You are here
June 15, 2009
Alcorans, and the acquisition thereof
Since I set up my Google Alert, which allows me to track when new mentions of "Thomas Jefferson" appear on the Internet, I've been amazed to see that there is almost always a tiny little wave of rhetorical consultations of TJ in reaction to each big news story. In essence, every time something big happens, people start asking themselves and others, "What would Thomas Jefferson do/say/think about this?" and quoting his writings on the topic and talking about how he dealt with similar problems. TJ apparently had lots to say about the recent bank crisis; he had the solution to the Somali pirate issue ("just send Stephen Decatur after them!"); and there's been all sorts of invoking of Himself's name in response to President Obama's mention of Jefferson owning a copy of the Qur'an. I am astonished, however, to find people out there in the Internet World claiming that the "real reason" Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur'an was so he could "study his enemy." Now, I'm no Jefferson-and-his-Qur'an expert, but, as my sister used to say, "I fail to see the logic underlying that conclusion." This topic was of course very hot when Congressman Keith Ellison had himself sworn into office using Jefferson's copy of the Qur'an in 2006. At the time there was all sorts of news reportage - really, all the kerfuffle seemed positively prurient - and a flurry of questions sent to us about it. We really we didn't have much to say about it except what was in the Sowerby Catalogue. So I decided it was time to have another look at this, and spent a merry 30 minutes discussing this with my colleague Endrina, who has been working on the Jefferson's Libraries project ever since I've known her. Anyway, here's what we know - and do not know - about Jefferson's Qur'an:
- Jefferson's purchase of a copy of George Sale's Alcoran is recorded in the daybooks of the Virginia Gazette on October 5, 1765, for 1 pound, 6 shillings.
- Jefferson was studying law at this time under George Wythe in Williamsburg.
- It is possible that this very book survived the 1770 fire at Jefferson's family estate of Shadwell and is the selfsame book now at the Library of Congress, and used by Keith Ellison. By Jefferson's own admission, very few of his books survived the 1770 fire. It is also possible that the book Jefferson purchased in 1765 was destroyed five years later and he later purchased another identical copy of the Qur'an; we haven't found any record of such a purchase, however, so we really can't say for certain.
- We do not know for certain why he purchased it. No clear evidence has yet to be revealed on this subject. There are no known letters where Jefferson explicitly discusses his purchase of a Qur'an. His main instructor, George Wythe, is not known to have had a copy; the presence of a Qur'an in Wythe's library might suggest that Wythe considered it an important text for study and may have suggested or required that Jefferson read it as well.