Thomas Jefferson owned books. A whole lot of books. He collected some ten thousand books throughout his life, but they were historically divided into three collections at Monticello. These books reflect Jefferson's firm belief that knowledge and education were the keys to human progress. They were also a source of pleasure for Jefferson and, as his granddaughter later explained, his "chosen companions."

Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. 

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton. 

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.

Thomas Jefferson believed that knowledge was power and the key to human progress. As such, Jefferson became a life-long learner, and he was aided in this pursuit by books. 

Jefferson loved books. In fact, he owned some ten thousand of them throughout his life. They spanned multiple topics; as he wrote, they covered the “visions of antiquity,” and “everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science.” They also were written in languages beyond English, like French, Welsh, Ancient Greek, Arabic, Spanish, Latin, German, and Anglo-Saxon.

These books at Monticello, however, were divided into three historical libraries. The first collection was housed at his childhood home of Shadwell. It likely included a translation of Homer’s Illiad, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s plays, David Hume’s The History of England, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, and Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity. Jefferson collected them and many others from 1757 until 1770, when a fire destroyed much of the books.

Jefferson then set about restarting his collection. As we’ve covered in a previous podcast episode, Jefferson’s second library comprised around six thousand five hundred books when it was sold to the United States Congress in 1815.

And while Jefferson prepared for this library to make its way to Washington. D.C., it is also clear that Jefferson had no intention of living out the rest of his life with no books by his side. On June 10, 1815, Jefferson wrote to John Adams about his plans to procure a third library: “I cannot live without books; but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.” These books, in other words, would represent Jefferson’s most special interests as well as his favorite selections.

This new library was helped along by George Ticknor of Boston, Massachusetts, who visited Monticello in February that same year and was preparing to pursue studies in Europe. Ticknor offered to acquire books for Jefferson while on his extended stay in Europe. Jefferson wrote that “Mr Ticknor is particularly the best bibliograph I have met with, and very kindly and opportunely offered me the means of reproducing some part of the literary treasures which I have ceded to Congress.”

Jefferson ultimately acquired books from across Europe, as well as Philadelphia, New York, and other American cities. The final total was around one thousand six hundred books. They included classic texts by Tacitus, Thucydides, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. Jefferson thought Isaac Newton to be among the three greatest men that have ever lived, and had a copy of his Principia, where Newton describes the three laws of motion.

Upon visiting Monticello in 1809, Margaret Bayard Smith, a friend of Jefferson’s, described his library as his “sanctum sanctorum,” his “holy of holies.” What is clear is that throughout much of his life, Jefferson had a book ready at hand. Books were a source of knowledge and pleasure for him. His granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, wrote that “books were at all times his chosen companions.”

Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. 

Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.

Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at

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