Thomas Jefferson was a symbol of an era, and as much as any other figure played a broad and deep role during the period of revolution and early republic. Born in 1743, he went on to become a lawyer and, by his mid twenties, was a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. In 1775, he was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, followed by more state service leading up to his election as Governor of Virginia in 1779, which position he occupied during the war until 1781. But this was just the beginning. He then served as a representative to the Congress in the Articles of Confederation era, Minister to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President under John Adams, and then President. He was a diplomat, farmer, and renowned book collector, having amassed three separate libraries during his lifetime. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia bill of religious freedom, and a doctrine of Western expansion that sent Meriwether Lewis to find a path to the Pacific.
In each of these positions, Jefferson signed documents that survive today and are cherished by collectors. Although his published letters fill volumes, they are highly desirable and quality material becomes harder and harder each year to find for sale.
Below is a brief survey of some of the types of pieces one finds of Jefferson.
1. Thomas Jefferson as Governor (1779-1781)
Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia for two years, a time entirely occupied by the Revolutionary War, which began farther north but soon reached his doorstep with the evacuation of Richmond. Letters of Jefferson as Governor are relatively uncommon compared to those later in his life. But during his stint there, his correspondence can touch directly on the activities of the war, showcasing his time as war-time executive. The below letter is such an example, written from Richmond in 1780, working to help supply the prisoners of war captured and kept as part of the Saratoga Convention. This letter is in the hand of a war-time aide; the salutation and signature at the end Jefferson’s.
Below, in a separate war-date letter relating to the activities of Nathanael Greene, you can see the verso (back of the letter) containing the direction in Jefferson’s hand to send to “Genl. Washington’s Head-Quarters”. Note the recipient is Timothy Pickering, his successor later as Secretary of State.
2. Jefferson’s Post-Gubernatorial Period, in Virginia and France
After being cleared of wrong-doing for his role in the evacuation and razing of Richmond, Jefferson devoted time to his private pursuits back at Monticello. These pursuits were centered around his library and his studies, among them scientific. He fostered an interest in the West and samples of flora and fauna during this stretch, among many other areas, which one sees in this letter, in his hand, relating to collecting recently unearthed bones of an animal they could not completely identify back then. This letter has the address panel but was actually hand delivered by Daniel Boone. And sometimes these letters contain notes on provenance on them, such as this, which lists it as a gift from one historian to another later.
Jefferson was sent in 1785 to serve as Ambassador to France.
3. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson
As Secretary of State, Jefferson was a member of the first ever American presidential cabinet alongside Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox. In this position, he was responsible for much of the consequential and official correspondence of the State Department. As such, he notified the state Governors of the passage of Acts of Congress, among the first ever passed in the United States. This letter to fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence Samuel Huntington is one such example.
The above letters were originally accompanied by the printed Acts themselves. Jefferson actually signed many of the Acts themselves. He was the only Secretary of State to do so. Here is an actual Act he signed.
Jefferson co-signed, in documents that become more and more scarce each year, official appointments and all ships passports with George Washington, so their signatures appear together on one document. These appointments were among the first in the nation. The ships passports recorded, in 3 languages (later 4), the name of the vessel, its origin and destination, its size and contents, and its captain.
4. President Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was President for two consequential terms, which saw the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory and a raging war against Napoleon in Europe. Letters as President can be fascinating and detailed. Some of them are printed. He is the first President to employ this practice. Such as with this letter, which simultaneously ties in matters of war, foreign affairs, domestic aims and philosophy. The date is in his hand:
Thomas Jefferson On the Legacy of George Washington’s Farewell Message of Neutrality: “For years we have been looking as Spectators on our brethren of Europe, afflicted by all those evils which necessarily follow an abandonment of the moral rules which bind men and nations together.”
5. Jefferson’s Post-Presidential Years
After his terms as President, Jefferson returned to the land and his studies. He also returned to his books. His letters during this stretch are philosophical often or relate to the maintenance of his properties. He would sell crops, buy books and wine, and write on the domestic and foreign situation. In many cases, he wrote at length about his thoughts on the War of 1812 or the Napoleonic events in Europe. Some of his most famous correspondence is from this period.
6. Thomas Jefferson’s Polygraph Machine
Beginning around 1804, Jefferson employed a machine that made a duplicate of his letters as he wrote. These can be difficult to differentiate from the mailed copy, particularly when the address panel has been separated. He often retained these and therefore they bear his filing markings relating to the recipient on the verso. Polygraph copies also can contain skips where the secondary pen does not touch the paper.