Print Project Proposal- What was Jefferson Thinking?

For my print project, I plan to use macroanalysis to find broad themes in the existing documents/writings of Thomas Jefferson to show what ideas and themes were most prominent throughout his life.  Jefferson, one of the most significant of the founding fathers, has more than 20,000 of his writings filed within the National Archives and available digitally.  For this project, I will not use documents written for governmental purposes, such as the Declaration of Independence, as these texts were written to reflect the ideas of many individuals and the majority of the government rather than the ideas of Jefferson himself.  By focusing on Jefferson’s ideas, I believe that major themes in early American politics and history can be seen given his prominence as an integral member of the earliest American politicians.

I intend to break down the pieces of Jefferson’s writings into several subfields to show the manner in which Jefferson would write to different people and about different subjects.  Jefferson was one of the more active political figures in Early America, and in each of his roles he would have had different concerns plaguing him.  As a result, I believe that an effective manner of breaking down his works chronologically would be as follows: Colonial period, Works as a Founding Father, As Minister to France, As Secretary of State, As Vice President, As President, In “Retirement.”  In addition to a chronological breakdown, I believe that a division based on the audience of each piece would be beneficial, as it is likely that pieces were written differently for different individuals.  As such, I feel that a breakdown of three categories would suffice in this regard: Texts Written to the Public; Texts Written in Private, Personal Correspondence; and Texts Written as Public/ Political Correspondences.  With these different categories, I believe that a more accurate portrayal of Jefferson’s mindset during different periods can be attained.

In order to achieve my intended goal, I will utilize macroanalysis tools and programs to input the necessary data from Jefferson’s writings and produce presentation methods that I will then analyze with historical research about the time periods in question.  I believe that, as these texts are available online from the National Archives, Voyant Tools is an appropriate program to use to accumulate these texts and form a corpus.  I will input a certain number (to be determined at a later point due to the abundance of sources during different periods) of sources into the site and develop visual representations of this information, likely word clouds.  I will then use these word clouds as launching points for research into these time periods, and after conducting this research I will determine what events and topics Jefferson was talking about, the frequency he discussed them, and potential reasons for these frequencies.

Within this project, there are a few limitations that would have to be addressed in order to make this an effective project.  For example, for the purposes of time I will be unable to input every single piece written by Jefferson, as inputting over 20,000 pieces would prevent any outside research in this semester.  There are also a great number of sources from some periods in Jefferson’s life and substantially less from others, which will create some issues in the aforementioned breakdowns.  Determining which writings belong in which groups will be a challenge, as will determining how many correspondences to a given person to include to prevent a bias in continued conversations.  I am also unclear of the efficiency rate of Voyant Tools, which would have to be mentioned within my final report to be as forthcoming as possible about potential problems.  Despite these, I believe that each of these issues can be overcome within the scope of this project and could produce a very interesting end product.

Let me know what you guys think!  I welcome all criticisms or suggestions on this since I’m still in the early stages of planning this project.

One Reply to “Print Project Proposal- What was Jefferson Thinking?”

  1. Taking the macroanalysis view of the writings of Jefferson seems like it could be a useful way to explore his writings. I think you’ve rightly identified a situation where the subject has voluminous enough writing to be a good candidate for using distant reading as a method of working with his work.

    Going into something like this, it would be great to start with some thoughts on what exactly you might be looking for. I think that could help you confirm if the categories you are setting up reflect the best way to approach things.

    If you did decide to do this for your class project the first task would be sorting out an approach to piloting the project. That is, you would want some subset of the texts to work from as a basis of seeing what kinds of results might come out of it. My initial thought is you would want to try and sample all of these different periods and forms of writing so that you have a bit of all of the areas that you would then try and pull together.

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