Scholars now believe that four scrapbooks previously regarded as the work of Thomas Jefferson's grandchildren were actually compiled by the nation's third president and may offer new insights into Jefferson's complex and closely studied life.
The books, mainly of newspaper clippings, were shelved decades ago in the University of Virginia's Alderman Library and sat largely ignored until this summer, when a history professor stumbled on them and traced their manufacture to Jefferson.
Other scholars now agree that Jefferson was likely responsible for the leather-bound books, which they say suggest that he was more sentimental than commonly thought and show that he kept close tabs on his detractors and public opinion.
The volumes include poems about friendship and death and newspaper articles that criticized his policies--even one clipping that referred to his alleged liaison with slave Sally Hemings. Last year, DNA tests conducted on Jefferson descendants showed that he very likely fathered one of Hemings's children.
The scholars believe Jefferson was the one who compiled the books in part because they include notations in his handwriting and because some pages are made from envelopes that had been addressed to the president.
"We're convinced that these were compiled by Jefferson," said James Horn, director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. "It conforms to everything we know about the aspects of his character."
Robert McDonald, a history professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, is the one who came across the books during research at the University of Virginia, and he said he was quickly taken with them. He said he found three poems in one volume particularly poignant. One was titled "Maria in the Grave," which he speculated had touched Jefferson after the death of his daughter Maria, who died while a young adult.
McDonald said he found an oak leaf pressed in the pages between two other poems, titled "Friendship" and "Scenes From My Youth." McDonald believes Jefferson may have seen the poems in terms of his close childhood friendship with Dabney Carr. The two friends played and studied together at Monticello and were particularly fond of an old oak tree. McDonald said the boys pledged that the first to die would be buried under the oak, which later became the site of the Monticello family graveyard.
"Of course, I can only speculate who placed that oak leaf there," said McDonald, who was working as a research fellow at Monticello when he made the discovery. "It's suggestive and tempting. I kind of got goose bumps when I saw it."
A set of unbound clippings that has long been attributed to Jefferson is shelved at the Library of Congress. Notations on the clippings are similar to those found in the volumes at U-Va., McDonald said, offering more evidence that they belonged to Jefferson. Also, an acquaintance of Jefferson's wrote of seeing such volumes at Monticello.
The clippings in the books, scholars say, were taken from newspapers mainly during Jefferson's years as president. Much of the material deals with political issues, as well as moral and how-to advice on farming and keeping a home. For example, one excerpt pasted into the collection explains how to make pine look like a more expensive hardwood.
Dan Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation at Monticello, called the scrapbooks "a major find" that reveal a highly personal side of Jefferson.
"The conclusion is that Jefferson was even more of a renaissance man than we might have guessed," Jordan said. "It also shows a sentimental side and a sense of humor that is somewhat surprising. . . . It's very exciting."