Thomas Jefferson and the Conditions of Good History: Writing About the American Revolution

Study of Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1823. (Yale University Art Gallery)

Thomas Jefferson has a Thucydidean, or fact-based, approach to the praxis of history. Evidence of that approach appeared early in his life, in his Literary Commonplace Book. There, Jefferson, quoted Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke (1678–1751), who wrote of history, rightly practiced. For history to be authentic, Jefferson, continuing to copy Bolingbroke, added that “these are some of the conditions necessary” (1–4, numbers mine):

    1. it must be writ by a cotemporary author, or by one who had cotemporary materials in his hands.
    2. it must have been published among men who are able to judge of the capacity of th[e] author, and of the authenticity of the memorials on whic[h] he writ.
    3. nothing repugnant to the universal experience of mankind must be contained in it.
    4. the principal facts at least, which it contains, must be confirmed by collateral testimony, that is, by the testimony of thos[e] who had no common interest of country, of religion, or of profession, to disguise or falsify the truth.

We may thus sum these needed conditions, according to Jefferson, for sound history:

1. (Proximity Condition):a historian must either be living at the time of the events he describes or, if not, he must be privy to documents written of the time he describes by witnesses.

2. (Authenticity Condition):the author must be judged to be capable and ingenuous by others of his day who are capable and ingenuous and his materials must be judged authentic by such persons.

3. (Consistency Condition):what is described is consistent with what is universally experienced by mankind—e.g., there be no contraventions of the amply verified laws of physical nature.

4.  (Confirmation Condition): the axial facts of the testimony must be confirmed by qualified disinterested others.

Bolingbroke’s principles, clearly driven by his empiricism, entail sufficient vetting of both persons and material. That Jefferson commonplaced the passage strongly intimates purchase of Bolingbrokean principles of proper history. Jefferson’s inclusion of “some” indicates the likelihood of other conditions necessary, or at least desirable, not listed by Bolingbroke.

Let us look at each.

First, there is the proximity condition. To John Adams (10 Aug. 1815), Jefferson writes of his concern that the there can never be a definitive account of the American Revolution because none of the discussions of the Continental Congress has been left to posterity by members of that Congress. “On the subject of the history of the American Revolution, you ask who shall write it?” says Jefferson. “Who can write it? And who will ever be able to write it? Nobody; except merely its external facts; all its councils, designs and discussions having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no members, as far as I know, having even made notes of them. These, which are the life and soul of history, must forever be unknown.”

To John Adams, Jefferson wrote of his notes on American independence:

On the questions of Independence, and on the two articles of Confederation respecting taxes and votings, I took minutes of the heads of the arguments. On the first, I threw all into one mass, without ascribing to the speakers their respective arguments; pretty much in the manner of Hume’s summary digests of the reasonings in parliament for and against a measure. On the last, I stated the heads of the arguments used by each speaker. But the whole of my notes on the question of Independence does not occupy more than five pages, such as of this letter; and on the other questions, two such sheets. They have never been communicated to any one.[1]

Jefferson added, however, that there is an account, “the ablest work of this kind,” of the debates over the Constitution at the convention in Philadelphia in 1788. “The whole of everything said and done there was taken down by Mr. Madison, with a labor and exactness beyond comprehension.”

On June 12, 1823, Jefferson told William Johnson, “The opening scenes of our present government will not be seen in their true aspect until the letters of the day, now held in private hoards, shall be broken up and laid open to public view.” On October 4 of the same year, he told Hugh Paul Taylor “every good citizen” must do what he can to preserve “documents relating to the history of our country.” He was convinced that America, comprising liberty-loving people, has a privileged position in global history.

Next, there is the authenticity condition. In some notes he took on Christoph Daniel Ebeling (30 July 1795) and Ebeling’s account of the history and geography of America in his Erdbeschreibung und Geschichte von America (first published in 1793), Jefferson commented on the American sources of Ebeling’s work. There are President Stiles, Dr. Willar, Dr. Ramsay, Mr. Barlow, Mr. Morse, and Mr. Webster. The first was “an excellent man, of very great learning, but remarkable for his credulity.” Ramsay, Barlow, and Morse were “men of respectable characters worthy of confidence as to any facts they may state, and rendered, by their good sense, good judges of them.” Morse and Webster were “good authorities for whatever relates to the Eastern states, & perhaps as far South as the Delaware.” Yet when they talked of states south of Delaware, “their information is worse than none at all, except as far as they quote good authorities.” Each traveled once through the South so that they might be considered eyewitnesses. “But to pass once along a public road thro’ a country, & in one direction only, to put up at it’s taverns, and get into conversation with the idle, drunken individuals who pass their time lounging in these taverns, is not the way to know a country, it’s inhabitants, or manners.” And so, Ebeling was not entitled “to generalize a whole nation from these specimens.”

What then of the newspapers of the country—such as John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States, Noah Webster’s American Minerva, Benjamin Russell’s Columbian Sentinel (Boston), from which Ebeling drew? Those were each Federalist sources, and thus slanted.

Jefferson then recommended Philip Mazzei’s Recherches historiques et politiques sur les Etates-Unis de l’Amerique—which could be got only from Paris—because“the author is an exact man.”

The greatest illustration of inauthenticity is David Hume’s History of England. Jefferson wrote of the enthusiasm with which he, unaware of its Tory slant, “devoured it when young.” Hume, doing backwards history,[2] began with the Stuarts, “became their apologist, and advocated all their enormities,” perhaps in some measure to gain fame. Jefferson wrote,

He spared nothing, therefore, to wash them white, and to palliate their misgovernment. For this purpose he suppressed truths, advanced falsehoods, forged authorities and falsified records. . . . But so bewitching was his style and manner, that his readers were un-willing to doubt anything, swallowed everything, and all England became tories by the magic of his art. His pen revolutionized the public sentiment of that country more completely than the standing armies could ever have done, which were so much dreaded and deprecated by the patriots of that day.

He then turned to the Tudors, but then only “selected and arranged the materials of their history as to present their arbitrary acts only, as the genuine samples of the constitutional power of the crown.[3] “It is like the portraits of our countryman [Joseph] Wright, whose eye was so unhappy as to seize all the ugly features of his subject, and to present them faithfully, while it was entirely insensible to every lineament of beauty.”[4]

Jefferson’s gripe with Hume, he told George Lewis, was his pro-monarchy slant.[5] When discussing the reigns of the Plantagenets and Tudors, Hume wrote that “it was the people who encroached on the sovereign, not the sovereign who usurped on the rights of the people” and that “the grievances under which the English labored [i.e., whipping, pillorying, cropping, imprisoning, fining, &c.], when considered in themselves, without regard to the constitution, scarcely deserve the name, nor were they either burthensome on the people’s properties, or anywise shocking to the natural humanity of mankind.” As a Tory historian, Hume derived his understanding of the British constitution from the provenance of the Norman Conquest, while Whig historians derived theirs from the era of the Saxons. (A critique of the cogency/uncogency of Jefferson’s account of Hume is beyond the scope of this essay.)

Third, there is the consistency condition. In the manner of Leopold von Ranke (1795 – 1886) decades after him, Jefferson railed against writers who got right the “great outlines,” though “the incidents and coloring are according to the faith or fancy of the writer.” He had in mind Judge John Marshall’s biography of George Washington. “Had Judge Marshall taken half your pains in sifting and scrutinizing facts, he would not have given to the world, as true history a false copy of a record under his eye.” The nodus is amplified tenfold in subsequent biographies, which drew sustenance from the first. Historians must begin with facts. “When writers are so indifferent as to the correctness of facts,” said Jefferson to William Wirt, who was in the process of a biography of Patrick Henry and enjoining Jefferson for information, “the verification of which lies at their elbow, by what measure shall we estimate their relation of things distant, or of those given to us through the obliquities of their own vision?” To allow for vetted material, it is incumbent on key players in a great historical drama to keep painstakingly records of events.[6]

In a later letter to Wirt, Jefferson lampooned his friend’s finished biography of Henry. “You have certainly practiced vigorously the precept of ‘de mortius nil nisi bonum.’[7] This presents a very difficult question,—whether one only or both sides of the medal shall be presented. It constitutes, perhaps, the distinction between panegyric and history.”[8] Jefferson was clearly disappointed with the work. He would list the biography in his library under “Fiction.”

It was imperative for Jefferson that chroniclers of persons and events do the digging, as it were, and get right their facts. Travelers to America—like d’Auberteuil, Longchamps, and Abbé Robin—crafted accounts of the Revolution or the jejune country, said Jefferson to the editor of Journal de Paris, that passed as genuine to contemporaries of the persons or events depicted. He wrote,

How may we expect that future ages shall be better informed? Will those rise from their graves to bear witness to the truth, who would not, while living, lift their voices against falsehood? If cotemporary histories are thus false, what will future compilations be? And what are all those of preceding times?[9]

Jefferson cited a paragraph concerning John Dickinson’s role in the American Revolution. Dickinson was said by a certain M. Meyer to be the sole driving force behind America’s independence. Jefferson went on to give a thorough refutation of that account—a tissue of falsehoods with the exception of one claim. Meyer stated that there was a congressional split in the vote for independence; Jefferson noted that the vote was unanimous. After vigorous debate on Jefferson’s Declaration, the final document was “approved by an unanimous vote and signed by every member, except Mr. Dickinson.” Still, the journal claimed that Dickinson, and only Dickinson, declared the independence of the United States.[10]

Last, there is the confirmation condition, which required that even first-hand testimonies, if possible, be vetted by accounts of others. It is a condition of enumerative induction which sensibly states that the more testimony we have on behalf of some claim, so long as we do not stumble across disconfirmatory evidence, the more we can be convinced of its truth.

To William Short, Jefferson recounted a story which he was fond of relating. In a discussion with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, the former stated that the British government would be “the most perfect model of government ever devised by the wit of man” if its imperfections were expunged. Hamilton corrected Adams, “With these corruptions it was perfect, and without them it would be an impracticable government.” Jefferson added that the account was confirmable by Henry Knox and Edmund Randolph, who were then also present. Jefferson summed:

The true history of that conflict of parties will never be in possession of the public, until, by the death of the actors in it, the hoards of their letters shall be broken up and given to the world. I should not fear to appeal to those of Harper himself, if he has kept copies of them, for abundant proof that he was himself a monarchist. I shall not live to see these unrevealed proofs, nor probably you; for time will be requisite. But time will, in the end, produce the truth.[11]

In addition to the four needed conditions of right history, Jefferson also commonplaced a sentence on the worthlessness of circumstantial history.

A story circumstantially related, ought not to be received on the faith of tradition; since the last reflection on human nature is sufficient to shew how unsafely a system of facts and circumstances can be trusted for it’s preservation to memory alone, and for it’s conveiance to oral report alone; how liable it must be to all those alterations, which the weakness of the human mind must cause necessarily, and which the corruption of the human heart will be sure to suggest.

Thus, any report that is handed down through the years from mouth to mouth is historically unreliable.  Reports must be first-hand. An excellent illustration of direct testimony occurs in a letter to James Madison, concerning Marquis de Chastellux’s book, Travels in North America, Through the Years, 1780, 1781, and 1782: “He has visited all the principal fields of battle, enquired minutely into the detail of the actions, & has given what are probably the best accounts extant of them. He often finds occasion to criticise & to deny the British accounts from an inspection of the ground.”[12]

There is more to say. Inspection of Jefferson’s writings shows a commitment to other principles, not as needed principles, but as desiderata.

First, to be a fit historian, one must devote a lifetime to the discipline and write down one’s experiences before one’s faculties have decayed. Josephus Bradner Stuart wrote an exceptional letter to Jefferson, bidding him to write his account of his life and the times in which he had lived. Stuart wrote, “The American People, after all you have done for them, wish one more last & lasting favor from you: that is, that not withstanding your advanced age, your extensive correspondence, your numerous & important duties, you will yet favor them & the world with such history of your own life & times, as your leisure may permit you to compile. For such a work the voice of the nation, as far as I can ascertain it, seems to be loud & united.”[13]

Jefferson replied that while a public servant, he had the cognitive resources but not the time, while now that he was retired, he had the time but lacked the cognitive resources:

to write history requires a whole life of observation, of enquiry, of labor and correction. it’s materials are not to be found among the ruins of a decayed memory. at this day I should begin where I ought to have left off. the ‘solve senescentem equum’ is a precept we learn in youth,[14] but for the practice of age; and were I to disregard it, it would be but a proof the more of it’s soundness.[15]

Jefferson added that he would certainly lose the respect of his fellow citizens “by exposing the decay of [his] faculties,” were he to attempt such a history. It was, thus, for Stuart and his “brethren of the rising generation to arraign at your tribunal the actions of your predecessors, and to pronounce the sentence they may have merited or incurred.”[16]

Second, a historian must practice concision. On December 18, 1824, William Short wrote to Jefferson of the goings-on of the secret Hartford Convention, held by Federalists from late 1814 to early 1815.[17] Short remarked on his astonishment on a certain Harper who had written too little on the convention and had not consulted the pamphlet of Harrison Gray Otis. Jefferson replied: “It is impossible to read thoroughly such writings as those of Harper and Otis, who take a page to say what requires but a sentence, or rather, who give you whole pages of what is nothing to the purpose.” Jefferson, though he lived in a time when prolixity of written expression was the norm—one sentence, especially in legal documents, could run on for pages—was remarkably economical when writing. Jefferson championed concision of expression for all manners of communicating through words.

Third, Jefferson militated for some degree of embellishment, so long as a historian does not depart from the facts. Given what I have mentioned of concision and given Jefferson’s penchant for truthfulness, it might come as a surprise that he was not adamantly against any measure of embellishment to enliven the otherwise dreary, fact-based prose. He wrote to John Adams:

I am now reading Botta’s History of our own Revolution.[18] Bating the ancient practice which he has adopted of putting speeches into mouths which never made them, and fancying motives of action which we never felt, he has given that history with more detail, precision and candor, than any writer I have yet met with. It is, to be sure, compiled from those writers; but it is a good secretion of their matter, the pure from the impure, and presented in a just sense of right in opposition to usurpation.[19]

What exactly is Jefferson here saying? The second sentence seems to be a concession. Jefferson was likely asserting that despite having added speeches that were never uttered in the mouths of Patriots, Botta had still given the most detailed, precise, and candid account of the American Revolution. Drawing from other sources, he purified their impure accounts, because he explained the revolution from the perspective of right, not of insurgency for the sake of usurpation of power. If so, this is not a blanket endorsement of adding fictive speeches to enliven narrative, but Jefferson clearly did not object to the practice.


[1]Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 10, 1815,

[2]Jefferson to George Lewis, October 1825,

[3]Jefferson to William Duane, August 12, 1810,

[4]Wright was known for his portraits of American patriots, like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. He perished in 1793 with yellow fever in Philadelphia. Jefferson to Adams, November 25, 1816,

[5]Jefferson to George Lewis, October 25, 1825,

[6]Jefferson to William Wirt, August 14, 1814,

[7]“Only say good things about the dead.”

[8]Jefferson to Wirt, November 12, 1816,

[9]Jefferson to the editor of Journal de Paris, August 29, 1787,

[10]Monsieur Mayer assure qu’une seule voix, un seul homme, prononça l’independance des Etats unis. Ce fut, dit il, John Dickinson, un des Deputés de la Pensilvanie au Congrés. La veille, il avoit vôté pour la soumission, l’egalité des suffrages avoit suspendu la resolution; s’il eut persisté, le Congrés ne deliberoit point, il fut foible; il ceda aux instances de ceux qui avoient plus d’energie, plus d’eloquence, et plus de lumieres; il donna sa voix: l’Amerique lui doit une reconnaissance eternelle; c’est Dickinson qui l’a affranchie.

[11]Jefferson to William Short, January 8, 1825,

[12]Jefferson to James Madison, February 20, 1784,

[13]Josephus B. Stuart to Jefferson, April 25, 1817,

[14]From Horace, who writes, “Solve senescentem mature sanus equum, nepeccet ad extremum ridendus et ilia ducat” (“Be wise in time, and turn loose the ageing horse, lest at the last he stumble amid jeers and burst his wind”).  Horace,Satires, Epistles, Art of Poetry, trans. Rushton Fairclough (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926),Book I, Epistle I, lines 8–9.

[15]Jefferson to Stuart, May 10, 1817,


[17]These were meetings at Hartford of Federalist from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont from December 15, 1814, to January 5, 1815, to discuss pressing political issues such as the dreadful War of 1812, the possibility of secession from the union of states, removal of the three-fifths clause, the legality of the Louisiana Purchase, the Embargo of 1807, a requirement to have two-thirds of congress approve declarations of war, restrictions of trade, and admission of new states. Three representatives from the secret meetings were subsequently sent to Washington to discuss their terms, but news of Andrew Jackson’s stunning victory in the Battle of New Orleans preceded them. Thereby the representatives lost whatever leverage they might have had, and they returned to Massachusetts.

[18]Carlo Giuseppi Guglielmo Botta, History of the War of the Independence of the United States of America (Philadelphia: 1820–1821).

[19]Jefferson to Adams, May 5, 1817,

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  • This is a great read. Jefferson’s desire for objectivity and precision is, of course to be lauded. Yet his literary criticisms mixed a bit too liberally, as far as my appreciation of his works informs me, with his partisanship. His reflexive distrust and anger over Marshall’s survey on Washington, for example, fleshes this out. And when Fenno’s Gazette of the United States began promoting the federal government and advocating for the Washington administration, Jefferson, fearful that the public mind was being poisoned by monarchists, helped persuade John Freneau to publish the National Gazette as a prism of truth and an antidote for what he considered Federalist propaganda. Again, thought provoking and informative. Thank you.

  • What a great piece, Mr. Holowchak. It’s not only a good reflection on Jefferson’s outlook on the world, but also great advise for historians and writers. I really appreciate your work with this.

  • This is a great thought-provoking piece.

    What is truth by “digging,” chasing down as many sources as possible. Or can the writer, historian, or biographer add things that are consistent with their view of the character or characters in a larger story?

    Until the end, when Jefferson appears to approve “putting words in other peoples’ mouths,” I was completely with the third president.

    But then, I had the same feelings of unease when I was reading a far more contemporary work, Berendts’ “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” How did the author know what the principal characters were saying in crucial moments of the narrative when both were dead? And even, if they were alive, how could Berendts know their thoughts during those precise moments?

    I’m sure I would have the same qualms in re-reading Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

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