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Lucky for us that one of America’s most fascinating and important statesmen and thinkers, Thomas Jefferson, was an inveterate and eloquent correspondent. He left behind roughly 18,000 letters and the monumental effort to prepare the authoritative edition of his papers began in the 1940s. The best of these documents provide a window into Jefferson’s brilliant mind and how he perceived his world.
J. Jefferson Looney, founding editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series at Monticello, talks at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, about the challenges and rewards of total immersion in the written corpus associated with Jefferson, as well as the unique insights about Jefferson and life at Monticello that the project provides an editor—and the public.
Looney discusses the value of accurate transcription and annotation to understanding Jefferson and the context in which he lived, and the kinds of detective work that help bring life to the documents he edits. He also offers a hands-on exercise so that attendees can transcribe a Jefferson document themselves.
Looney concludes by covering Jefferson’s 17 years in retirement, a period marked by the richness and sheer diversity of the correspondence of a man finally freed from what he called “the shackles of power.” He describes a man now able to write long, reflective letters on topics including gardening, geography, sheep husbandry, mathematics, linguistic reform, wine, education, politics, religion—and his aversion to dogs, Napoleon and Plato.