One of U.S. history’s most eminent figures, Thomas Jefferson is as elusive as he is revered. This online exhibit opens a window onto the third president’s inner life by digging into the single largest collection of Thomas Jefferson’s private papers, which are held at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

In Jefferson’s personal papers we often find, more tangibly perhaps than in the papers from his public life, the particular infatuations and preoccupations of his tireless, creative and enormously curious mind.

His manifold experiments and whims appear throughout his Farm and Garden books, which capture Monticello as both the personal landscape he imagined for his family and also a place of production and domestic community.

Jefferson's letters show many different aspects of himself; sometimes he writes sharply back and forth with friends John and Abigail Adams; at other times his correspondence is with his granddaughters, perhaps his sweetest compositions.

The Draftsman and His Ideals
Possibly more than any of these, though, the notebooks and architectural drawings depicting the evolution of Monticello, his Virginia plantation, show us Jefferson’s own efforts to establish a threshold between the stage of his political life and a personal retreat. In Monticello, he crafted these key separations to secure domestic tranquility for his family and inviolable personal privacy for himself.

This construction begins even before the front door: the work spaces, or “dependencies”, where slaves performed much of the household labor were pushed out of sight, mostly depressed below ground to keep their intrusion to a minimum. This construction underscored one of the greatest conundrums of Jefferson’s legacy- the fact that he both owned slaves and ardently criticized slavery as an institution of “unremitting despotism.”

When Jefferson lived in France as American minister (1785-1789), his rather limited architectural vocabulary was expanded in two areas: the principles of ancient Roman architecture and the comfort and convenience of modern French architecture that emphasized the value of flowing space and practical convenience. He gained access to a much larger array of books, including works that contained carefully measured drawings of Roman buildings.

He was particularly attracted to the how the French arranged rooms in a fluid sequence. This utility of placing all the principle rooms on a single floor allowed the space to function as a cohesive unit. On his return to Virginia in 1793, those influences prompted Jefferson to radically revise his earlier plan for Monticello. The revised building still contains a second floor, but it is much reduced, providing space only for bedrooms, with a lower ceiling.

Family life is separated from labor and production; public space is separated from sanctuaries for thought and rest.

The complexity of what Jefferson sought to achieve gives his architecture an interesting quality of emotional vibrancy and creative tension. He valued symmetry and regularity, he believed in the strength that rules could confer, but he knew the flexibility had to be there to accommodate innovation and practicality-as well as the whimsy that imparts so much pleasure. For Jefferson, who regarded “the pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental human right, the wise pursuit of pleasure provided a pathway to virtue.

Thomas Jefferson’s Political Vision
Jefferson is rightly celebrated as a great advocate of individual rights and civil liberties. Yet his conception of equal rights was grounded in his faith in the natural sociability that bound individuals to each other and thus fulfilled God’s design for mankind.

For Jefferson, God the Creator came first in the natural order of things, and republican self-government brought a people closer to God.

Good republicans had to cultivate their sociable natures and promote civic virtue, for the ultimate success of their experiment in self-government depended on the character of the people.

Jefferson, Politics and Plants
Besides being a political statesman, Thomas Jefferson was also an innovator in, and a champion of, the fields of horticulture and agriculture. He believed that a country that could feed itself could maintain political independence and to that end, he used the fields and gardens at Monticello, to experiment with new fruits and vegetables, planting methods and tool designs. He is known to have smuggled upland rice out of Italy (under penalty of death) and he tried to convince Americans to switch to sugar maples, rather than relying on West Indian sugarcane.

Jefferson was a meticulous record keeper and kept extensive notes on his activities and ideas.
In notebooks and letters he recorded the weather, what flowers, shrubs and trees were growing in the beds near the house, and the specifics of when each crop was planted and harvested.

Despite the breadth of his political contributions, it was perhaps his farm work that provided him with the most pleasure and satisfaction. Of his efforts towards agricultural self-sufficiency Jefferson wrote, if “one species in an hundred is found useful and succeeds [it] is worth more…than all the victories of the most splendid pages of…history.” (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Alexandre Giroud, 22 May, 1797, in Jefferson Papers, 29:387)

One of U.S. history’s most eminent figures, Thomas Jefferson is as elusive as he is revered. This selection from his private papers has attempted to convey many of his core qualities--the principles, passions, and faith that suffused his actions as a statesman, including his love of the natural world, and his life-long effort to find a balance between his role on an international stage and his need for a domestic retreat, a reverie for study and experimentation.
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The Massachusetts Historical Society is a center of research and learning dedicated to a deeper understanding of the American experience. Through its collections, scholarly pursuits, and public programs, the Society seeks to nurture a greater appreciation for American history and for the ideas, values, successes, and failures that bind us together as a nation.

The Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts held by the Massachusetts Historical Society is made up mostly of Jefferson's private papers, and is second only in size to the Jefferson Collection at the Library of Congress, which holds his official papers.

Much of the text for this online exhibit comes from The Private Jefferson: Perspectives from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, with essays by Henry Adams, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrea Wulf. The book was published as a companion to a 2016 exhibit and is distributed by the University of Virginia Press.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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