But Where Is Jefferson?

Encyclopedia Virginia

Portrait of Jefferson by John Trumbull © Thomas Jefferson Foundation

By Nell Boeschenstein

Plug that most Virginian of Virginia subjects into Encyclopedia Virginia’s search function and you might find yourself surprised. When the keywords “Thomas Jefferson” are entered into the online encyclopedia of Virginia’s history and culture, the current yield is 178 results across 18 pages, but the results are largely primary source documents—letters Jefferson wrote or in which he was mentioned, or official documents he penned.

Nowhere is there an entry that gives the reader a satisfying summary of just who Jefferson was and what role he played in shaping both Virginia and the country. But fret not, Jeffersonians, because TJ’s presence on Encyclopedia Virginia is primed to increase 1,000-fold and in such a way as to reflect the enormity of his enduring influence: in the coming months, EV will begin publishing a section of content devoted entirely to our most gingerheaded founding father. Jefferson previously had a scant presence on EV because while the encyclopedia publishes entries individually, the site’s editors create content in sections. The order of those sections may be influenced by funding and are often pegged to current events as well. For example, EV received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce a section dedicated to Virginia’s colonial history that consumed much of the encyclopedia’s attention for a couple of years. Earlier, the staff published a hefty and substantive Civil War section in time to coincide with the Sesquicentennial (2009–2015).

“No section,” says Brendan Wolfe, the encyclopedia’s managing editor, “had come up yet in which Thomas Jefferson logically fit.”

As the encyclopedia expanded and developed, Wolfe and editor Matthew Gibson began considering how to address the issue of Jefferson on the website. The problem with Jefferson—as well as with a few other key figures in Virginia history— is that his life’s work extends far beyond the scope of a single encyclopedia entry and does not necessarily fit neatly within any of the pre-existing section headings. The decision was made that Thomas Jefferson deserved his own named section.

Jefferson ran this ad offering a reward for the return of “Sandy” in The Virginia Gazette on September 14, 1769. Courtesy Virginia Historical Society

“Thomas Jefferson is almost unique in the extent to which he cuts through multiple time periods and multiple topics in Virginia history,” says J. Jefferson Looney, editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series at Monticello. Looney was the man tapped to be the Jefferson section’s editor, responsible for vetting each entry and flagging anything that strikes him as wrong or missing. “Jefferson’s range of interests and important contributions in a bewildering variety of fields lend themselves to piecing together the mosaic of his life with a series of topical essays…supplemented by examinations of related people and events in his life and legacy.”

Enter Brenton Halsey, a Jefferson enthusiast, whom VFH approached last February with the proposition that he sponsor this section the way a benefactor might donate a room or a wing to a museum. Halsey agreed, and the planning began. The Thomas Jefferson section will be Encyclopedia Virginia’s first devoted to a single person as well as the first sponsored by a private donor.

Their funding secured, the EV team approached Peter Onuf, a preeminent Jefferson scholar, University of Virginia historian, and co-host of the VFH radio program BackStory with the American History Guys, seeking recommendations for Jefferson-related topics and the contributors to write about them. They then approached Looney about being the section’s editor. Both Onuf and Looney came on board to help out.

While considering which scholars to recommend for the project, Onuf says that he thought a great deal about the fact that “the great challenge of any project like this is to organize information around themes that will serve the interests of researchers and readers. Of course, anything connected with Jefferson is going to attract interest, but the point is not that the world revolved (or revolves) around Jefferson, but rather that he provides so many points of access to larger questions about Virginia plantation society, slavery, and politics.”

The list of subjects Onuf and EV’s editors drew up reflects this sensitivity to Jefferson’s particular scope. Entries will cover a range of topics from Jefferson’s only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), to Sally Hemings, as well as more out-of-the-way subjects, such as Jefferson and wine, Jefferson and farming, and Jefferson’s finances. According to Wolfe, the editors will create separate entries for Jefferson and slavery and Jefferson’s slaves with “the former concentrating on the Big Man’s views and the second on the actual enslaved people.” He credits Looney for suggesting that distinction, and it’s that attention to nuance that will help create a more accurate and complex picture of Jefferson.

Jefferson’s range of interests and important contributions in a bewildering variety of fields lend themselves to  piecing together the mosaic of his life with a series of topical essays… supplemented by examinations of related people and events in his life and legacy. — J. Jefferson Looney

The goal of the project is not “to commit new scholarship,” as Wolfe puts it, but to synthesize the best of what is already out there. That means being as up to date as possible on an entry like the one about Sally Hemings, which is being edited right now. In addition to providing an account of her life, the encyclopedia will connect readers with transcriptions of the major primary sources that inform the scholarship— wills, letters, and memoirs, for instance—while linking to entries that provide greater context, connecting Hemings to the broader world of the Jeffersons, Monticello, Virginia, and, of course, slavery.

Entries are written and edited with adults, not secondary-school students, in mind. But Virginia teachers have found Encyclopedia Virginia to be an invaluable resource, one that offers up not just the vital statistics on a figure like Sally Hemings but the memoir of her son Madison, who famously wrote, in 1873: “But during that time my mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine…”

As many as two dozen Jefferson entries are planned, and Wolfe estimates that as many as six to ten will be published by November.

Library of Congress South Reading Room, mural of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello by Ezra Winter. After the original Congressional Library was set afire by the British during the War of 1812, Congress purchased Thomas Jefferson’s 6,487 volume library. Image courtesy Library of Congress

As for the future, Wolfe says he would also like to see sections developed for figures such as George Washington and James Madison, and explore the prospect of expanding future sponsorship from private donors. “We already have assigned an entry on Washington and slavery,’” says Wolfe, “but I could also see one on Washington as a general, for example, or Washington as president, or Mount Vernon.”

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the encyclopedia is its ability to extensively hyperlink each entry in a way that illustrates the infinite intersections of history. For example, an upcoming entry about Thomas Jefferson and the practice of law can hyperlink not only back to entries on the General Court in Williamsburg or Virginia plantation management, but also to primary documents such as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, or Jefferson’s personal notes on a specific legal case.

“After a while,” says Wolfe, “the encyclopedia begins to feel like a giant jigsaw puzzle that is slowly coming together. All history connects…As a reader you can learn to follow your nose and learn more and more as you go. As an editor, it just never stops being interesting.”