Behind a Discovery: The Lost Jefferson Letter

How We at Raab Investigate Objects Whose Stories Have Otherwise Been Lost to History


Earlier this year, we traveled to the deep South to acquire a small collection that included a letter of Thomas Jefferson. The letter, sent during his presidency, to his financial representative back in Virginia, John Barnes, dealt with the maintenance of his estate, possessions and finances back home. The letter had been in the same family for nearly a century. But we could not find that the letter was known to have survived or where it had been prior to that, and this remarkable discovery was featured by several media outlets, including The Guardian

The Guardian, July 4, 2024.

Here are the steps we took to understand the context and story of the letter

I. Consult Jefferson’s Published Papers

At the University of Virginia and Princeton University, there are and have been for many decades, scholars devoted to tracking the correspondence, incoming and outgoing, of Thomas Jefferson. What we learned there was fascinating. Jefferson’s correspondent, Barnes, refers to this letter the very same day it was sent. He notes that it “will guide me, in arranging, your Necessary paymts. for the present Mo:—nothing will suffer.” These letters are published in hardcover books, but they are also found, along with the correspondence of other early Americans, at Founders Online

Thomas Jefferson signed letter 1802
A newly discovered, unpublished letter of Thomas Jefferson for sale with The Raab Collection.

II. Look to Jefferson’s Journal

We know of Jefferson’s letters from a few sources. They are: 

  • Jefferson’s sent correspondence, published by the Jefferson scholars mentioned above.
  • Copies Jefferson made of his outgoing correspondence, usually made with a machine he employed for this very purpose, the polygraph machine. These almost always bear tell-tale signs of being a copy and not the sent version. 
  • Publications quoting Jefferson’s letters that may have existed at one point but no longer do. 
  • Jefferson’s own journal. As a piece on Monticello‘s website notes, “From late 1783 until shortly before his death in 1826, Thomas Jefferson maintained a ‘Summary Journal of Letters’ in which he recorded all of his correspondence. In this epistolary record the left column contains his written letters, and is organized chronologically by the date of composition.”

So did Jefferson note that he had sent this letter? Indeed he did. As Founders Online notes, “a letter from TJ to Barnes dated 15 Oct. is recorded in SJL [Summary Journal of Letters] but has not been found.”

I was now holding this letter that, previously lost, had now been found. So where had it been?  

III. Review Public Sale Records

We know it had been in one family for a very long time, nearly a century, long enough that it had been escaped efforts to catalog and publish it. The family, now in the South, had come from the North: New York City. Among the letters in the group was an important note by Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer. This letter shows up in public records as having been sold in 1929 by legendary autograph dealer Thomas Madigan, who operated around the time of the original Jefferson acquisition out of New York City, the home to the family at the time. Although the Jefferson does not appear in that same sale record, it seems obvious that the original buyer was likely buying from autograph dealers in New York, of which there were few at the time, and certainly from Madigan himself. 

IV. Our Conclusions

By consulting publicly available records and using common sense, we learned that:

  • The letter was known to have been written but presumed lost over the centuries since it was written.  
  • The letter did in fact survive, undisturbed for nearly a century in a private collection. 
  • It had likely been offered for sale last around the time of the Roaring Twenties.
  • We could now reach out to the Papers of Thomas Jefferson to share our discovery and add to their ongoing scholarship.

Buying Jefferson Historical Documents & Autographs 

To learn more about Thomas Jefferson signed letters and documents, visit our dedicated Jefferson page. We have also published a collector’s guide to Thomas Jefferson.  

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