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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 which the readers used. In some cases, the cited edition is the earliest in Sowerby; in others they are the closest to the date in which they were used.

  • Sophocles. Sahoclis Tragoedis Septem Scholiss Veteribus Illustratae... (Londini, 1758). Sowerby, 4520-4523, Poor Sale, 753-75, Poplar Forest Sale, 647 and 660. 
  • Le Sage, Alain Rene. Les Avantures de Gil Blas de Santillane... (Amsterdam, 1767). 4 volumes. Sowerby, 4346. Poplar Forest Sale, 640. Martha Jefferson Randolph's copy is in the Monticello Library. 
  • Euripides. Euripidis Dramata Iphigenia in Aulide... (Londini, 1783).  Sowerby, 4529; Poor Sale, 755 -758.
  • de Florian, Jean-Pierre Claris. Galatee, Roman Pastoral; imite de Cervantes... (Paris, 1785).
  • La Fontane, Jean de. La Fontane's Fables. (Paris, 1787). 2 volumes. Sowerby, 4374; Poplar Forest Sale, 639. Title from the Poplar Forest Sale Catalogue: "With autograph of Mary Jefferson."
  • Bell's Edition. The Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill. . . (Edinburgh, 1777-1784).  Purchased for Martha Jefferson by her father while in France. He paid 195 francs for 109 volumes.3
  • Livius, Titus. Le Deche di T. Livio Padovano delle Historie Romane, Tradotte nella lingua Toscana, de Iacopo Nardi... (Venetia, 1562). Sowerby, 52-54. Poor Sale, 26-27. Poplar Forest Sale, 642. Mentioned in correspondence between Jefferson and  his daughter Martha.4 
  • Cervantes, Saavedra, Miguel de. El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de La Mancha, compuesto por Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra... (Paris, 1754). 6 volumes. Sowerby, 4347. Poor Sale 746. Mary Jefferson, age twelve, relates to her father her efforts to read this work but with little success.5
  • Robertson, William. The History of America. (London, 1777). 3 volumes. Sowerby, 468 and 469. "I am reading Robertson 's america."6
  • Barthelemy, Jean Jacques. Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grece...abrege de l' le jeunesse. (London, 1790). Mentioned in a letter by Mary Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson, July 20, 1790 as promised her by her father.7
  • Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (Paris, 1788, 1789). Sowerby, 101. Mentioned in a letter, Mary Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson as promised her by her father, July 20, 1790.8
  • Genlis, Stephanie Felicite Ducrest de Saint Aubin, Comtesse de. Tales & the Castle... (London, 1785). 5 volumes."Last Christmas I gave sister the "Tales of the Castle..."9 
  • Solis, Antonio de. Historia de la Conquista de Mexico. (Madrid, 1783-1784). 2 volumes.  Sowerby, 4119 and 4080; Poor Sale, 116. "I have finished Don Quixote, and as I have not Desoles yet, I shall read..." 10
  • Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes. (Zaragoca, 1652). "... I shall read Lazarillo de Tormes."11
  • La cuisiniere bourgeoise, suivie de l'office a l'usage de tous clux qui se melent de d'epenses de maisons. (Paris, 1746). Not listed in any of the Jefferson catalogues. It was given to Martha Jefferson Randolph by her father in 1791 after she was married and keeping house at nineteen. This is the only cookbook in this bibliography.
  • Day, Thomas. The History of Sandford and Merton (London, 1795). 3 volumes. Martha Jefferson Randolph requested the latest edition of this work from her father in 1799.12
  • Goldsmith, Oliver. The Grecian History, from the earliest state to. . .'Alexander the Great. (Philadelphia, 1800). 2 volumes.  Thomas Jefferson Randolph wrote to his grandfather in 1803, "I have read Goldsmith's grecian history...."13
  • Goldsmith, Oliver.  The Roman History from the Foundation of the City of Rome to the Destruction of the Western Empire...(London, 1770). 2 volumes. Sowerby, 100. "...I am now reading Goldsmith's Roman history."14
  • Thucydides. The History of the Peleponnesian War. Translated from the Greek of Thucydides...By William Smith (London, 1753). 2 volumes. Sowerby, 17 and also 14-16; Poor Sale, 8. "I have read Goldsmith's grecian history Thucidides..."15
  • Fenelon, Francois de Salignac de la Motte. Les Avantures de Telemaque. (Francois et Espagnol). (Le Haye, 1712). 2 volumes. Sowerby, 4305-4307; Poplar Forest Sale, 621.  "I go on very slowly with my French for I have got through but one book of Telemachus."16 
  • Barbauld, Anne Letitia. Lessons for Children from Four to Five Years Old. (Philadelphia , 1798.)  Martha Jefferson Randolph requested this book for Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, age six, because of its large type and size suitable for easy handling by children.17
  • Plutarch. Abrege 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: " reading Plutarque de la Jeuness 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 identified. Read by Ellen Wayles Randolph.20
  • Cook, James. Histoire abregee des premier, second et troisieme 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... 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 ... Homer's Iliad 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 
  • Sevigne, Marie de Rabutin Chantal, Marquise de. Lettres de Madame de Sevigne a sa fille et a ses amis... (Paris, 1806). Sowerby, 4637. "...Madam de Sevigne's letters, 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 Sicubus..."27 
  • Le Bon de la bonne Compagne. Not identified. Mentioned in a letter from Martha Jefferson Randolph to Thomas Jefferson, November 18, 1808, as "a very sensible little book upon that subject [morals]..."28
  • Tacitus, Cornelius. C. Cornelii Taci Opera, -a Gronovii... (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 one, nor uses an unnecessary one. The finest models of this existing are Sallust and Tacitus." 29 
  • Pinchard, Mrs. Dramatic Dialogues for the Use of Young Persons... (Boston, 1798.) Rosenbach, 239. "I am reading a very pretty little book called dramatic dialogue..."30  
  • Sallustius. Crispus Gaius. 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 one, 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 a the letter Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, June 20, 1809: "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 mine..."36 
  • Marmontel, Jean Francois. ''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, on September 19, 1820: "I leave at Flood's...3. 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, 19-2; 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: "[children]...when at the reading school. Nothing would interest them more than such works as Cornelius Nepos..."40


"I send you the inclosed magazines supposing it may furnish a few moments amusements, as well as 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 much obliged to you for the Poetry... and think it all very Pretty, particularly Little John..." 43
    • "Ode to Modesty." Published in The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review. (May 1805) II, p. 196-197, over the pseudonym of "Dominus Providebit." There is a clipping in Jefferson's scrapbook, p. 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 in the Gentlemen's Magazine Vol. 76, p. 1052, or from an unknown source as is the clipping in his Scrapbook, p. 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


    • 1. Gillian Avery, Behold the Child (Baltimore, Md: John Hopkins University Press, 1994), 2.
    • 2. Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 2004), 82.
    • 3. MB, 1:597.
    • 4. Martha Jefferson to Jefferson, February [i.e. March] 8, 1787 and March 25, 1787. PTJ, ?.
    • 5. Mary Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson, April 25, 1790.
    • 6. Mary Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson).23 May 1790. Ibid, 57.
    • 7. PTJ, ?.
    • 8. PTJ, ?
    • 9. Mary Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson, January 22, 1791.  PTJ, ?
    • 10. Mary Jefferson to Jefferson, 18 April 1791. Ibid, 78.
    • 11. Mary Jefferson to Jefferson, 18 April 1791. Ibid, 78.
    • 12. Martha Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson, February 8, 1799.PTJ, ?.
    • 13. Thomas Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson, October 30, 1803, in Family Letters, 248.
    • 14. Ibid.
    • 15. Thomas Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson, 30 October 1803. Family Letters, 248.
    • 16. Ellen Wayles Randolph to Thomas Jefferson, February 22, 1805. Ibid.
    • 17. Martha Jefferson Randolph to Thomas Jefferson, July 11, 1805, Massachusetts Historical Society.
    • 18. Ellen Wayles Randolph to Jefferson, December 12, 1806. Ibid, 293.
    • 19. (Ellen Wayles Randolph to Jefferson).12 December 1806. Ibid, 293.
    • 20. Ellen Wayles Randolph to Thomas Jefferson, February 17, 1807, in ibid., 296.
    • 21. Anne Cary Randolph to Thomas Jefferson, January 22, 1808. University of Virginia.
    • 22. Anne Cary Randolph to Jefferson, January 22, 1808, in Family Letters, 323.
    • 23. Ellen Wayles Randolph to Jefferson, January 29, 1808, in ibid., 324.  It is assumed that Thomas Jefferson Randolph and Francis Wayles Eppes read from the Latin editions.
    • 24. Ellen Wayles Randolph to Jefferson, January 29, 1808, in Family Letters, 324.
    • 25. Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph, 14 March 1808. Ibid, 333.
    • 26. Ellen Wayles Randolph to Jefferson, March 18, 1808, in ibid., 336.
    • 27. Ellen Wayles Randolph to Jefferson, April 14, 1808. Massachusetts Historical Society.
    • 28. Ibid., 360.
    • 29. Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, 7 December 1808. Ibid, 369.
    • 30. Cornelia Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson, December 19, 1808, in Family Letters, 372.
    • 31. Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, 7 December 1808. Ibid, 369.
    • 32. Virginia Jefferson Randolph to Thomas Jefferson, February 17, 1809. Massachusetts Historical Society.
    • 33. Martha Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson.17 February 1809. University of Virginia 
    • 34. Martha Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson. 17 February 1809.  University of Virginia
    • 35. PTJ:RS, 1:294.
    • 36. Thomas Jefferson to Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, June 3, 1811.
    • 37. Jefferson to Nathaniel Burwell, March 14, 1818. Polygraph copy at the Library of Congress.
    • 38. Polygraph copy at the Library of Congress.
    • 39. Jefferson to Francis Wayles Eppes, 6 October 1820. Ibid, 434.
    • 40. Jefferson to Thomas J. Rogers, December 20, 1823. Massachusetts Historical Society.
    • 41. Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, November 6, 1804, in ibid., 263.
    • 42. Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph, 21 May 1805. Massachusetts Historical Society.
    • 43. Ellen Wayles Randolph to Jefferson, 20 July 1805. Family Letters, 278.
    • 44. Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph, 1 March 1807. Ibid, 296.
    • 45. Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph, 1 March 1807. Ibid.
    Filed In: 
    Books, Education


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