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Oddly Precise

Anna Berkes

I'm currently engaged in a long-term quest to acquire every single item in Frank Shuffelton's epic Thomas Jefferson: A Comprehensive, Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him, 1826-1997. Frank Shuffelton, as some of you may already know, was a professor of English at the University of Rochester, compiler of the above bibliography as well as editing an excellent edition of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and the recent Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson, and a member of the ICJS Advisory Board.  He was also a very nice man -- I met him once for 2 minutes over a cheese plate at the 2004 launch of the new Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series.

When the Jefferson Library was just a little baby library, we used Frank's bibliography to jump-start our online catalog, loading all of the citations into it.  Frank died earlier this year, but we're carrying on his Jefferson bibliographizing here.  We're pretty on top of the recent stuff about Jefferson, but for older stuff, we sometimes just have a citation in the catalog and no holdings; that's the stuff that I'm filling in now.

So this is the first in a running series of Amusing Shuffelton Items.  Item #1 is a book called The People's Choice, by Herbert Agar (Riverside Press, 1933).  Herbert Agar, we learn from the Internet, was "an American journalist and editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal."  This book also won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1934.  Hmmm.  Anyway, I managed to get a copy that still has its dust jacket, which is fortunate because this one is pretty awesome: check out those 1930s-vintage graphics!

It is one specific chapter of this book, of course, that we are particularly interested in, because it is titled "John Adams and Thomas Jefferson."  Fortunately I don't need to bother to read it, because Frank already did, and summarized it thusly in his annotated bibliography:

Adams and TJ were part of the oligarchic class, "A little group of privileged and public-spirited men" which occupied the presidency during the first fifty years of the nation's existence. The election of 1800 was no revolution; "in fact, there was no important change."

"No important change"?!  Whatever, Herbert!  As you will have divined from Frank's summary, Mr. Agar is a man of strong opinions.  Witness the question posed on the cover, which seems to be the result of Mr. Agar's very strong opinions combined with some oddly precise math.

Good question, Mr. Agar!  How those eighteen bunglers among the twenty-two presidents after the first seven presidents got elected to office is truly one of the great mysteries of our time.

Seriously, I poke a little fun at Mr. Agar's convoluted ranking, but his comment actually puts me in mind of Jefferson's own famous comment, speaking of his daughter, that "the chance that in marriage she will draw a blockhead I calculate at about fourteen to one..."  I would love to know what kind of analysis led to that oddly precise math... but that's for another blog post.

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