Thomas Jefferson’s Libraries is a database of the books Jefferson owned, desired to own, knew about or recommended to others at different times in his life.
Have you ever wondered if your favorite books were the same as Thomas Jefferson’s? He had a passion for education and a love of books and reading throughout his entire life. In this episode, we explore what type of books he had and what some of his favorites may have been. Monticello Guide Olivia Brown and joined by Monticello’s Fiske and Marie Kimball Librarian, Endrina Tay to learn more.
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.
Olivia Brown: I'm joined on today's podcast by Endrina Tay, the Fiske and Marie Kimball Librarian here at Monticello. Endrina spends a lot of time with the books in our collection, both historic and modern, so today we're going to be talking about some of our most asked questions related to Thomas Jefferson's love of books. Endrina, welcome and thank you for joining me.
Endrina Tay: Thank you, Olivia. It's great to be here.
Olivia Brown: Why don't you first tell us a little about the work that you do here?
Endrina Tay: Sure. As Olivia mentioned, I'm the Fiske and Marie Kimball Librarian at the Jefferson Library. I provide leadership and oversight for the library, which is part of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. We provide access to research and archival resources related to the study of Thomas Jefferson's life, times, and legacy, and to the people who lived and worked at Monticello, and to the history of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Since 2004, as Olivia has alluded to, I've also worked on a long-term project to build a comprehensive database of all the books we know Thomas Jefferson owned, read, sought to acquire, or recommended to others over his lifetime. And what a path of discovery and adventure it's been ever since!
Olivia Brown: Considering that's almost 20 years of doing it, I feel like there's a lot of information in there, right?
Endrina Tay: Quite a bit.
Olivia Brown: So let's start with the basics and a bit of background. Can you describe a little about the books Jefferson owned throughout his life and maybe what type of books they were?
Endrina Tay: Sure. So to begin with, I'll say Jefferson declared books and wine as a "necessary of life." To this point, I should say too, that Jefferson in 1809 called scented hair powder "almost a necessary of life" for him, and then in 1810, he called "sallad oil" a necessary of life. So some interesting Jefferson trivia there for Jefferson fans!
So Jefferson was a self-described bibliomaniac, and he had a voracious appetite for reading. He relied on his books as his chief source of information and inspiration and practical knowledge. He called reading "my greatest of all amusements." James Madison called Jefferson "a walking library" and one of the most learned men of his age.
So like many children of wealthy Virginia planters, Jefferson was classically educated from a young age, and he was schooled in Latin and Greek. It was during these formative years that he developed his lifelong love for classical literature, poetry, history, mathematics, and geography. He attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and came under the tutelage of William Small, who tutored Jefferson in the latest developments in science and mathematics, ethics and natural law, and the works of Enlightenment thinkers and empiricists like Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke. He went on to read law under his mentor and law professor and jurist George Wythe in Williamsburg. Wythe's library of legal and political treatises in classical works were doubtless very familiar to Jefferson, and when Wythe prematurely died in 1806, believed to be from arsenic poisoning at the hands of Wythe's ne'er-do-well great-nephew, Jefferson received Wythe's library as a bequest from his "most affectionate friend through life."
According to his granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, books were "at all times his chosen companions." In his old age, they offered an escape and a means to dwell on and articulate his hopes and ideals for the future. Books were a source of delight and distraction from the harsh realities of life, and the "weariness of old age."
He wrote to John Adams in 1818, "...losing daily all interest in the things around us, something else is necessary to fill the void. With me it is reading, which occupies the mind without the labor of producing ideas from my own stock."
The solace he experienced and found in reading, he endeavored to inculcate in his white children and grandchildren. He took pride in their forming reading habits that he knew would set them on a solid footing and foundation in life. His granddaughter, Virginia Randolph Trist, recalled, "In the evenings at Monticello, when the candles were brought, all was quiet immediately, for he took up his book to read... and generally we followed his example and took a book - and I have seen him raise his eyes from his own book and look round on the little circle of readers, and smile and make some remark to mamma about it."
As a man of the Enlightenment, to open a book was an act of enlightenment. Jefferson believed that education was key in the free and democratic society. He believed in the importance of an informed citizenry in order for democracy to function and to thrive. The University of Virginia that he founded late in life was built upon "the illimitable freedom of the human mind, for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." It is important to state and to note that the citizenry at this time (referred to by Jefferson) excluded the enslaved men, women, and children that he kept in bondage at Monticello and at Poplar Forest under the institution of chattel slavery.
Today, institutions of higher learning, like the University of Virginia, cultural and educational institutions like public libraries, play a vital role in supporting lifelong learning by providing access to knowledge and providing a forum for the free interchange of ideas in a society built upon a set of ideas and ideals. As institutions of trust, libraries as purveyors and repositories of knowledge play a critical role in society and the freedom to read, and learned societies like the American Philosophical Society and subscription libraries such as the Library Company of Philadelphia, did so during the contentious times Jefferson and other founders lived under.
Jefferson owned four library collections in his lifetime. His first library of over 400 books, located at his birthplace in his first home at Shadwell, Virginia, was largely destroyed by a devastating fire that occurred on February 1, 1770. It included 49 volumes inherited from his father and books he acquired as a student in Williamsburg, including his first architectural volume. Despite the disastrous loss, he lost no time in rebuilding his library at his new home on Monticello Mountain, which would become his largest. Within three years by 1773, his collection grew to over 1,256 volumes.
He then doubled the size of his library over the next 10 years, such that he recorded account of 2,640 books as of March 1783, just as he got ready to head to Europe in 1784 as US Minister Plenipotentiary to France, before going on to replace Benjamin Franklin as US Minister to France in 1785. While in Europe, his library collection expanded significantly in both subject, range, and depth. He essentially went on a five-year shopping spree and acquired another 2,000 books from all the major European publishing centers at the time, namely Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Madrid, and London.
Then after returning to to the United States in 1789, he added another 2,000 volumes over the subsequent 25-year period while he was Secretary of State under George Washington, then Vice President in the John Adams Administration, before he won the election as US President for two terms from 1801 to 1809.
By 1814, Jefferson's Monticello Library had over 6,500 volumes and was one of, if not the, largest personal libraries in America at the time. When he offered and sold his library to Congress in 1815 to replace the congressional library set aflame and destroyed by British forces in the War of 1812, his collection became the foundation for today's Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Naturally, Jefferson's penchant for reading did not stop with the sale of his library to Congress. He immediately began to build another library in Monticello. This so-called retirement library collection was curated by him over the last 11 years of his life, from 1815 to 1826. It had about 1,600 volumes at his death. The works reflected his reading preferences and interests during the final years of his life. Much of this period was dedicated to building and establishing the University of Virginia. I argue in my research that while Jefferson only willed his library to the University in 1826, just before his death, he very likely already had UVA in mind as he made decisions early on between the years 1815 to 1819 on which books to re-acquire, to repopulate the shelves at Monticello. Sadly, Jefferson's library request to the University was never realized. Jefferson died in debt, and in late February and early March 1829, his Monticello library was sold at auction in Washington, DC in an effort to settle his debts.
I mention again a quote by Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen, who recalled, "Books were at all times his chosen companions and his acquaintance with many languages gave him great power of selection. He read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Corneille, Cervantes, as he read Shakespeare and Milton." Jefferson read six languages, English, French, Greek, Latin, Italian, and Spanish, and perhaps some Anglo-Saxon and German. He spoke four languages: English, French, Italian, and Latin. He also maintained in his library various dictionaries and grammars in other languages such as Arabic, Gaelic, Welsh, Dutch, and others, including Native American vocabularies.
So how did Jefferson organize his books? Jefferson kept meticulous book lists. In my research reconstructing Thomas Jefferson's libraries, I draw on Jefferson's book entries found in his surviving manuscript book lists and library catalogs. I work to tie these book entries to various primary sources. These sources include purchase records, sale catalogs, published bibliographies, and any reference to titles and descriptive clues found in Jefferson's extensive correspondence and account books that reference specific book titles, authors, or book related subjects. The goal is to understand these works and their authors on a title-by-title basis, and what these meant to Jefferson and those in his circle, and how the ideas influenced him or else reinforced his own beliefs.
Jefferson utilized a subject classification system that he adapted from Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning, and Jean Le Rond D'Alembert's classification of human knowledge as set out in Denis Diderot's Encyclopedie. He based it upon Bacon's "Faculties of the Mind," namely Memory, Reason, and Imagination, which correspond to History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts. He then broke these divisions down further into 46, and later 44, chapters or subjects, reflecting his wide ranging interests. As books arrived at Monticello, he incorporated them into his library by recording them in his manuscript catalog before placing them in their proper order on their designated shelves.
Based upon a plan Jefferson recorded in a letter to educator and orator James Ogilvie in 1806 and clues we found in Jefferson's letters, we have been able to map out how we think Jefferson laid out his books in his private suite, located in the southwest corner of the Monticello House. We know his library occupied three rooms: his Book Room, Library and Library Annex, and his Cabinet, which essentially corresponded to the three divisions within Jefferson's library, namely History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts. We think Jefferson maintained this overall organization until 1815 when he sold his library to Congress. With his reduced book collection, he no longer needed the South Square Room, which he relinquished to his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, for a sitting room.
Olivia Brown: It sounds like Thomas Jefferson had the same reasons for wanting to read that many people have now: to gain knowledge, but also for enjoyment. Would you say that that is accurate to a little of what he writes about?
Endrina Tay: Absolutely. I think it was both utilitarian as well as definitely for his own enjoyment. It's like the equivalent of the Internet, equivalent of watching a movie, equivalent of watching whatever media that people use for entertainment, because it's sort of a window into the world, right? It's how you learn about what's happening in the world, and books really function that way for Jefferson.
Olivia Brown: He's using them as a form of entertainment for himself too.
Endrina Tay: Mm-hmm. Absolutely, and that's why I think he continued to enjoy reading towards the end of his life, and he would gravitate to the books that gave him the most enjoyment, the most delight. He was always learning, right? We know that Jefferson taught himself languages by reading translations. So in fact, that's how he learned Spanish. We know that he used two copies of Don Quixote, basically the Spanish and, I'm not sure, I think it was the English, or was it the French, it was another language that he could read. That's how he basically, by comparison, side-by-side sort of editions he was able to sort of teach himself the language, and this leads me to comment that Jefferson had a habit of interleaving editions. He would buy books and he would actually break them up, and then he would interleave different pages to create a sort of a new thing. A book that he could read with Latin and Greek on facing pages, or French and English on facing pages. So it's like his own version. And he famously did that with the Gospels. We know about the Jefferson Bible, and essentially there were two versions of it, but the second iteration, he bought eight copies of the Bible in four languages, and razor cut the passages that he felt reflected the true essence of Jesus's teachings and his biography, and he put that together.
Olivia Brown: Those copies of Don Quixote, we actually do have some on display in the Library at Monticello right now.
Endrina Tay: That's correct.
Olivia Brown: So if you're interested in seeing Jefferson's Don Quixote, always a time to come visit Monticello.
Speaking of Jefferson, enjoying the reading that he does, one question we do get asked so often here at Monticello is what Thomas Jefferson's favorite books were. Could you speak a little to if he had any favorites?
Endrina Tay: Sure. Well, for someone who described himself as having a "canine appetite" for reading, Jefferson read a lot. So it's hard to do justice since we're forced within this limited discussion time to pick only a handful from among the nine- to 10,000 books we believe Jefferson owned in his lifetime. But if Jefferson had a top 10 list of favorite authors, I think it would have to include the Roman historian, Tacitus; the Greek historian, Thucydides; the ancient Greek poet, Homer; the three great Greek tragedians - Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes; Roman poets, Virgil and Horace; English poet and playwright, Shakespeare; English poet, John Milton; and as we've already mentioned and alluded, to Spanish novelist and playwright, Cervantes, among many others. And apart from the histories, plays, and poetry, Jefferson continued to engage himself with various scientific works, especially in physics like Newton, and in mathematics and geometry, like Euclid.
If I had to pick just a couple of interesting ones besides the ones I've already mentioned thus far, I would say, Thomas Whately's Observations on Modern Gardening would be one of them. This was a title Jefferson likely acquired soon after it was published in London in 1770. This was the first comprehensive treatise on the principles of landscape gardening, with examples of some of the finest English landscape gardens described in detail.
Jefferson carried this volume of Whately with him when he and John Adams embarked on a tour of English gardens in the spring of 1786. He found the accuracy of Whately's descriptions of the gardens he and Adams visited remarkable. He wrote, "While his descriptions in point of style are models are perfect elegance and classical correctness, they are as remarkeable for their exactness. I always walked over the gardens with his book in my hand, examined with attention the particular spots he described, found them so justly characterized by him as to be easily recognised, and saw with wonder, that his fine imagination had never been able to seduce him from the truth."
Another Jefferson, certainly Jefferson family favorite are Shakespeare's plays. Jefferson owned at least six editions of Shakespeare's works in his lifetime and there are likely other copies that were acquired for and used by his family members. A number of these copies survive today, so it's really interesting to see that's well used by the family members.
Among the books that Jefferson was reading around the time of his death was Spanish philosopher Seneca. He wrote, "Seneca is indeed a fine moralist, disfiguring his work at times with some Stoicisms and affecting too much of antithesis and point, yet giving us the whole a great deal of sound and practical morality." He particularly approved of the French edition translated by LaGrange. He had both the Latin and the French editions on his reading table when he died on July 4, 1826.
Olivia Brown: Was Jefferson a marginator? Did he like to write in the margins of his books?
Endrina Tay: Very interesting question. So unlike his dear friend John Adams, who's famous for having an argument with the author in the margin, Jefferson did not write very much in the margin. I think when he was younger, when he was studying the law, his law books might have some references, but they tended to be corrections, or cross references. He didn't respond. What he would tend to do is that he would write them on a separate piece of paper and then that would be inserted, because we have seen some of these surviving inserts that get bound in when the book is rebound. But he tended not to want to mark his books. I think it's a combination of reasons. I think for him as a book lover, book user, I think you and I probably know people who refrain from writing in their books, whereas there are others who don't mind highlighting it, writing all over it. I think he always had a sense that these books would be passed on. So he did not mark his books, and the only time he would do that is because there was a correction that he wanted to make. For Jefferson, you kind of have to look elsewhere. You have to look at his responses in his correspondence, when people ask him questions about a certain author or a certain idea, I think that's where you're going to get more information from.
Olivia Brown: I think a lot of what we've talked about, book lovers who are listening or may be listening are going to hear a lot of things that sound familiar to them. And some of the titles that you're mentioning are things that people still read, especially the classics.
Now, if Jefferson were alive today, do you have any books you think he may enjoy?
Endrina Tay: If he were alive today, I think I can see him being on the Internet, keeping up with what's happening. He probably would just love the fact that he could access so many other books because I think that's the beauty of the Internet today. There's just so much material, so many books have been digitized and available on the internet, whereas for him, each and every one of them, I mean it was pretty costly. Some he didn't buy, some were sent to him or given to him, but the majority of the books that he owned, he had to buy them and they were not inexpensive.
Olivia Brown: Yeah. A pretty costly commodity to have back then with all the process that went into creating those books.
Endrina Tay: Exactly, because they were handmade, hand-printed, and, in fact, when Jefferson sold his library, he got just about $24,000 from Congress, and later his family and his friends thought that it was easily worth double. It probably was worth at least $50,000.
Olivia Brown: Wow. Jefferson will always go back to the classics, and we call them the classics for a reason. People still are reading them.
Endrina Tay: That's right. They've stood the test of time.
Olivia Brown: Well, Endrina, thank you so much for your time today, for your expertise. It's so wonderful to bring members of our staff in to be a part of these podcasts because instead of hearing from me, we can talk to the experts on the topic. People who have spent so much time researching these ideas and are always learning more about them. So it's a pleasure to have you on Mountaintop History today. I want thank you so much for being with us.
Endrina Tay: It was a pleasure. Thank you, Olivia.
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 at monticello.org.
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