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Children's Reading

Children's books reflect prevailing cultural and social values and are particularly focused on inculcating proper modes of behavior and morality. Literature developed specifically for children was relatively rare prior to the mid-seventeenth century. Before this time, children were considered to be miniature adults and early children's literature was primarily rational, didactic, and instructional. Books of this era were often intended to scare children into proper behavior, to teach religious obedience, and to serve as cautionary tales. Books for children's education preceded the development of books for children's entertainment.

Nearly all children's books widely used in the American colonies were written in England until the latter part of the eighteenth century. It was not until the late 1820s that American children's literature began to branch out on its own and was no longer dominated by English books and publishing.1 Even then, however, fairy tales were generally frowned upon and children's literature was considered a serious business designed to shape character and preach the dangers of disobedience.2

Thomas Jefferson's recommendations and choices of books for children reflect both the heavy reliance on English publishing and the prevailing emphasis on the didactic and moralistic in children's literature. Although he never made a list of all his recommendations, the following books, recommended to his children and grandchildren prior to their 16th birthdays, were referenced in his letters. He also recommended poetry and often sent newspaper clippings for his grandchildren to read. Overall, his book choices focused on history, foreign language learning, and moral and behavioral improvement in children.

- Kristen Lochrie, 5/14/12

The titles and editions in this list are the closest approximations to those that the readers used. In some cases, the cited edition is the earliest in E. Millicent Sowerby's Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson; in others cases, they are the closest to the date in which they were used.

  • Plutarch. Abrégé des Hommes Illustres de Plutarque, a l'usage de la Jeunesse .... Beauvais, an IV. Sowerby, 68 and 69; Poor Sale, 32; Poplar Forest Sale, 624. Ellen Wayles Randolph was probably reading this edition or any of several others available to her: "I ... am reading Plutarque de la Jeunesse in French ...."18
  • Stanhope, Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield. Letters to His Son .... London, 1774. 4 volumes. "I copy the historical part of Lord Chesterfield's letters for a lesson in writing ...."19
  • Lives of the Modern Great Men. Not further identified. In 1807, Ellen Wayles Randolph wrote to her grandfather, "I do not intend to read the lives of the modern great Men yet."20
  • Cook, James. Histoire abrégée des premier, second et troisième voyages autour du monde .... Paris, an II. Anne Cary Randolph wrote to her grandfather, "I read Coocks voyages in French ...."21
  • Livius, Titus. The History of Rome .... Translated ... by G. Baker. London, 1797. 6 volumes. "I read ... Livy in english ...."22
  • Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Alexander Pope. London, 1750. 6 volumes. Sowerby, 4264ff; Poor Sale, 731-735; Poplar Forest Sale, 632. "I am reading ... Homers Illiad in English ...."23
  • Millot, Claude-François-Xavier. Elements d'Historie Generale ... Ancienne. Paris, 1778. Sowerby, 126, also 154 and 189. "I am reading Millot in French ...."24
  • Sévigné, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de. Lettres de Madame de Sévigné à sa fille et à ses amis .... Paris, 1806. Sowerby, 4637. "... Madame de Sevigné's letters, which being the finest models of easy letter writing you must read."25
  • Justinus, Marcus Junianus. De historiis Philippicis et totius Mundi originibus .... London 1701. Sowerby, 35 and 36. "I am still reading ... Justin to myself ."26
  • Diodorus Siculus. Diodori Sicvli Bibliothecae Historicae .... Geneva, 1559. Sowerby, 37 and 38. "I am reading Diodorus Siculus."27
  • Le Bon de la bonne Compagnie. Not identified. Mentioned in an 1808 letter from Martha Jefferson Randolph to her father as "a very sensible little book upon that subject [morals] ...."28
  • Tacitus, Cornelius. C. Cornelii Taciti Opera ...., ed. Johann Friedrich Gronovius and Jacob Gronovius. Amsterdam, 1672, and London, 1737. 9 volumes. Sowerby, 80 and 81; Poor Sale, 44-46; Poplar Forest Sale, 647. "no stile of writing is so delightful as that which is all pith, which never omits a necessary word, nor uses an unnecessary one. the finest models of this existing are Sallust and Tacitus ...."29
  • Pinchard, Elizabeth. Dramatic Dialogues for the Use of Young Persons .... Boston, 1798. Rosenbach, 239. "I am reading a very pretty little book called dramatic dialogue ..."30
  • Crispus, Gaius Sallustius. C. Sallustii Crispi Opera omnia .... London, 1746. Sowerby, 55-58; Poor Sale, 30 and 31. "no stile of writing is so delightful as that which is all pith, which never omits a necessary word, nor uses an unnecessary one. the finest models of this existing are Sallust and Tacitus ...."31
  • Edgeworth, Maria. Rosamond (n.p., n.d.) "I am reading a little book called Rosamond."32
  • Taylor, Jane. Select Rhymes for the Nursery. London, 1806. Rosenbach, 777. "I must beg the favor of you to send Mary ... 'Select Rhymes for the Nursery' ...."33
  • Road to Learning, Made Pleasant, with Lessons and Pictures. Philadelphia, n.d. Title from Johnson's Juvenile Catalogue of Useful and Entertaining Books for Children. Philadelphia, n.d. Attached to Johnson's Virginia Almanack, 1807. Richmond, 1807. "I must beg the favor of you to send Mary 'the road to learning made pleasant ....'"34
  • Adventures of Mary and Her Cat. The only reference to this title is in an 1809 letter from Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph: "your Mama desires you will get for Mary [age 6] a little book she has seen advertised, called the Adventures of Mary & her cat."35
  • Edgeworth, Maria. Moral Tales for Young People. London, 1804. 3 volumes. Jefferson had a copy of this which he sent to Cornelia Jefferson Randolph. He stated it was "better suited to your years [age twelve] than to mine ...."36
  • Marmontel, Jean François. Oeuvres posthumes de Marmontel. Paris, 1804, 1807. Sowerby, 234. "A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels .... this mass of trash however is not without some distinction: ... such, I think, are Marmontel's new moral tales; but not his old ones ...."37
  • Aeschylus. Tragoediae Quae Extant Septem: Cum Versione Latina .... Glasgow, 1746. Jefferson wrote to his only Eppes grandchild, the 19-year-old Francis Wayles Eppes, in September 1820: "I leave at Flood's ... 3. small volumes of my petit format library containing several tragedies of Euripides, some of Sophocles and one of Aeschylus. the 1st you will find easy, the 2d tolerably so; the last incomprehensible in his flights among the clouds."38
  • Xenophon. Xenophontis Expeditio Cyri .... Glasgow, [1764]. 4 volumes. Sowerby, 19-20; Poor Sale, 7.39
  • Nepos, Cornelius. Cornelii Nepotis Vitae excellentium Imperatorum. Amsterdam, 1687. Sowerby, 70-73; Poor Sale, 33; Poplar Forest Sale, 647. Jefferson, writing of this, said: "... compendious works of history might be advantageously put into the hands of children when at the reading school. nothing would interest them more than such works as Cornelius Repos ...."40


"I send you the inclosed magazine supposing it may furnish you a few moments amusement, as well as to the reading members of your family."41 The account books show that Jefferson had access to the following magazines which might have contained suitable selections for "the reading members [probably some of the children] of your family:" Analectic Magazine, Edinburgh Review, Monthly Magazine, Portfolio, The Columbian Magazine, The Repository, The Weekly Magazine of Original Essays.


  • "Goody Blake." Not identified. "I inclose you an abundant supply of poetry, among which you will find Goody Blake, which I think you wanted."42
  • "Little John." Not identified. "I am very much obliged to you for the, Poetry. you sent me and think it all very Pretty, particularly Little John and the Ode to Modesty."43
  • "Ode to Modesty." The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review vol. 2 (May 1805), 196-97, over the pseudonym of "Dominus Providebit." There is a clipping in Jefferson's scrapbook, page 139.
  • Roscoe, William. The Butterfly's Ball and The Grasshopper' s Feast. London, 1807. "I send for Cornelia a little poem, the grasshopper's ball, to begin her collection."44 It is not established whether Jefferson sent a clipping of this poem such as it appeared on page 1052 of volume 76 of the Gentlemen's Magazine, or from an unknown source as is the clipping in his scrapbook, page 69.
  • "The Yankee Story." Not identified. "I send for Cornelia a little poem .... the Yankee story is for yourself."45

- List compiled by James A. Bear, Jr., n.d.

Further Sources

Filed In: 
Books, Education


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