoming than outgoing letters are missing, raising the percentage for documents written by Jefferson even higher.
Despite its intrinsic interest, and although the survival rate for papers from the retirement period is high, most of the material in question has never been published. Less than a third of the extant documents authored by Jefferson have appeared in print in whole or in part. No one source even comes close to this figure, since what has been published hitherto is scattered across a wide range of books and articles, transcribed by varying rules and with doubtful accuracy, and generally having little if any annotation. For letters to Jefferson, the proportion is even lower, with more than four in five never having been published.
The publication in 2004 of the first volume of the Retirement Series inaugurated a new phase in the ongoing effort to produce the definitive edition of papers documenting the written legacy of Thomas Jefferson. The new series covers the period between his return to private life on 4 March 1809 and his death on 4 July 1826. In the “General View of the Work” in the first volume of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (pp. vii, xiv), Editor Julian P. Boyd stated in 1950 that the project’s goal was the presentation of “the writings and recorded actions of Thomas Jefferson as accurately and as completely as possible.” To achieve this end he proposed to print, note, or otherwise account for “everything legitimately Jeffersonian by reason of authorship or of relationship,” while excluding materials with “only a technical claim to being regarded as Jefferson documents.”
The project’s scope and ambition remain fundamentally unchanged. Subsequent shifts in thinking by historical editors have led to some modifications in practice, especially in transcription policy, but in most important particulars Boyd’s editorial method remains viable. The Editors continue to include incoming as well as outgoing letters; to collect and compare all known texts of documents and account for significant variations; to annotate so as to provide “a certain minimum basis of information essential to the understanding of each document,” with the emphasis on “minimum” and “essential” (p. xxxiv); and to use the same basic textual apparatus, descriptive symbols, design, and breakdown of annotation into a descriptive note, optional explanatory note, and numbered textual notes. The reader is directed to the “General View” for a discussion of the rationale behind this approach and to the “Statement of Textual Method” for details on the transcription policy used in the Retirement Series.
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series was made possible through the creative thinking and generosity of Princeton University, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., and The Pew Charitable Trusts. Since 1943 the Papers of Thomas Jefferson have been edited at Princeton under the sponsorship of Princeton University, and the original plan was for all of the chronological volumes to be edited there. However, at a 1997 retreat of the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, Rebecca W. Rimel, the head of The Pew Charitable Trusts, became inspired by the vision of splitting off the retirement-period documents and creating a new team to edit them at Charlottesville under the aegis of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. This approach would enable work to proceed on two different periods of Jefferson’s life simultaneously and thereby double the production of volumes with no compromise of the high standards so important to this work. With crucial help from Dr. W. W. Abbot, a distinguished editor of George Washington’s papers who had long dreamed of bringing a Jefferson editing project to Monticello, a proposal was prepared and submitted to Princeton University, which agreed to turn over administrative and editorial responsibility for the retirement years to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, after obtaining assurances that the new arrangement would not jeopardize its own longstanding commitment to the completion of this enterprise or diminish its quality in any way. A board composed of members from Princeton and the Foundation and headed by Professor John M. Murrin was established to coordinate the work of the two projects, a task made much easier by the appointment in 1998 of Dr. Barbara B. Oberg as general editor of the Jefferson Papers at Princeton. Dr. Oberg’s unfailing cooperation, assistance, and friendly advice, especially during the initial copying and transfer from Princeton to Charlottesville of many thousands of document folders and bibliographic control files, has helped minimize the logistical problems associated with creating a new project of this magnitude.
Initially funded by a generous five-year grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, work on the Retirement Series officially began with the appointment of J. Jefferson Looney as the editor and project director and his installation at the beginning of October 1999 in rented space at Peter Jefferson Place in Charlottesville. Since then, a talented and dedicated staff has been assembled, the necessary intellectual foundations have been laid, a search for additional Jefferson documents has been completed, new digital tools have been created, and the project has moved into permanent quarters on the third floor of the Foundation's new Jefferson Library at the International Center for Jefferson Studies near Monticello. The Editors eagerly embrace the weighty responsibility of presenting fully and accurately the documentary record associated with Thomas Jefferson's retirement years and thereby contributing to a truly comprehensive understanding of his significance, both in his own time and ours.