In the Pages of Thomas Jefferson’s Library: America’s Distinguished Book Collector

June 18, 2017

Introduction

Thomas Jefferson, the visionary American statesman and intellectual luminary, wasn’t merely an architect of democracy; he was a passionate bibliophile.

This exploration unveils the tale of Thomas Jefferson’s library – a repository of knowledge that echoes his insatiable curiosity and indelible impact on America’s intellectual tapestry.

Thomas Jefferson: A Man of Letters

Beyond the political realm, Thomas Jefferson was an avid bibliophile, revealing a facet of his character often overshadowed by his political achievements. His collection of books serves as a testament to his intellectual pursuits and varied interests.

Jefferson’s library, comprising thousands of volumes, was not merely an assortment of books but a curated selection that reflected his diverse intellectual pursuits.

Employing an organizational system inspired by Sir Francis Bacon, Jefferson’s collection was not only vast but also meticulously arranged.

Inside Jefferson’s Library: A Sanctuary of Knowledge

The Monticello library was more than just a physical space; it was an intellectual sanctuary where Jefferson immersed himself in literature. His famous declaration, “I cannot live without books,” encapsulates the profound influence literature had on his intellectual journey.

Of his own collection of books, Jefferson wrote that his library was a “depository of unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the U.S.,” adding that he hoped it would have an effect on the literature of the United States.

Influential Titles from Thomas Jefferson’s Library

From constitutional principles to historical narratives, political philosophy to natural sciences, and cultural heritage to the intricacies of governance, each title serves as a portal into the mind of a man who significantly contributed to the early development of the United States.

A brief sampling of just five of the volumes from the library can be quite revealing when viewed with an eye towards American history:

  1. “A View of the Constitution of the United States” by William Rawle (1829):
    Rawle’s exploration of the U.S. Constitution likely provided Jefferson with valuable insights into the foundational principles of the young republic. This knowledge may have shaped Jefferson’s views on governance, constitutional law, and the structural framework of the United States.
  2. “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon (1776-1788):
    Gibbon’s historical masterpiece might have offered Jefferson profound perspectives on the rise and fall of empires. Drawing parallels to the United States, this work could have influenced Jefferson’s understanding of potential challenges and pitfalls, contributing to his views on the nation’s development.
  3. “The Works of Tacitus” (98-117 AD):
    Tacitus, an ancient Roman historian, delved into governance and the moral character of leaders. Jefferson, influenced by classical ideals, could have applied Tacitus’ insights to his political philosophy. This work may have contributed to Jefferson’s views on civic virtue and the principles of governance.
  4. “The Natural History of Virginia” by John Clayton (1688):
    Clayton’s exploration of the natural world likely fueled Jefferson’s interest in botany and natural sciences. This knowledge might have influenced Jefferson’s vision for agricultural development in early America, reflecting his commitment to scientific exploration and understanding the nation’s natural resources.
  5. “The Description of Greece” by Pausanias (circa 150 AD):
    Pausanias’ work, detailing the cultural history of ancient Greece, may have deepened Jefferson’s appreciation for cultural heritage. In relation to early America, Jefferson might have drawn parallels between the preservation of cultural identity and the formation of a new national identity. This work could have influenced his views on the importance of cultural heritage in shaping societies.

Jefferson’s Intellectual Influence

Thomas Jefferson’s library was not confined to personal enrichment; it played a pivotal role in shaping American intellectual thought. During the Revolutionary War and its aftermath, Jefferson continued to acquire books on a myriad of subjects, expanding his understanding of the world beyond his immediate experiences.

Preserving and Accessing Jefferson’s Literary Archive

Following Jefferson’s presidency, the British returned to the shores of the young United States and, during the War of 1812, burned the nation’s Capitol and the Library of Congress, sending all 3,000 volumes of Congress’ library up in flames.

In what was a remarkable gesture, Thomas Jefferson wrote to newspaper publisher Samuel H. Smith asking him to offer Congress his personal library as a replacement for the books that were destroyed.

Jefferson stated that he would accept any price determined by Congress, telling Smith: “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from this collection . . . there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

Congress Buys Jefferson’s Books for $23,950

While the private collection of Thomas Jefferson’s books numbered somewhere between a whopping 9,000 and 10,000 volumes, historical records indicate that Congress ultimately purchased only 6,487 books. This effectively doubled what had originally been in the nation’s library.

According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, these volumes were counted by a Georgetown bookseller named Joseph Milligan prior to the sale. The 1815 price tag? Just $23,950 – that’s roughly $477,049 in 2024 dollars.

It seems that after selling his books, Jefferson keenly felt their absence in his library and began collecting anew. He managed to amass another several thousand books, and it was this version of his library that was sold at auction in 1829 following his death.

As history tells us, fires were a regular presence in 19th century life, and unfortunately, on Christmas Eve, 1851, yet another fire turned two-thirds of Congress’ 6,487-piece Jefferson collection into ashes.

Visit Washington, D.C. to See What’s Left of Jefferson’s Library

In the 175+ years since that auction, portions of the library have scattered across the globe and into the hands of private antiquarian book collectors.

Thankfully, the surviving volumes from Jefferson’s library are currently part of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and have been part of an ongoing public exhibition since 2008.

The Library of Congress is in fact attempting to reassemble the collection as it was originally sold to the Congress in 1815.

Legacy of Thomas Jefferson: Beyond the Written Word

The enduring legacy of Thomas Jefferson’s library goes beyond a mere collection of books. It serves as a reflection of an era where ideas were paramount and a testament to the intellectual prowess of a man who sought to contribute to the expanding realm of human knowledge.

In the silent echoes of Jefferson’s library, one finds not just books but a narrative of intellectual exploration. Jefferson’s literary legacy remains an indelible imprint on the canvas of American history, a testament to the power of ideas and the enduring influence of a remarkable bibliophile.

EXPLORE & LEARN

Learning Guides

In-depth guides on the world of collecting and valuing books, postcards, photography and more.

Have an antique in your attic and wonder what it's worth?

Get Alerts for the Dickensiana Auction

 

Join our mailing list for email alerts on the 2023 Charles Dickens auction.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for whatever you collect!

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions.

Let us know your area of collecting or interest and we'll send you updates on that particular subject.

INTERESTS

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions.

Let us know your area of collecting or interest and we'll send you updates on that particular subject.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature vintage Hollywood memorabilia, photos and collectibles.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature collectible militaria items.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature fine antique books, rare volumes, and manuscripts.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature vintage postcards, RPPCs and collections.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature antique photography, albums and important images.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature first edition books and collections of firsts.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature antique and vintage collectibles related to ocean liners and famous ships.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature magic and gambling related books, props, advertising and ephemera.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Britannic Auctions

Be the First to Know with Auction Alerts!

Join now for exclusive alerts on must-have collectibles. Don't miss your chance to be ahead of the pack!

Thanks! You'll be hearing from us soon.

Don't miss this auction!

 

Join our mailing list to receive email alerts on this and future online auctions.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Britannic Auctions

Be the First to Know with Auction Alerts!

Join now for exclusive alerts on must-have collectibles. Don't miss your chance to be ahead of the pack!

Thanks! You'll be hearing from us soon.