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The Organized President

May 2024
4min read

When Jefferson wanted a job done right, he did it himself

What reader has not been infuriated at having to look up something in a book with no index? Serious books written in this century usually are indexed. But in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this was not the case, and one reader of the time was so annoyed by the lack of indexes in his books that he supplied a number of them himself.

Exactly how many books Thomas Jefferson indexed is unknown because a fire on Christmas Eve 1851 destroyed two-thirds of the library he had sold to the government to form the nucleus of the Library of Congress. Of the surviving books, three have short indexes written by Jefferson. Two are copied onto blank end pages; one is on a separate sheet bound into the book.

Much more interesting, however, is an extensive index of two thousand items and five hundred additional page references found among Jefferson’s unpublished papers. The index is a historical novelty, for it is certainly the only thing of its kind written by a President of the United States. But it is something more. Thomas Jefferson’s index provides us with a small, special insight into one of the most complex personalities America has ever produced.

The work Jefferson indexed was Benjamin Smith Barton’s Elements of Botany , published in Philadelphia in 1803. Jefferson acquired his copy in 1808, during his second term as President. Barton’s book, the first work of elementary botany written by an American, was one Jefferson would have turned to often, for not only was he chauvinistic about American science, but he was also an enthusiastic amateur gardener and horticulturist. Morever, Barton had honored Jefferson by naming a native woodland herb after him, Jeffersonia diphylla .

Jefferson once described botany as one of the most valuable of all sciences because its subjects furnished “the principal subsistence of life to man and beast, delicious varieties for our tables, refreshments from our orchards, the adornments of our flower-borders, shade and perfume of our groves, materials for our buildings, or medicaments for our bodies.” He had thirty-six volumes on botany in his library, none with an index.

Before the computer made indexing as simple as typing, there was one standard way to produce an index. You placed a large stack of paper slips before you and proceeded to page through the book, copying on each slip of paper the subject or name to be indexed together with its page number. When the last page was finished, the slips were placed in alphabetical order, multiple entries were arranged numerically by page number, and the whole business was copied slip by slip into a finished index.

In an earlier age, when paper was both expensive and scarce, this was a wasteful method. Jefferson, who often recycled scraps of paper for notes and memos, was not one to be wasteful, so he devised his own method for creating an index, one that eliminated slips of paper entirely. His indexing system used only four letter-size pieces of paper for work sheets.

He began his index by drawing four columns on both sides of a sheet of paper. He then started through the book, copying each word to be indexed with its page number. He wrote roughly eighty items in a column, and a total of twenty-five columns. When he came to a word already indexed, he located it on the work sheet and added the new page number to it. This meant that in order to avoid repeating an item, he would have had to memorize the two thousand subjects that ultimately appeared in the index. Not even a Thomas Jefferson was able to do this; there were repetitions of subjects on the work sheets.

When he had indexed the book and its thirty illustrations on the work sheets, he proceeded to the second stage. He drew four columns on both sides of four new sheets of paper and, starting with the letter A on the first column, went through his original list, copying each item beginning with A in the order it occurred, and then checking it with a mark. Then to B , and on through the alphabet. It is difficult to estimate the time the two stages took, but both work sheets and alphabetized index were written carefully with a quill pen, in Jefferson’s minute but extremely legible hand.

The weakness of this index was that it was alphabetized only by initial letter. To find the word algae , Jefferson had first to check through eightyseven other items under A . A completely alphabetized index would have taken more time to compile than could ever be recovered in using it.

Nevertheless, Jefferson tried it; he began a third stage, a completely alphabetized index of the botanical text. This one was written with only three columns to a page, to allow plenty of space for page references.


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.

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