This year’s National Book Festival commemorates the 200th anniversary of the historic connection between the Library of Congress and Thomas Jefferson.
It was a connection that arose from the ashes of the War of 1812. The British had burned the original Library of Congress, but Jefferson, who once wrote, “I cannot live without books,” still possessed a personal library of more than 6,000 volumes at Monticello. And so an arrangement was made: To begin the nation’s library again, in 1815, Jefferson sold his collection to Congress for $23,950.
Those books demonstrate the breadth of Jefferson’s interests and the complexity of his character. Mark Dimunation, chief of Rare Book and Special Collections at the Library, presents here a small sampling of the titles that our third president read and treasured. All are available to researchers at the Library of Congress.
Essays on the Principles of
Morality and Natural Religion
By Henry Home, Lord Kames (1751)
The 18th-century Scottish philosopher Lord Kames was a leader of the “moral sense” school, which held that people have an inner sense of right and wrong. Kames provided the philosophical foundation of the phrase “pursuit of happiness,” which Jefferson called one of mankind’s “unalienable” rights in the Declaration of Independence.
Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux
By Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1770-1783)
As one of the leading intellectuals of North America, Jefferson struck up an engaging correspondence with scientists and inventors around the world. However, his interaction with Buffon, a leading French naturalist, took on a different tone. In “Natural History,” Buffon claimed that all animal and plant life, including humans, degenerated in America. To refute this irritating assertion, Jefferson asked friends in America to send Buffon the hides and bones of large animals. After Buffon was inundated with animal parts, Jefferson diplomatically asked the Frenchman to reconsider his views.
Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory, Delivered to the Classes of Senior and Junior Sophistors in Harvard University
By John Quincy Adams (1810)
Some years after John Adams and Jefferson had repaired the rupture between them that followed Jefferson’s defeat of Adams for reelection to the presidency in 1800, Adams sent Jefferson these two volumes written by his son John Quincy Adams. But the gift sparked new trouble. In a letter informing Jefferson that the package was on its way, Adams wrote, “I take the Liberty of Sending you by the Post a Packett containing two Pieces of Homespun lately produced in this quarter by one who was honoured in his youth with Some of your Attention and much of your kindness.” Jefferson assumed Adams was sending samples of cloth and responded with a discussion of the superiority of Southern homespun fabric, forcing Adams to reply, “The Material of the Samples of American Manufacture that I Sent you, was not Wool nor Cotton nor Silk nor Flax nor Hemp nor Iron nor Wood. They were Spun from the Brain of John Quincy Adams.”
A Summary View of the Rights
of British America
By Thomas Jefferson (1774)
Jefferson said this essay was “the first publication which carried the claim of our rights their whole length.” But he did not initially intend it to be publicly released. “It was a draught I had prepared of a petition to the King, which I meant to propose in my place as a member of the Convention in 1774,” he explained 35 years later. “Being stopped on the road by sickness, I sent it on to the Speaker, who laid it on the table for the perusal of the members. It was thought too strong for the times & to become the act of the convention, but was printed by subscription of the members with a short preface written by one of them.”
The Federalist (1788)
The Federalist Papers were written to advance the cause for a U.S. Constitution in New York. Their publication in book form was, in part, an effort to provide other states with a playbook for ratification. Although it was widely known that these 85 pseudonymous essays were the work of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, the initial speculation about attribution of specific essays developed into heated controversy. Jefferson’s notes on this volume show how he tried to determine the authorship of each essay.
Tachy-Graphy: The Most Exact and Compendious Methode of Short and Swift Writing That Hath Ever Yet Been Published by Any
By Thomas Shelton (1646).
In 1820, Jefferson noted, “Accident threw Shelton’s tachygraphy into my way when young, and I practised it thro’ life.” Before sending Lewis and Clark west, for instance, Jefferson gave Lewis a keyword cypher and told the explorer to “communicate to us, at seasonable intervals, a copy of your journal, notes & observations, of every kind, putting into cypher whatever might do injury if betrayed.” The scheme was never used, but the sample message suggests Jefferson’s expectations for the expedition: “I am at the head of the Missouri. All well, and the Indians so far friendly.”
Journal of My 45th Ascension, Being the First Performed in America, on the Ninth of January, 1793
By Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1793)
Jefferson was fascinated by new technologies — as diverse as a plow for use on hillsides and a macaroni machine. In 1793, he was delighted to witness the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard launch his hydrogen gas balloon in Philadelphia, and he quickly saw the potential advantage of such a revolutionary mode of transportation. Five days later, Jefferson wrote, “The security of the thing appeared so great that every body is wishing for a balloon to travel in. I wish for one sincerely, as, instead of ten days, I should be within five hours of home.”
By Laurence Sterne (1759-1767)
Jefferson and his wife, Martha, enjoyed Sterne’s work. In 1782, she copied out several lines from “Tristram Shandy”: “Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours of it are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more — every thing presses on.” And Jefferson copied these lines below hers: “and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make.” Martha died that year.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
By Phillis Wheatley (1773)
Although bought as a slave in Boston, Wheatley was educated in the classics and began writing poetry as a teenager. She tried to print her “Poems on Various Subjects” in America but had to go to London to be published. She returned a celebrated poet, only to be asked to defend her authorship in court. A committee of eminent Bostonians interviewed her and produced a testimonial that was included in the 1787 Philadelphia edition. Jefferson, however, was unimpressed. “Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Wheatley,” he wrote, “but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”
By Miguel de Cervantes (1605-15)
Jefferson believed Spanish was an important language for Americans to know, and apparently he once bragged about how quickly he picked it up — simply by studying “Don Quixote” while sailing to France. John Quincy Adams was skeptical. After a meal with Jefferson, he wrote in his journal, “As to Spanish, it was so easy that he had learned it, with the help of a Don Quixote lent him by Mr. Cabot, and a grammar, in the course of a passage to Europe, on which he was but nineteen days at sea. But Mr. Jefferson tells large stories.”
The Koran (1764)
Jefferson bought a copy of George Sale’s translation of the Koran when he was a law student in 1765, presumably as part of his study of Arabic law. Almost 250 years later, Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) , the first Muslim elected to Congress, used Jefferson’s copy of the Koran — instead of a Bible — when he was sworn into office.
Some of these items are adapted from
the Rare Book and Special Collections catalog at the Library of Congress.