Thomas Jefferson on the Construction of History: From "The Anas," 1791--1806.

Thomas Jefferson on the Construction of History: From "The Anas," 1791--1806.
Photo by Avinash Murugappan / Unsplash

In this excerpt, Jefferson is writing about the notes he would take on “loose scraps of paper” when he served in the Washington administration. He wrote further:

These scraps therefore, ragged, rubbed, & scribbled as they were, I had bound with the others by a binder who came into my cabinet, did it under my own eye, and without the opportunity of reading a single paper. At this day, after the lapse of 25 years, or more, from their dates, I have given to the whole a calm revisal, when the passions of the time are past away, and the reasons of the transactions act alone on the judgement.

Jefferson recounted his editing of the materials wherein some “had been cut out from the rest” because he had “seen” that the documents were “incorrect, or doubtful, or merely personal or private.” Important for the historical record, though, Jefferson writes that “I should perhaps have thought the rest not worth preserving, but for their testimony against the only history of that period which pretends to have been compiled from authentic and unpublished documents.”

Jefferson was referring to John Marshall’s Life of Washington, with which he obviously took issue: “Could these documents, all, be laid open to the public eye, they might be compared, contrasted, weighed, & the truth fairly sifted out of them, for we are not to suppose that everything found among Genl. Washington’s papers is to be taken as gospel truth.”

Within this context, Jefferson addressed what can be seen as a cautionary approach to the construction and consumption of history itself--something of great importance for those interested in the craft and composition of bygone times.

August Glen-James, editor

Let no man believe that Genl. Washington ever intended that his papers should be used for the suicide of the cause, for which he had lived, and for which there never was a moment in which he would not have died.

Facts indeed of his own writing & inditing, must be believed by all who knew him; and opinions, which were his own, merit veneration and respect; for few men have lived whose opinions were more unbiassed and correct. Not that it is pretended he never felt bias. His passions were naturally strong; but his reason, generally, stronger. But the materials from his own pen make probably an almost insensible part of the mass of papers which fill his presses. He possessed the love, the veneration, and confidence of all. With him were deposited suspicions & certainties, rumors & realities, facts & falsehoods, by all those who were, or who wished to be thought, in correspondence with him, and by the many Anonymi [sic] who were ashamed to put their names to their slanders. From such a Congeries history may be made to wear any hue, with which the passions of the compiler, royalist or republican, may chuse [sic] to tinge it.

Had Genl. Washington himself written from these materials a history of the period they embrace, it would have been a conspicuous monument of the integrity of his mind, the soundness of his judgment, and its powers of discernment between truth & falsehood; principles & pretensions. But the party feeling of his biographer, to whom after his death the collection was confided, has culled from it a composition as different from what Genl. Washington would have offered, as was the candor of the two characters during the period of the war. The partiality of this pen is displayed in lavishments of praise on certain military characters, who had done nothing military, but who afterwards, & before he wrote, had become heroes in party, altho’ not in war; and in his reserve on the merits of others, who rendered signal services indeed, but did not earn his praise by apostatizing in peace from the republican principles for which they had fought in war.

It shews itself too in the cold indifference with which a struggle for the most animating of human objects is narrated. No act of heroism ever kindles in the mind of this writer a single aspiration in favor of the holy cause which inspired the bosom, & nerved the arm of the patriot warrior. No gloom of events, no lowering of prospects ever excites a fear for the issue of a contest which was to change the condition of man over the civilized globe. The sufferings inflicted on endeavors to vindicate the rights of humanity are related with all the frigid insensibility with which a monk would have contemplated the victims of an auto da fe.

Let no man believe that Genl. Washington ever intended that his papers should be used for the suicide of the cause, for which he had lived, and for which there never was a moment in which he would not have died. The abuse of these materials is chiefly however manifested in the history of the period immediately following the establishment of the present constitution; and nearly with that my memorandums begin. Were a reader of this period to dorm his idea of it from this history alone, he would suppose the republican party (who in truth endeavoring to keep the government within the line of the Constitution, and prevent its being monarchised in practice) were a mere set of grumblers, and disorganizers, satisfied with no government, without fixed  principles of any, and, like a British parliamentary opposition, gaping after loaves and fishes, and ready to change principles, as well as position, at any time, with their adversaries.

But a short review of facts omitted, or uncandidly stated in this history will shew that the contests of that day were contests of principle, between the advocates of republican, and those of kingly government, and that, had not the former made the efforts they did, our government would have been, even at this early day, a very different thing from what the successful issue of those efforts have made it.


Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. I. The Knickerbocker Press, New York and London, 1904. PP. 164-167.