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The Organized President
When Jefferson wanted a job done right, he did it himself
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
He alphabetized it by going through his original index and picking out first the ab s, then the ac s, and on down through the alphabet. Each item was checked off the old index as he copied it. This was a painstakingly slow process, for he had to read the entire column for each item he sorted. Occasionally he missed an item and had to squeeze it in.
He completed the new index down to the K s and stopped, and there it sits today like an abandoned halfcut jewel. Why he failed to complete it can only be guessed. The most probable reason was that it was still unfinished when he sold it to the government with his other books in 1815.
There tire two even more puzzling questions: Why did he go through the incredible amount of work to index this book in the first place, and why weren’t the two indexes in the book when he sold it?
The answer to the first question is undoubtedly that Jefferson was an inveterate indexer; he indexed account books, journals, and memo- randum books. Making lists, classifying, ordering, collecting, and saving were symptoms of his compulsive personality. Indexing was not merely utilitarian; it was a necessity. He carried a notebook with him constantly and recorded in it every cent he received or spent, and he filed these books away annually for more than sixty years. He owned one of the largest personal libraries in the nation, arranged according to his own adaptation of Francis Bacon’s classification of knowledge, a system that was to be used by the Library of Congress for a hundred years. Jefferson’s correspondence was so perfectly filed that he boasted that he could find any letter in a matter of minutes. He ordered his life this way, not because he wished to but because he had to.
The incomplete index shows, in addition, that the physical act of writing it was an aesthetic pleasure. If he had completed it, he would have produced a thing of beauty.
And this, perhaps, provides an answer to the second question. It was uncharacteristic of Jefferson not to include the indexes with the book when it was sold, for he was normally generous in giving others the benefit of his knowledge and studies. But by his perfectionist standards his stage-two index was sloppy, and the stagethree index was unfinished and therefore defective.
I like to imagine the moment when he held Barton’s Botany in one hand and his indexes in the other and, after hesitating perhaps only the blink of an eye, made the decision to lay aside the indexes, later to be filed away with his personal papers.
I see that moment as a delicate pivot point where pride and humility, privacy and generosity, restraint and impulse were suspended in a fine balance before collapsing into a decision that for most of us might have been silly, and even irrational, but for Thomas Jefferson was exactly, inevitably right.