BACK in 1963, a colleague told me of a visit he had

recently had with Julian Boyd. Boyd, he reported, was very depressed: at the age of 60 he had just come to the full realization that he would not live to see the end of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, the first volume of which he had published in 1950. Boyd went on to edit four more volumes before his death in 1980. The last he edited is this posthumously published Volume 20. It deals with only five months of Jefferson's life between April and August 1791. Thirty-five more years of Jefferson's life and tens of thousands of documents remain to be edited.

If Boyd had ever thought that he would be able to complete the whole immense project he had begun in 1950, he was dreaming an impossible dream. Nearly all of the mammoth publication programs of the papers of historical statesmen launched in the wake of Boyd's Jefferson Papers have had to take on new editors and new editorial crews, as these huge ongoing projects began to span not just decades, but generations. Boyd in 1950 simply underestimated the immensity of the task he was setting for himself. In his introduction to the first volume he spoke of a possible 50 volumes, but by the time he got Jefferson to the 1780s and was editing a volume for every six months of Jefferson's life, that original estimate must have seemed unreal. Yet it would be a mistake to see Boyd's career in terms of his inability to finish what he had begun. For in his 20 volumes of the Jefferson Papers he left a legacy unmatched by that of any other documentary editor in American history. More than any other single person Julian Boyd was responsible for making the last half of the 20th century the greatest era of historical editing ever known.

Boyd's Jefferson Papers was the model for all the great publication programs of the papers of American statesmen begun during the past 30 years. Boyd established the principles that others have followed. He never meant to, says his editorial successor of the Jefferson Papers, Charles T. Cullen, in a preface to Volume 20. He never intended "that every collection of papers of every historical figure warranted the same treatment" as he gave Jefferson's. Boyd established methods and principles of editing, says Cullen, "specifically for Thomas Jefferson's papers." Yet whether he intended to or not, Boyd set the standards for the future editing of historical documents in America. His methods and principles were too compelling, too well thought out, and too much in accord with the requirements of historians and others to be confined only to Jefferson. His ideas of assembling, annotating, and presenting historical texts were quickly picked up and emulated by the more than four dozen editions of the papers of American statesmen begun during the past generation.

What were Boyd's policies of editing that became so famous? Most important was his principle of completeness. Boyd, explains Cullen, had "an overriding concern that the papers of Thomas Jefferson--one of four or five collections of papers he considered fundamentally important in the history of our nation--be prepared and published in a comprehensive edition of such high standards that later editions would be unnecessary." For this concern especially, says Cullen, "he would want to be remembered." Obviously Boyd never intended to publish every single item relating to Jefferson, but he did aim to include, as he said in his first volume, "everything legitimately Jeffersonian by reason of authorship or of relationship."

The correspondence was to embrace not only the letters by Jefferson but also the letters to Jefferson and other letters relating to him. This was the broadest definition of correspondence any editor had ever conceived of, and although it may have been specifically appropriate to Jefferson's life, it was a definition wisely copied by other editors. Boyd also set new standards for assembling, collating, and physically presenting texts on the printed page. In transcribing Boyd walked a pragmatic middle line between facsimile reproduction and complete modernization of the text. He modified punctuation and capitalization slightly and expanded some abbreviations and contractions. Although Boyd's policy of emending texts in this way has been criticized by some literary scholars who want only literal reproductions, his joining of clarity and readability with accuracy has superbly met the needs of historians and other users.

Perhaps most controversial has been Boyd's policy of annotation. In his first volume he explained that his annotations were to provide "a certain minimum basis of information essential to the understanding of each document," with the "emphasis upon the words 'minimum' and 'essential.' " But he left himself an out by stating that on certain important issues of Jefferson's career not only would he provide the usual note for each separate document but he would write general introductory comments for groups of documents.

All these principles powerfully influenced subsequent historical editors; after Boyd it was virtually impossible to return to earlier standards of editing. But while other editors went rapidly to work publishing the writings of other statesmen, Boyd seemed to become mired in his own meticulousness about Jefferson. Although he had said at the outset that his "primary task" was to place "the whole body of Jefferson's writings in the hands of historians and of the public as expeditiously as can be done in view of the size and complexity of the undertaking and of the need for completeness and for scrupulous accuracy," Boyd too often seemed to let the historian in him overwhelm the editor. His annotations were anything but the bare minimum. Boyd frequently smothered his texts with editorial notes--notes that were sometimes as long as a book and were in one case at least even published separately as a book (Number 7: Alexander Hamilton's Secret Attempts to Control American Foreign Policy.). Yet in the end there can be no doubt that he was the greatest editor in our history. He left us something that we are morally bound to complete, and complete by his standards.

It won't be easy. Already the costs of publishing the writings of our statesmen such as Jefferson are skyrocketing, and governmental support for such projects is drying up. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which has helped fund many of these programs, has severely cut its grants, and many of the publications projects have been put in jeopardy. Computer technology will accelerate future publication, but money will remain a problem. The Jefferson Papers together with the programs of the other four great revolutionary leaders--Washington, Franklin, Madison, and Adams--recently incorporated themselves as the Founding Fathers Papers in order to seek funds as a group. Some private money has been raised, but the need for regular ongoing public funding is imperative if these and the dozens of other publications are to be completed. Not to complete them, and not to complete them in accord with Boyd's standards, will be something of a national disgrace.

Jefferson understood the importance of the national legacies that these published writings of statesmen represent. He always wanted the United States to have monuments that would last. For all his talk of serving the present generation he always took the long view. That's why when minister to France in the 1780s he goaded his colleagues in Virginia into erecting in Richmond an expensive but magnificent copy of a Roman temple he had seen in N.imes. He wanted a building, he said, that would do "honour to our country," that through the ages would be "an object and proof of national good taste." He felt the same way about the planning of the national capital, to which Boyd in this Volume 20 has devoted a good deal of space. Jefferson had in mind a federal city whose nobility and grandeur would redound to the nation's glory for generations to come. The edited papers of our great national figures are a similar sort of national treasure. Their publication for the use of future generations will be an enduring mark of just what kind of people we are.