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Looking at Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson’s drawing of an observation tower at Monticello.From the collection of the Massa

The most famous collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society is the Adams Family Papers. Their presence there isn't surprising. With all due respect to the Kennedys, the Adamses are the Commonwealth's preeminent family.

What is a surprise is the richness of the society's Thomas Jefferson holdings, the largest collection of his private papers. The Library of Congress has his public papers. Those holdings provide the basis for "The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society." The exhibition, which kicks off the society's 225th anniversary celebration, runs through May 20.

The society's ownership of the papers is a legacy of love. Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph married Joseph Coolidge, of the Boston Coolidges, in the parlor at Monticello, Jefferson's home, in 1825. The young couple moved up here. Their son Thomas Jefferson Coolidge donated his great-grandfather's private papers to the society. With the addition of several smaller subsequent bequests, the holdings now total nearly 9,500 items, including letters, journals, record books, and accounts.

Even if Donald Trump claims the Oval Office, Jefferson's reputation as the most intellectually vigorous and varied president will presumably remain intact. As John F. Kennedy quipped at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize-winners, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."


The five dozen items on display give a sense of the range of Jefferson's talents and extent of his curiosity. The exhibition comprises four sections, on architecture, writings, politics, and farm and garden. Each section has an interactive station, with opportunities for visitors to investigate further particular items and related themes.

The MHS has more than 400 of Jefferson's architectural drawings, and we see renderings he made of Monticello, Poplar Forest (his rural retreat), the Virginia State Capitol, and his plans for the University of Virginia. The most charming item is nothing so grand as a Palladian facade. It's a sketch for a Windsor side chair in an 1800 letter to a cousin.


Writings has two meanings here: things Jefferson wrote and writings by others collected in his library. A great bibliophile, Jefferson famously declared, "I cannot live without books." The two types of writing combine in a sketch he did of how he wanted his library at Monticello laid out, right down to a drawing of a stepladder. There are manuscript drafts for the one book Jefferson published, "Notes on the State of Virginia," as well as several letters to John Adams — their correspondence is the noblest in our national literature — and one to Adams's wife, Abigail, who helped smooth the way for a resumption of their friendship after political differences sundered it.

The highlight of the politics section is Jefferson's manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence. It's the text "as originally found," as he grumps — that is, the text before the drafting committee tinkered with it. Fellow committee member John Adams's copy is also on display, as well as a copy of the original broadside printed in Philadelphia.

Farm and garden shows Jefferson at his most practical and down to earth (a rare location for him). It's hard to get more practical than an insurance plan. This one, for Monticello, is from 1796. There's also a reminder of Jefferson's darker side: a sketch for a stone house to be used as slave quarters at Monticello. Elsewhere in the show, there's a letter from Jefferson in which he indicates that slaves are to be whipped "in extremities only." One wonders if in some parallel universe there's something called the Declaration of Dependence, which proclaims unalienable rights to death, subjugation, and the pursuit of extremities only.


In addition to various works on paper, "The Private Jefferson" includes models commissioned for the show, four paintings that once belonged to Jefferson, and an octagonal filing table of his that looks as handsome as it is practical. Clearly, the man had need for abundant filing space.

THE PRIVATE JEFFERSON: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society

At Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston St., through May 20, 617-536-1608,

Mark Feeney can be reached at