When conservators disassembledthe manuscript ef
Thomas Jefferson's only book, Notes on the State of Virginia,
they uncovered new clues to the evolution of his thinking.
BYDOUGLASL. W I LS ON
As a young lawyer in frontier Virginia, Thomas Jefferson took it upon himself to rescue his colony'searliest legal records, very few of which had ever been printed, "I observed
that many of [Vtrginia's early laws] were already lost," he wrotehisformerlawteacher, GeorgeWythe, in 1796, "and many more on the point of beinglost,
as existing only in single copies in the hands of careful or curious individuals, on whose death they would probably be used for waste paper," So the future president and author of the Dec laration of Independence, while still in his twen ties, became an ardent preservationist-
Riding the circuit of Virginia courts, he assid uously copied out such old laws as he came acrossand, at the same time, foundrefuge in hisownlibrary
for a number of fugitive manuscripts from the earliest periods of Virginia's history, But having saved these ancient records from oblivion, he was eventually to be confronted with the preservationist' sdilemma, In spite of wrapping them in oiled cloth"so that neitherairnor moisturecan haveaccess to
them," he discovered that they could scarcely be moved or consulted, for "in turning over a leaf i t sometimes falls into powder." Admitting hisfrustrationsas a custodian of
vulnerable documents,heconfided to Wythe: ''.All the care I can take of them, will not preserve them from the worm,from the natural decay of the paper, [orJ from the accidents of fire," But
there was,Jefferson believed, another way, "Has there ever been,"he asked, "[a precious work of antiquityJ lost since theartof printing has rendered it practicable
to multiply & disperse copies? Thisleads us then to the only means of preserving those remains of our laws now under consideration, that is, a multiplication of printed copies." Two hun dred years later, manuscriptsof his own writings would be deteriorating; what follows is the story
of how one of the libraries responsible for them would, in a surprising and unexpected way, reinventJefferson'sprescribed method of preservation ,and
in doingso, open a window onJefferson'sown creative process,
Jtfferson'spreservation scheme, which helped save theearly Virginialawssome years later, was not, of
course, original. At the time hewas proposing hispreservation
by-publicationstrategytoWythe, itwas actively being employed by the first historical society in America. The Massachusetts His toricalSociety anditsprincipalfounder,
Jeremy Belknap (1744-1798), made preservation by publica tion a key part of the society'searly mission. By seeking out and transcribing historical documents to be printed weekly in a Boston newspaper, Belknap and his colleagues successfully preserved the contents of countlesshistorical manuscripts that have since been lost to the natural enemies of paper noted by Jefferson, or that have simply disappeared.
Predictably, Belknap'ssociety soon became the depository of historical documents deemed too important or precious or frag ile to remain in private keeping. Once the society assumed this responsibility, preservation of theartifacts themselves became a prime consideration .Eventually, the group would be responsible forsome of the great foundation stones of American history, such asJohn Winthrop'sjournal, the record of the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony kept by its first governor. Because of the society's location in Boston, many of its most prized posses sions relate co the history of New England. Thepapers of the illus trious Adams family make up its largest and mostimportant col lection, but by a curious twist of fate, the Massachusetts Historical Society alsobecame the custodian of many of ThomasJefferson's mostvaluable personal manuscripts. His Farm Book, his Garden Book, two hand-written catalogs of hisfamous library; the bulk of his architectural drawings, as wellas
copies of more than 3,000 of his own let ters are all part of the society's Coolidge Collection, named for the Boston family of Jefferson descendants that donated these priceless papers. The crownjewel of the Coolidge Collection is themanuscript of Jefferson's Notes onthe State of Virginia. The only bookJefferson ever wrote, the Notes began as a series of answers to a questionnairecirculatedbythe French
government in 1780, during the Revolu tionaryWar. Jeffersonlater expanded
his response and paid to have it printed in Paris in 1785 for pri vate distribution. Published two years later in London, it resem bles no ocher book ever written, being a distinctively Jefferson ian compilation of information and opinion, covering everything from Virginia's geography and natural resources to its history and politicalstructure, from its architecture (or lack thereof) to its social customs and mores. Thebook's most famous passages describe natural phenomena, such as Natural Bridge, and include an unbuttoned paean to the superiority of farmingand rural life, a timely and eloquent condemnation of slavery; and a painfully time-bound discussion of racial differences.
Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia occupies a high station in American history: le is arguably the most important book by an American in the 18thcentury.That in itselfmakes theman-
uscript a notable artifact. But as the historical society's librarian, Peter Drummey,points out, its value is "compounded by the fact chat manuscripts of 18th-century books are almost unknown." Thus the manuscript of Jefferson's Notes presents an almost unique opportunity to lookbehind the scenes and observe a lit erary masterpieceofthat era in the making.
The original draft of 88 closely written pages was heavily revised and amended until it reached 140 pages with appen dices. Much of the new or revised text was incorporated into the manuscript by attachingsmaller sheets, or tabs, onto the original pages. The tabs, which Jefferson attached to his primary pages with sealing wax, were sometimes pasted over existing text and sometimes hinged onto the page as a flap,so thatadditional text could be written (and read) onboth sides. For example, in answer to a query about the state of manufacturing during wartime,Jef ferson had originally written a very brief description,emphasiz ing, to an ally and prospective trade partner, the likelihood that Vuginia would return to a dependence on foreign "manufactures" after the war.In the revised manuscript. Jefferson emphasized his own aversion to domestic manufacturing by adding,on a tab, his famous apostrophe to rural life, with its much-quoted line: "those who labour in the earth are the chosenpeople ofgod, if
ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial & genuine virtue."
Needless to say, the manuscript' s unusual construction is yet another testi mony toJeffersonian ingenuity. His use of tabs saved labor and paper, both impor tant considerations. Its distinctiveness, as well as its distinction, suggests that the manuscript would be among the most popular and frequently consulted itemsin the historical society's library. But, asJef ferson himselflearned in collecting old
manuscripts, the deterioration of such an artifact is inevitable, and measures to mitigate deterioration usually inhibit or even forbid use. Here, the increasingly fragile condition of the manuscript's binding and paper did indeed call for protective measures, and access to the manuscript had to be severely restricted. Scholars were generally referred to the microfilm version.
In 1996, the society decided on a major conservation effort to address the physical deterioration of the manuscript. But what began as a preservation project eventually became much more, opening the door to many of the manuscript 's mysteries and providing meaningful access to an exciting document for a vast audience.
The manuscript of Jefferson's Notes had been on librar ianPeterDrummey's mindfor sometime. Hewas awarethatthe
brittle pages of one of his library's most important documents were crumbling at the edges and shedding tiny bits of paper each ti.me they were handled.He also knew that the manuscript had never received the kind of careful scrutiny it deserved.No published edition of the Notes had been based on a thorough study of the manuscript, because for that to happen, asthe greatJefferson editorJulian P. Boyd had pointed
out 50 years earlier, the manuscript would have tobe taken apart. Boyd's own plans to produce such an edition after editing Jeffer son'scorrespondence and other papers had proved hopelessly opti mistic, and the manuscript'smysteries remained unsolved.
What Jefferson had first written, and when, as well as how and why he revised that text ashe did, were some of the intrigu ing questions waiting to be answered. For manuscripts curator Brenda Lawson, the most compelling reason to give priority to this manuscript was the opportunitytorecoverportionsof the original text (estimated at 2,000 words) that had been blocked from view when Jefferson added the tabs.She confessed that she was "astonished at the thought that no one hadever seen what Jefferson hadoriginally written."But thetask before that conservator Anne E. Bentley regarded as misguided ("The binding was destroying the manuscript"), was taken off. The stitches and glue that held the pages together were carefully removed, and the tabs thatJefferson had fastened to his manu- script with sealing wax were detached. Along the way; photo graphs recorded in detail the original state of the manuscript,as well as each step in the disassembly process. Next, all the indi vidual leaves and tabs that made up the manuscript, some 133 separate items, were washed and deacidified by immersion. After drying, the edges of the pages were reinforced with a tis sue paper to prevent further deterioration andpaper loss. Finally; the pages and tabs were placed in dear Mylar sleeves, where they can now be examined without beingtouched.