Very early in the course of my researches into the laws of Virginia, I observed that many of them were already lost, and many more on the point of being lost, as existing only in single copies …
This leads us then to the only means of preserving those remains of our laws now under consideration, that is, a multiplication of printed copies. I think therefore that there should be printed at public expense, an edition of all the laws ever passed by our legislatures which can now be found; that a copy should be deposited in every public library in America, in the principal public offices within the State, and some perhaps in the most distinguished public libraries of Europe, and that the rest should be sold to individuals, towards reimbursing the expences of the edition …
To George Wythe, January 16, 1796
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders appreciate a government of laws, not of men.
George Wythe was Jefferson’ mentor and friend, directed his study to become a lawyer, and was a co-signer of the Declaration of Independence. During the Revolutionary War, Jefferson devoted himself to a revision of the laws of Virginia, many which existed only as a single copy. Other laws, he feared, were lost forever. To combat this, he proposed printing at public expense “all the laws every passed by our legislatures,” a work that might be contained in four volumes.
This was practical, not just some academic exercise. He wanted that work placed in every public library in the nation, in Virginia’s public offices, even in the best libraries of Europe. In other words, he wanted the laws to be distributed as widely as possible, accessible by all.
Ever conservative about public expenditures, some of the printing cost might be recaptured by selling copies, too.
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