Looney’s work is part of an audacious, multimillion-dollar memorial to some of the nation’s most prominent Founding Fathers: an attempt to track down and publish an exhaustive collection of all of the significant correspondence and other documents written by — and sent to — George Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.
Since 1999, Looney has been indexing Jefferson’s letters on everything from censorship to cold foot baths using XML, a computer language good for categorizing things such as names and places, and flexible enough to evolve as the Internet does. Soon, a database made up of 197 volumes of Jefferson’s and the other Founders’ papers will be available to all online. Later, new volumes and rough, early copies of unpublished letters will be added.
Looney brings patience, a mathematician’s precision and a glint of mischief to his work, which he expects to complete by July 4 — in 2026.
He is 58, wears his beard somewhere between scraggly and scholarly, and has 375 neckties, which he organizes to avoid repeats. Among them: the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s handwriting and tiny tree toads.
From his office down the hill from Monticello, Looney wrestles with letters full of wit, hypocrisy and humanity. One day, the debt-ridden author of the Declaration of Independence is concerned about luring a great watchmaker to Charlottesville. On another, the obstinate slaveholder is terrified at the life-threatening illness of longtime slave Burwell Colbert, with whom he had grown close.
When Looney is done, he wants readers hundreds of years from now to have “pretty close to the ultimate tool kit” for understanding Jefferson.
“People create their own Jefferson out of the available record. . . . He’s slippery that way,” Looney said. “You can interpret him more than one way, and each generation has a way of finding the Jefferson it wants and needs in his papers.”
A definitive collection
Months after President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the marble-and-granite Jefferson Memorial in 1943, a historian proposed a definitive, multimillion-word collection of Jefferson’s writings.
Julian Boyd, an expert on the Declaration of Independence, launched the project at Princeton, where he was a librarian.
He thought it would take 10 years, maybe 15.
It’s been 70.
His predictions were off, in part, because he insisted on including incoming letters, which paint a picture not just of Jefferson but his era. That became the standard for other Founders projects that followed.
Boyd died in 1980, still at work after 36 years.
Four years later, fresh after finishing his doctorate at Princeton, Looney started work in the basement officesof the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. He came in as the computer guy and rose up. He eventually left Princeton to head the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.