Wealth of Nations

While in France between 1784 and 1789, Thomas Jefferson acquired a copy of the three-volume third edition of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations.[1] Jefferson noted, in his 1789 Catalog of Books, that he had paid 24 shillings for this important enlightenment work.[2]

Included in the sale to Congress in 1815,[3] Jefferson's three volumes are still held at the Library of Congress. Jefferson did not initial these books in his typical manner of marking the books that he owned. He used three topics to classify this title within his own subject categories:

  • History–Civil–Civil Proper–Antient–Antient History
  • Philosophy–Moral–Oeconomical–Commerce
  • Philosophy–Moral–Oeconomical–Politics–General Theory

After the 1815 sale, Jefferson acquired a two-volume 1818 edition of Wealth of Nations.[4] The replacement edition was held in his library at Poplar Forest, his Bedford County retirement retreat. This title was offered for sale in 1873 by his grandson Francis Wayles Eppes.[5]

E. Millicent Sowerby, in her five-volume Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, provides the following notes on Jefferson's regard for this title:

On May 30, 1790, in a letter to Thomas Mann Randolph recommending books for the study of law, Jefferson wrote: ... in political economy I think Smith’s wealth of nations the best book extant ...

Seventeen years later, on June 11, 1807, in a letter recommending books to John Norvell, Jefferson wrote:

... if your views of political enquiry go further to the subjects of money & commerce, Smith’s wealth of nations is the best book to be read, unless Say’s Political economy can be had, which treats the same subjects on the same principles, but in a shorter compass & more lucid manner ...

In Jefferson’s Prospectus for Destutt de Tracy’s Treatise on Political Economy, sent to Milligan for printing on April 6, 1816, one paragraph read:

Adam Smith, first in England, published a rational and systematic work on Political economy, adopting generally the ground of the Economists, but differing on the subjects before specified. the system being novel, much argument and detail seemed then necessary to establish principles which now are assented to as soon as proposed. hence his book, admitted to be able, and of the first degree of merit, has yet been considered as prolix & tedious.[6]

Jefferson made considerable use of Smith’s work, and frequently quoted from it on the subject of banks and paper money. A lengthy letter to John Wayles Eppes, written from Monticello in November 1813, contains numerous quotations from Wealth of Nations and comments on them.[7]

- Endrina Tay, 7/16/08

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