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Thomas Jefferson’s Personal Papers Return to Virginia—through January 22

Posted By Bill Rasmussen, Monday, November 28, 2016

A special loan exhibition, The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, provides visitors to the Virginia Historical Society a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view drawings and letters that left the state more than a century ago. The Massachusetts collection is the largest group of Jefferson’s private papers. It was given in 1898 and in 1912 by the president’s great-grandson, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge of Boston, and his great-great-grandson, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, Jr.


How did papers of a favorite son of Virginia ever leave Virginia? Jefferson bequeathed his entire collection of manuscripts to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph. In 1848, Congress authorized the Library of Congress to purchase Jefferson’s “public papers”; the remaining documents stayed with Randolph, close to Charlottesville. Following his death in 1875, however, those “private papers” passed through family hands to Randolph’s New England nephew, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge. It was this nephew’s mother, Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph, who had moved to Boston when she married Joseph Coolidge of Boston in 1825.


The “private papers” consist of two dozen architectural drawings, two dozen plans and documents that record the garden and farm operations, and a dozen letters selected from Jefferson’s correspondence.

The drawings of Jefferson’s own house and of the University of Virginia illustrate how this gifted architect began with the traditions of Italy and England and developed an original style. He introduced the dome and the octagon to America, he strove to create what he called “light and airy” interior spaces, and he allowed rooms to flow into one another after the manner of modern French architects. A third building, the Virginia Capitol in Richmond, established monumental classicism (the architecture of the temples of ancient Greece and Rome) as the favored style for large public buildings in America. The drawings on display reveal that Jefferson’s meticulous attention to every detail of a building was the means by which he achieved a high success rate.


The garden and farm papers include layouts of gardens, calendars and diaries for plowing, planting, sowing, and cutting, and plats for orchard plantings. Jefferson eagerly experimented with literally hundreds of varieties of vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees because he found “no occupation…so delightful… as the culture of the earth.” Notes from Jefferson’s tour with John Adams of gardens that they visited in England in 1786 are of particular interest because he examined the grounds of famous country houses that remain open to the tourist today. Jefferson’s observations there underlie the ideas for garden temple buildings that he later sketched for Monticello (though never built).


Three priceless documents, drawn from other collections at the MHS, are also presented. These are (1) a copy handwritten by Jefferson of his first draft of the Declaration (1/4 of this text was deleted from the final document by other members of the Continental Congress), (2) a copy of the Declaration handwritten by John Adams, and (3) a printed copy of the Declaration that was issued in Philadelphia in 1776. All three documents are extremely rare and are among the most important in American history.


The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Virginia Historical Society

428 N. Boulevard

Open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Through Jan. 22, 2017

Admission: Free to members of the Virginia Historical Society, $10 for non-members. Free for ages 18 years or younger.

Details: (804) 358-4901 or

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Tags:  Thomas Jefferson  Virginia Association of Museums  Virginia Historical Society 

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