MHS for the Media

MHS Announces A New Website: Uncover Passages Written by Jefferson Hidden for Centuries

BOSTON, MA (April 8, 2010) Launched in conjunction with the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday on April 13 is a new website developed by the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS). The manuscript of Thomas Jefferson's only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia, is now online (www.masshist.org/thomasjeffersonpapers/notes) and accessible in ways that it never has been before. Passages that previously were hidden from view due to the methods used by Jefferson for inserting changes onto handwritten pages are now visible to website visitors for the first time. The website provides evidence of not only Thomas Jefferson's meticulous approach to writing but also an ingenious way to view passages that have been obscured for centuries.

Not only is the existence of this manuscript significant—most manuscripts of 18th-century printed works no longer exist—but its format is remarkable. It is comprised of full-length manuscript pages as well as full- and partial-page additions. Smaller pieces of paper allowed Jefferson to further expand and/or revise his text. Because Jefferson did not have a computer word processing program that would enable him to “cut and paste” text to edit his manuscript, he used options that were available in the 18th century. He literally cut and pasted—using sealing wax—partial pages containing handwritten text he wanted to insert onto full pages. Some of the partial pages were additions to the running text, while others replaced whole sections.

The website developed by the MHS allows the reader to interact with color digital images of Jefferson's complex manuscript; read each manuscript piece in sequence or jump to specific pages or numbered queries—the topical chapters that Jefferson used to organize his published work; or remove the attachments and see the original passages written by Jefferson. “Jefferson's approach to revising his text has prevented us from presenting this complex manuscript online before now,” commented Brenda Lawson, Director of Collections Services at the MHS. “Recent advances in technology allow us to do so in a way that invites users to interact with Jefferson's words and better understand his thought process.”

The online manuscript of Notes on the State of Virginia is part one of a larger effort planned by the MHS to present a scholarly electronic edition with annotations conveying how the manuscript relates to various significant published editions. Funding for the conservation and digitization of the Jefferson manuscript was made possible by Save America’s Treasures, a federal program.

About the Notes on the State of Virginia

The handwritten manuscript of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia forms part of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, the second largest collection of Jefferson papers in the country. In this work, his only full-length book, Jefferson describes many aspects of his home state. The content of the book evolved from Jefferson's informative responses to a series of queries originally posed by François de Marbois, the secretary of the French legation. The questionnaire was distributed to people from several different states in 1780, and there is evidence that a few of them also responded. In December 1781, Jefferson sent his answers to Marbois, and over the next few years, he continued to expand and revise the information he had compiled about Virginia. In 1785, in Paris, Jefferson paid to have 200 copies of his revised text printed for private distribution as Notes on the State of Virginia. Two years later, in 1787, he authorized his London bookseller, John Stockdale, to publish for general sale a somewhat expanded edition of the work.

About the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Massachusetts Historical Society is one of the nation’s preeminent research libraries, with collections that provide an unparalleled record of the vibrant course of American history. The Society holds an extraordinary assembly of personal papers from three presidents–John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson–as well as accounts of the lives of thousands of ordinary Americans and their families. With millions of pages of manuscript letters, diaries, and other documents, as well as early newspapers, broadsides, artifacts, works of art, maps, photographs, and prints, the MHS offers a wide-ranging perspective on the United States from the earliest beginnings of the nation to the present day.

Since its founding in 1791, the MHS has fostered research, scholarship, and education. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of our nation’s past and its connection to the present. Through fellowships for scholars, meticulous research volumes, seminars, conferences, teacher training programs, as well as lectures, tours, open houses, and exhibitions, the Society demonstrates that history is not just a series of events that happened to individuals long ago but an integral part of the fabric of our daily lives.


The MHS is open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday 9 AM to 4.45 PM; Thursday 9AM to 7.45 PM; and Saturday 9AM to 4.00 PM.


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