Part three in a four-part series
“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams in June of 1815. The former president had just packed his personal library—some 6,700 volumes—into a wagon train and shipped it north to the nation’s capital. He’d sold the collection to Congress for $23,950 to replace the collection burned by the British during the War of 1812.
His collection was, Jefferson rightly believed, “the choicest collection of books in the United States.”
And now he was left virtually bookless.
The walls of his inner sanctum on the south end of the Monticello’s first floor, once lined with stackable shelves brimming with books, stood bare. Where once he’d been kept company by the likes of Locke, Newton, Bacon, Plato, Euclid, Tacitus, Thucydides and thousands of others, he now stood alone.
It must’ve been a bit of a shock for Jefferson, who’d spent forty-five years amassing his collection, although he seems to have expressed no regret. In fact, the hefty check that came his way was much-needed relief for pressing personal debt.
But Jefferson was surely motivated as much by his pride in the knowledge that he had provided the cornerstone for a great American library, rich and diversified and distinguished, which would serve as a model for other libraries to follow.
“I envy you that immortal honor,” responded Adams, who at once helped Jefferson begin rebuilding his library by making suggestions and introducing Jefferson to reputable book-buying agents. Jefferson began again collecting aggressively, although he claimed his “retirement library” would be for entertainment purposes only, not for research.
Today, books again line the walls of his Monticello library. Few are original and those on shelves sealed behind glass. The rest represent the same titles and editions Jefferson owned. Sheets of paper, as long as the shelves themselves, rest atop the books to prevent dust from settling down onto the pages.
The bookshelves themselves consist of boxes three or four feet long stacked atop one another. Any one box could be detached from the stack, sealed, and used for easy transport.
A few small marble busts occupy space on some of the shelves, too. A column of framed silhouettes hangs next to a window that looks out onto the front yard, and a larger window to the south looks out into a sunroom filled with large geraniums, palms, and Bougainvillea. A hexagonal table, with a candelabra designed to aim and magnify the candlelight, sits in front of the window. On the room’s north wall, a pair of paintings depicting Revolutionary War images hang over a fireplace.
Oh, to have such a library.
The library fragments that today sit in Monticello are only part of Jefferson’s long bibliographic legacy. “His library, from an early period, formed an essential part of his vision of the good life,” writes historian Douglas Wilson, the foremost authority on Jefferson’s libraries and author of the monograph Jefferson’s Books. A good life, then, meant a good collection of books.
Jefferson started collecting young. He had amassed between 300 and 400 books by 1770, but most of the collection was lost in a fire that destroyed the home he was born in, Shadwell, at the base of the mountain where Monticello would eventually stand. “On a reasonable estimate, I calculate the cost of the books burned to have been £200. sterling,” Jefferson wrote. “Would to god it had been the money; then had it never cost me a sigh!”
Jefferson began collecting anew, and by August of 1773, he catalogued more than 1,250 books—an astounding rate of almost one book purchase a day.
In 1776, the year he went to serve in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which was the cultural and educational center of the colonies, his collecting kicked into high gear. He bought more books that year than he had in any year previous.
And in the subsequent years he spent in Europe as an American minister, he bought thousands more.
But books weren’t merely a Jeffersonian compulsion; he considered them “a necessity of life.”
He often complained, though, that he never had enough time for his books. Wilson points out, however, that “[Jefferson’s] frequent protests about the lack of time for reading need to be understood in the context of his wishes rather than in absolute terms, for the amount of reading he succeeded in doing was prodigious by any standard.”
He would often pull several books from the shelves and lay them out on the floor and get down with them to compare passages. He eventually designed a revolving bookstand that could accommodate five open books, which he kept on his desk so he could read several books at once.
Jefferson had a self-described “canine appetite for reading,” and he believed different subjects were best read at different times of day: sciences, religion, and ethics for early morning; law, history, and politics for midday; and fine arts, oratory, and rhetoric for after dark.
The breadth of Jefferson’s library was astounding. Fully a quarter of his books centered on politics, with substantial sections on law and history, too—unsurprising considering his career as a lawyer and politician. But his collection also contained sections on subjects like geography, chemistry, mineralogy, surgery, music theory, painting and even esoteric topics like brewing, watchmaking, and dyeing. Favorites were gardening and architecture.
“The need to know seemed to come as naturally to him as the need to breathe,” Wilson says.
Jefferson organized his books according to the classic categories of Memory, Reason, and Imagination, with further classifications in history, philosophy, and fine arts. He thought organizing alphabetically or by author “very unsatisfactory, because of the medley it presents to the mind, the difficulty sometimes of recalling an author’s name….”
His organizational system reflected many of his personal quirks, biases, and ways of thinking. For instance, says Wilson, “Jefferson’s unusual designation of religion as belonging to jurisprudence shows that he approached religion less as theology, for which he provided no category, and more as a sphere of institutionalized moral suasion.”
Interestingly, Jefferson’s library was light on fiction, although he recognized its merit. “[T]he entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant,” he once wrote to a friend, going on to say that “everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue.” He thought one could learn as important a lesson from King Lear as from any dry treatise on ethics.
When Jefferson sold his library to Congress, he insisted they take the entire thing—all or nothing—rather than cherrypick parts that might seem most appropriate for a body of lawmakers. Jefferson understood what many lawmakers did not: a time would come when they’d need access to expertise beyond law and politics.
Of particular importance, then, was the Jefferson library’s heavy emphasis on all things American. While Jefferson loved classics, and he read in seven languages, he was endlessly fascinated with anything that had to do with his new country, and he collected America-related books passionately. As a result, Wilson points out, “Congress may have lost a serviceable reference library to the British invaders, but it gained as a consequence an unparalleled collection of materials on its own country.”
The Library of Congress still has about a third of Jefferson’s original volumes (many of the originals were destroyed by a Christmas Eve fire in 1851). The books are set aside in a special collection, still available to scholars and researchers.
The retirement library Jefferson began to create after he sold his grand collection met a less stately fate. After his death, it was sold to help pay off his considerable debts. Portions of the collection made their way to the Library of Congress, the University of Virginia, and yes, even Monticello, while many ended up in the hands of private collectors.
Jefferson’s libraries provide not only a glimpse into Jefferson’s mind but also into how that mind developed and how that mind was nurtured. “Jefferson was dependent on books, tended to take his knowledge from books rather than from direct experience, and approached the world with studied eyes,” wrote biographer Merrill Peterson.
Jefferson’s critics were quick to point out his bookishness, but others admired it. A century and a half later, President Kennedy famously told an assembled group of Nobel laureates that they were “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Jefferson’s collection of human knowledge began and ended on his bookshelves. Even today, a pale shadow of what they used to be, those bookshelves are enough to impress and inspire. I can hardly imagine how awesome the library was, intact and alive, in those days just before Jefferson sent it away.
No wonder he couldn’t live without books. They were the window to his heart and mind. They were part of his soul.