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[Detail] Thomas Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson had a lifelong interest in learning as evidenced by his vast library, which included books on science, history, political theory, and agriculture, as well as works of poetry, drama, and novels. In 1771, Robert Skipwith, the brother-in-law of Jefferson’s future wife, asked Jefferson to recommend a library of books that could be purchased for about 50 pounds (British currency). Jefferson responded:

…we are therefore wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that ever were written.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, August 3, 1771”

Read the entire letter to Skipwith, as well as a letter to John Minor, in which Jefferson recounted a plan of reading he had sent to a young friend. Jefferson wrote the letter to Minor in 1814, describing the reading plan as written “near 50 years ago.”

  • Why did Jefferson decide not to do what Skipwith had asked? What did he do instead?
  • What value did Jefferson place on reading fiction? Give an example of a novel from which you have learned about a “moral rule of life.”
  • How does the Skipwith letter show Jefferson’s love of learning? What do you think of the reading plan laid out in the Minor letter? What does it suggest about Jefferson’s interests?