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Boyd, Julian Parkslocked

(03 November 1903–28 May 1980)
  • Herbert E. Sloan

Boyd, Julian Parks (03 November 1903–28 May 1980), documentary editor and historian, was born in Converse, South Carolina, the son of Robert J. Boyd, a railroad telegrapher, and Melona Parks. After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree from Duke University in 1925, he earned a master’s degree in political science from that institution in 1926 and then spent 1926–1927 as instructor and principal at Alliance High School in North Carolina; in 1927–1928 he did further graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania. In December 1927 he married Grace Wiggins Welch; the couple had one son.

In 1928 Boyd took up a position as editor of The Susquehannah Company Papers for the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. In 1932 he moved to the New York State Historical Association as its director. In 1934 he joined the Historical Society of Pennsylvania as assistant librarian, becoming its librarian in 1935. From 1940 to 1952 he was head librarian at Princeton University, where he had an important part in the design and construction of the Firestone Library, opened in 1948. Appointed professor of history at Princeton in 1952, he received emeritus status as senior research historian in 1972.

Boyd’s career as a documentary editor began with his four volumes of The Susquehannah Company Papers (1930–1933). He went on to produce editions of Indian Treaties Printed by Benjamin Franklin, 1736–1762 (1938), and, significantly, The Declaration of Independence (1943), in which he showed how the Declaration evolved through a series of drafts and identified the contributions of individuals other than Jefferson. His other major publication of this period, Anglo-American Union: Joseph Galloway’s Plans to Preserve the British Empire (1941), was a work of traditional historical narrative and analysis.

At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Boyd had come to the attention of Fiske Kimball, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the first serious student of Jefferson’s architecture. Kimball, an influential member of the federal Thomas Jefferson Bicentennial Commission, helped to secure Boyd’s appointment in March 1943 as its historian; on his recommendation Boyd was named editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, the new edition approved by the commission in October 1943 on the basis of a feasibility study Boyd had submitted in September. Scholars had long complained that existing editions of Jefferson’s writings were incomplete and frequently unreliable; Boyd had little trouble demonstrating the need for a more comprehensive one that, moreover, would break new ground by including incoming as well as outgoing materials.

The edition Boyd planned was to be more than a work for scholars. The 1943 Jefferson bicentennial popularized the image of Jefferson as the embodiment of the nation’s ideals, and the edition’s role in the global struggle to win hearts and minds had real importance for its supporters. That link between scholarship and politics continued to be significant for the edition during the early decades of the Cold War. A $200,000 grant from the New York Times and $15,000 of federal money allowed the project to begin operations under Boyd’s direction in 1944; he remained its editor until his death in 1980.

At first, Boyd’s elegantly produced volumes appeared in rapid order and to general acclaim. By 1958 the series had reached its fifteenth volume and Jefferson’s final months in France. Thereafter it slowed almost to a halt. Only four volumes appeared during the rest of Boyd’s tenure as editor, and together they took in less than two years of Jefferson’s life (Nov. 1789–Mar. 1791); a fifth (covering Apr.–Aug. 1791) was nearing completion when Boyd died. Boyd had always stressed the importance of annotation, but after 1958 annotation threatened to overwhelm the edition. He now gave priority to creating exhaustive commentaries that would provide definitive interpretations of Jefferson’s life and work. Some of his notes in this spirit went on for scores of pages. They could also exhibit a strong animus against Alexander Hamilton, as in a note in volume 17 that accused Hamilton of “duplicity” in his reports on his contacts with British agent George Beckwith. An expanded version of that note appeared separately as Number 7: Alexander Hamilton’s Secret Attempts to Control American Foreign Policy (1964).

With intervals between the volumes lengthening, criticism, at first muted, then louder, began to surface, much of it attacking the edition’s lack of progress and Boyd’s ultimately futile attempt to nail down the meaning of the documents he published. Some took a closer look at his editorial methods and found them wanting; for G. Thomas Tanselle, writing in 1978, it was unfortunate that “an edition in such a strategic position of influence is so unsophisticated in its handling of the actual text” (“The Editing of Historical Documens,” Studies in Bibliography 31 [1978]: 41). Meanwhile, other documentary editions moved ahead, not least because their editors resisted the temptations that ensnared Boyd. By the 1970s “Boyd” had become an example of how not to do things. His successors at The Papers of Thomas Jefferson would restore the forward trajectory lost during Boyd’s last decades.

Boyd was president of the American Historical Association in 1964 and president of the American Philosophical Society from 1973 to 1976. His explanation of the principles of documentary editing in the introduction to volume one of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1950) was highly influential; for years American historian-editors were guided by Boyd’s practice. From 1951 to 1964 Boyd served on the National Historical Publications Commission and in that capacity worked to foster the documentary editing movement. The example he set in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson helped to inspire the many projects to create modern editions of the papers of American statesmen; as historians’ tastes changed, new projects brought women and minorities within scope of the documentary editions that have made the record of the American past more readily available to scholars, students, and other interested readers. Boyd died in Princeton.


A collection of Boyd’s papers is in the Princeton University Library. A list of Boyd’s works is Julian P. Boyd: A Bibliographical Record (1950). Current Biography 37 (1976): 58–61 contains the most comprehensive biography. Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), places Boyd and his edition in the larger context of Jefferson studies. His role in the development of documentary editing is discussed in Mary-Jo Kline, A Guide to Documentary Editing (1987). Boyd’s views on editing appear in his introduction to vol. 1 of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1950). See also Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., “The Legacy of Julian Boyd,” South Atlantic Quarterly 83 (1984): 340–44. An obituary is in the New York Times, 29 May 1980.