Date of this Version
Documentary Editing: Journal of the Association for Documentary Editing, Volume 30, Numbers 1 and 2: 2008 ISSN 0196-7134
In 1791 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to congratulate Ebenezer Hazard, of Pennsylvania, on the publication of the first two volumes of his Historical Collections, the first documentary edition of the public records of a state or colony. Jefferson’s letter is often quoted for its rationale for documentary editing. “Time and accident,” he wrote, “are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices. The late war has done the work of centuries in this business. The lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains: not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use, in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.” When it came to lost texts, Jefferson certainly knew what he was writing about. He had long been collecting and preserving scarce documents of Virginia’s early history, and when he was governor of Virginia late in the American Revolution, British raids on Richmond caused the loss or destruction of most of the archive of the colony’s executive branch. Later, when the Confederate government evacuated Richmond in April 1865, the state’s courthouse burned to cinders, destroying virtually all of the records of the colony’s highest court and the records of the state’s appellate courts. Victorious Union soldiers also carried away or destroyed other records housed in the Capitol.