In advising his future son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. on his education, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "With respect to modern languages, French, as I have before observed, is indispensible. Next to this the Spanish is most important to an American. Our connection with Spain is already important and will become daily more so. Besides this the antient part of American history is written chiefly in Spanish."1
Jefferson supposedly learned the Spanish language on his transatlantic passage to France in 1784, with a borrowed copy of Don Quixote and a Spanish grammar. Following dinner with Jefferson in November 1804, John Quincy Adams made the following note in his journal: "As to Spanish, it was so easy that he had learned it, with the help of a Don Quixote lent him by Mr. Cabot, and a grammar, in the course of a passage to Europe, on which he was but nineteen days at sea. But Mr. Jefferson tells large stories..."2
Certainly Jefferson proposed Don Quixote as a tool for his daughters in their study of Spanish. In 1783, he provided his older daughter Martha a French tutor and for Spanish study a copy of Don Quixote. Later he included Don Quixote as a part of the education of his younger daughter Mary as well. He wrote her aunt, Elizabeth Eppes, with whom Mary was staying, "I have insisted on her reading ten pages a day in her Spanish Don Quixot, and getting a lesson in her Spanish grammar...3 In subsequent letters to Mary, he frequently inquired as to her progress in her Spanish reading. Even though Jefferson may have borrowed the copy of Don Quixote which he read on his way to France, a personal copy of Cervantes's novel was in his library at his death.4
- Gaye Wilson, 9/98
1. Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, July 6, 1787. Transcription available at Founders Online.