1. Home
  2. Library Collections
  3. Public Papers
  4. Address on the Occasion of the Publication of the First Volume of the Jefferson Papers

Address on the Occasion of the Publication of the First Volume of the Jefferson Papers

May 17, 1950

I ACCEPT with great pleasure the first copy of Volume One of "The Papers of Thomas Jefferson." On behalf of the people of the United States, I congratulate Princeton University and the Princeton University Press on undertaking to edit and publish the great series which this volume begins.

I should like to add a personal word of appreciation and encouragement to the editors for the years of hard work that are still ahead of them. I am very well acquainted with what many people call "paper work," and I appreciate the immense amount of painstaking effort which each of these volumes requires.

We should also be grateful to the New York Times for the financial assistance which that newspaper has given to help compile this complete edition of the writings of one of the greatest Americans. This edition will be of lasting value to our Nation for generations to come.

As many of you know, I returned to Washington yesterday from a visit to the Pacific Northwest. Traveling at what is today a very leisurely rate, in 9 days I went nearly 7,000 miles through 16 States. In 1803 President Jefferson sent out two young pioneers to explore the same area I have just been through. Jefferson wanted to find out what was in the great new territory he had just bought from Napoleon.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took 28 months to make the round trip from the banks of the Mississippi to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific coast. Where they found only Indian villages, herds of buffalo, and trackless wilderness and sagebrush, I saw great cities, immense structures like Grand Coulee Dam, and rich farmland. These sharp contrasts are only a few of many that point up the dramatic changes that have occurred in our country since Jefferson's day. Since the United States today scarcely resembles the United States when Jefferson knew it, why should the publication of his letters be so important to us?

The answer should be obvious, as we turn the pages of this first volume. Throughout his life, Jefferson waged an uncompromising fight against tyranny. The search for human liberty was a goal which he pursued with burning zeal. The spirit of democracy shines through everything he ever wrote.

Today, when democracy is facing the greatest challenge in its history, the spirit which Jefferson expressed in his battle against tyranny, and in his search for human liberty, stands out as a beacon of inspiration for free peoples throughout the world.

Jefferson lived in a time of great struggle, when this Nation was trying to establish itself as a democracy of free men. We today, in a different time and under different conditions, are in a great struggle to preserve and expand human freedom.

Our stage is larger--our struggle must be waged over the whole world, not merely in our own country. But the essential nature of the struggle is the same; to prove, by hard work and practical demonstration, that free men can create for themselves a good society, in which they live together at peace, and advance their common welfare.

When freedom is at stake, we need to draw upon every source of strength we can. Jefferson thought deeply about how to make liberty a living part of our society, and he proved the rightness of his thinking by practical demonstration. That is why I think it is particularly important that we are reasserting Jefferson's ideals by publishing these volumes.

History can be fairly written only when all the facts are on record. Jefferson has suffered at the hands of unscrupulous biographers and biased partisans ever since his death. The publication of his papers should correct the mistakes that have been made about him and should help prevent misinterpretations in the future.

There are others like Jefferson whose lives have enriched our history, but about whom we know too little. Many of them have been victims of unfair treatment at the hands of historians; others have been neglected because the record of their work is scattered about in remote places.

I hope that this edition of the writings of Thomas Jefferson will inspire educational institutions, learned societies, and civic-minded groups to plan the publication of the works of other great national figures. In far too many cases, there are incomplete and inaccurate editions of the writings of the great men and women of our country. In some distressing instances, we have only fragmentary records of men whose ideas and actions have helped shape our history.

I am convinced that we need to collect and publish the writings of the men and women who have made major contributions to the development of our democracy.

I am, therefore, requesting the National Historical Publications Commission, under the chairmanship of the Archivist of the United States, to look into this matter and to report to me. I am sure this Commission will wish to consult with scholars in all fields of American history, and to report what can be done--and should be done--to make available to our people the public and private writings of men whose contributions to our history are now inadequately represented by published works.

I am interested not just in political figures, but in the writings of industrialists and labor leaders, chemists and engineers, painters and lawyers, of great figures of all the arts and sciences who have made major contributions to our democracy.

Obviously, we cannot hope to collect, edit, and publish all the writings of all such leaders, but we can and should select the works of those who have been too long neglected and who need to be better known if we are to understand our heritage. This is a big undertaking. If will take a long time. It should be done as far as possible by private groups and not by the Federal Government, although the Federal Government can and will be of assistance whenever possible. The editions should be in every instance completely objective and should maintain the same high editorial standards that are evident in this first volume of "The Papers of Thomas Jefferson." They should aim to place the facts beyond debate and distortion.

At a time when democracy is meeting the greatest challenge in its history, we need to turn to the sources of our own democratic faith for new inspiration and new strength. These volumes of Thomas Jefferson will be a great reservoir of hope and faith during the critical years ahead. I sincerely hope that similar editions of the writings of other great men and women who have made our Nation what it is today can be placed with them.

I shall give my full support to this endeavor.
Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 3:30 p.m. at the Library of Congress following the presentation of the first copy of the volume by Harold W. Dodds, president of Princeton University.

Sixteen volumes of the projected 52-volume series, "The Papers of Thomas Jefferson," of which Julian P. Boyd is editor, had been published by the Princeton University Press as of June 1965.