By Tom Jewett
Thomas Jefferson was America’s Renaissance man, being a lawyer, writer, scientist, inventor, planter, ethnologist, and musician, to name just of few of his accomplishments. Few realize that he could also be called the “Father of the Library of Congress” and one of the first true librarians.
Jefferson was an avid collector of books his entire life, a trait that set him apart from his brethren in the Virginia gentry. Eighteenth-century Virginia did not have a rich literary culture. The colony, preoccupied with agriculture, depended on the Old World for the arts and scholarship. Virginians of the day supported only one or two bookstores and newspapers. The colony’s elite were more disposed toward horse racing, fox hunting, and card playing than intellectual pursuits. Many of Jefferson’s contemporaries in the piedmont were illiterate and did not even own a Bible.
At an early age Jefferson outdistanced his fellow Virginians in his passion for books. As his personal servant Isaac commented: “Old Master had an abundance of books and was always looking things up in them.” (As cited in Malone, 1948). All of his life Jefferson collected books, and was to build three libraries, any of which could have been judged preeminent in Virginia and, in two cases, in America.
The nucleus of Jefferson’s first library was the forty volumes he inherited from his father’s estate at the age of fourteen. While insignificant in comparison to future acquisitions, Peter Jefferson’s legacy provided the youngster a collection larger than those possessed by his more mature neighbors. Peter Jefferson’s library contained several volumes of Addison and of English history, a work on astronomy, some books of a geographical nature, and many maps, since he was a surveyor. (Malone, 1948).
Young Jefferson added to the seed of his father’s collection throughout his schooling. His reading during this time can best be described as omnivorous. A true child of the Enlightenment, he sampled a full menu of subjects. Jefferson regarded learning as an instrument in the cause of progress. He not only loved learning and the arts for their own sake but to acquire knowledge that was useful to man.
The library of his youth was destroyed in the burning of his mother’s house, Shadwell, in 1770. On the date of the fire, Jefferson was in Charlottesville. Tradition has it that upon hearing of the disaster, he immediately asked if his books had been saved, before inquiring into the welfare of his family. Jefferson estimated the value of the books burned at two hundred pounds sterling. He stated he would have rather burned the money than bear the loss of his beloved volumes. (Jefferson, 1770).
Jefferson began at once to buy and collect, and within three years was able to record that he had 1,250 books, not including volumes of music and his “books in Williamsburg.” (As cited in Adams, 1939). An idea of the variety of purchases he was making may be obtained in a 1771 letter to Robert Skipwith, brother-in-law to the future Mrs. Jefferson, giving advice in selecting books for a Virginia gentleman’s library. Jefferson’s agenda of 148 titles, comprising 379 volumes, was the minimum collection he felt was needed in any library. The list not only includes literary classics but also contemporary literature and the leading works of the day on science, agriculture, and government. Practical works concerning the law are also found. (Jefferson, 1773).
By the spring of 1783, by his own count, Jefferson had 2,640 volumes. In the thirteen years since the fire at Shadwell he had assiduously collected books. He maintained contact with booksellers in Williamsburg, Annapolis, and Philadelphia. (Malone, 1948).
Jefferson continued to add titles to his 1783 catalogue for the next thirty years. He availed himself to the markets of Europe during his ministry in France. During this time he was a compulsive buyer, purchasing volumes on a variety of subjects.
It was during Jefferson’s administration as President that the Library of Congress took its first steps. The government had moved in 1800 to the city of Washington, where the members of Congress no longer had access to the libraries of Philadelphia and New York which had been available to them while those cities were the seats of government. In 1801, when Jefferson took up the duties of the presidency, his passion for books made him take an interest in the nascent Library of Congress. He had a dominant influence in the actual selection of the titles which appeared in the first printed catalogue of the library issued in 1802. (Adams, 1939).
The collection, which Jefferson helped establish, consisted of perhaps three thousand volumes in 1814, when the British, in an act of wanton vandalism, destroyed the Library of Congress. Learning of this British barbarity from the newspapers, Jefferson offered to sell to Congress his own library which was probably twice the size of the destroyed collection. The sale was opportune for both parties, since Jefferson, as always, needed money, and Congress could not easily replace its loss from Europe while a war was going on. It is likely that the library offered Congress was the largest in America and that no collector of the day had so representative a library or multitude of subjects. (Jefferson, 1814).
On October 7, 1814, Representative Charles Goldsborough, of Maryland, reported a joint resolution to both houses of Congress, from the Committee on the Library, empowering them to contract for the purchase of the Jefferson Library. (Malone, 1981). It is hard to imagine the acrimonious and rancorous debate that followed. The response by various Federalist in Congress was a more accurate reflection of their politics than their learning.
After months of debate Congress finally agreed to buy the library, and paid Jefferson $23,950 for it, which averaged $3.60 per volume. (Malone, 1981). William Thornton, the Commissioner of Patents, stated that he was rather glad the old library had been burned, because he now had so magnificent a substitute. He felt the true value of the library to be at least $50,000. (Adams, 1939).
“I cannot live without books,” wrote Jefferson to John Adams just a month after the last shipment of his library set out for Washington. (As cited in Malone, 1981). Within weeks of the selling of his collection, Jefferson was making purchased for a third library. On May 10, 1815, he bought the books of T. M. Randolph for $187.00 and had remitted $550.00 to John Vaughan for purchases abroad. (Malone, 1981).
This library of his last years slanted on the side of classical antiquity. It was more of a collection of pleasure than the working libraries of a younger Jefferson. This third personal library, which Jefferson accumulated between 1815 and 1826, was to be bequeathed to the passion of his latter years, the University of Virginia.
The University was Jefferson’s child. All aspects of its formation came under his direction, including the school’s library. During the summer of 1824, he prepared the catalogue of books for the library. This laborious task took him more than two months working four hours a day. The final listing had 6,860 volumes and cost more than $24,000. It is ironic that this was the size and approximate price of the library that Jefferson had sold to Congress. (Malone, 1981).
The University’s library would never receive the fruits of Jefferson’s last years of collecting. The ex-president, ever in debt, had his estate so encumbered at the time of his death that his last library had to be put up at public auction in Washington, D. C. in 1829. (Adams, 1939). This sale saw Jefferson’s third library, like his previous two, scattered or destroyed, since the majority Jefferson’s Library of Congress collection was consumed by fire in 1851. (Adams, 1939).
The personal collection of books which Jefferson amassed did not long withstand the years beyond his own lifetime. The public libraries he helped found, the Library of Congress and the library at the University of Virginia stand as fitting monuments to the man’s passion for books.
Adams, Randolph. 1939, Three Americanists. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
Jefferson, Thomas. 1770, Letter to John Page.
Jefferson, Thomas. 1773, Letter to Robert Skipwith.
Jefferson, Thomas. 1814, Letter to Samuel H. Smith, Esq.
Malone, Dumas. 1948, Jefferson the Virginian. Little, Brown and Company, Boston.
Malone, Dumas. 1981, The Sage of Monticello. Little, Brown and Company, Boston.
More about Thomas Jefferson:
- Thomas Jefferson: The Education of an Architect
- Thomas Jefferson’s Views Concerning Native Americans
- Thomas Jefferson’s Views on Women
- Thomas Jefferson: Father of Invention
- Thomas Jefferson: Paleontologist
- Jefferson and the West
- Jefferson, Education, and the Franchise
- Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
- Jefferson And His Daughters
- Thomas Jefferson: Agronomist
- Thomas Jefferson’s Remarks Published in “The Rights of Man”
- Thomas Jefferon’s Obituary