Massachusetts Historical Society
Thomas Jefferson Papers: an electronic archive

From the Coolidge Collections of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.

About Notes on the State of Virginia [manuscript]

Summary description

The manuscript copy of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia forms part of the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts. 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, Jefferson 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.

Not only is the existence of this manuscript significant (since so few 18th-century drafts have been preserved) but its format is remarkable. It is comprised of fair copy pages, full-page additions, and partial-page additions. The fair copy pages consist of full-length manuscript pages Jefferson created when he copied a previous draft by hand. The full-length additional pages expanded the manuscript and prompted Jefferson to renumber many pages. The partial-page additions (tab and paste-down attachments) contain Jefferson's insertions and corrections to the manuscript. A tab was a hinged (or folded) attachment with handwriting on both sides, which Jefferson affixed to the full page as an insertion in the running text. For some attachments the part of the tab that was affixed to the full-page concealed text, and for other attachments the stuck portion was positioned on a blank area. The hinge allowed the reader to flip the tab up, and easily follow the text from the recto (front side of tab) to the verso (back side). A paste-down, with handwritten text on only one side, was affixed to a full page, thus completely concealing the earlier text. Jefferson used sealing wax to affix these tab and paste-down attachments onto the full pages.

Jefferson seems to have written this manuscript mainly in 1783 and 1784 and it served as the setting copy for the privately printed Paris edition of 1785. Jefferson incorporated, corrected and expanded on what he had written in 1781 and 1782. Although the title page and contents list (page i) was written by Jefferson and appears before page 1, this title page was completed in 1785 after the text was typeset by the printer in Paris because it includes pages numbers that correspond to the 1785 edition of the book. It is interesting to note that Jefferson, on the handwritten title page, originally represented the time of its composition, as "written in the year 1781. somewhat corrected and enlarged in the winter of 1782-1783." For whatever reason, he subsequently struck out "1783."

Physical description of the manuscript

The manuscript consists of 205 component pieces: 142 full-size pages and 63 partial-page attachments (which were affixed to the full-size pages with sealing wax). Only 44 of the full-size pages had partial-page attachments leaving 98 pages with no attachments. Each full page is approximately 23.2 cm x 18.3 cm (9 1/8 x 7 1/4 inches). The MHS staff uses the term "tab" for a hinged attachment with writing on two sides and the term "paste-down" for an attachment with writing on only one side.

Conservation treatment

Conservators at the Massachusetts Historical Society numbered each page and attachment in pencil and cut them from the 20th-century, full leather binding. After the stitching and leather remnants were removed, the pages were cleaned, deacidified, repaired, and reinforced using wheat paste and Japanese tissue paper. The numbering scheme used by the conservators assigned sequential numbers to each full page of the manuscript, and added a decimal place for each partial-page attachment. (For example, the first attachment on full page 9 is numbered 9.1, and the second attachment is numbered 9.2. In all but two instances (pages 24 and 29) the decimal attachment numbers were assigned starting from the top of the full page to the bottom.)

Use of the images

Permission to reproduce images of manuscripts and/or publish transcriptions of collections must be obtained in writing from the Massachusetts Historical Society. Please forward requests to the Reference Librarian, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02215, or send an email message to: library@masshist.org.