Thomas Jefferson

Throughout his life, books were vital to Thomas Jefferson's education and well-being. When his family home Shadwell burned in 1770 Jefferson most lamented the loss of his books. In the midst of the American Revolution and while United States minister to France in the 1780s, Jefferson acquired thousands of books for his library at Monticello. Jefferson's library went through several stages, but it was always critically important to him. Books provided the little traveled Jefferson with a broader knowledge of the contemporary and ancient worlds than most contemporaries of broader personal experience. By 1814 when the British burned the nation's Capitol and the Library of Congress, Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States. Jefferson offered to sell his library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British during the War of 1812. Congress purchased Jefferson's library for $23,950 in 1815. A second fire on Christmas Eve of 1851, destroyed nearly two thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson.

Through a generous grant from Jerry and Gene Jones, the Library of Congress is attempting to reassemble Jefferson's library as it was sold to Congress. Although the broad scope of Jefferson's library was a cause for criticism of the purchase, Jefferson extolled the virtue of its broad sweep and established the principle of acquisition for the Library of Congress: “there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Proclaiming that “I cannot live without books,” Jefferson began a second collection of several thousand books, which was sold at auction in 1829 to help satisfy his creditors.

The Library

Thomas Jefferson offers his library to Congress after the British burn the Capitol in 1814

On learning of the burning of the Capitol and the loss of the 3,000-volume Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, newspaper publisher, Samuel H. Smith (1772–1845) asking him to offer Congress his personal library of between "9 and 10,000 volumes" as a replacement. Jefferson promised to accept any price set by Congress, commenting that “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from this collection . . . there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Records indicate the total of volumes received by the Library of Congress was 6,487. This more than doubled the holdings that were lost in the fire of 1814.

Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith. September 21, 1814. Manuscript letter. Page 2. Manuscript Division (219)

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Jefferson agrees to “arrange and number all the books”

Upon hearing the news that Congress had approved the purchase of his library, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Georgetown bookdealer Joseph Milligan asking him to come to Monticello and supervise the packing and transportation of the books to Washington. Jefferson told Milligan that he would “arrange and number all the books according as they stand in the catalogue.” Jefferson was paid $23,950 for 6487 volumes based on measurements of the sizes of the books.

Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Milligan. February 27, 1815. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (219a)

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Thomas Jefferson hopes for national impact from his library

After the packing and shipping of his library had been completed, Jefferson commented to Samuel H. Smith that “an interesting treasure is added to your city, now become the depository of unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the US, and I hope it will not be without some general effect on the literature of our country.”

Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith. May 8, 1815 Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (221)

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Congressional debates on the purchase of Jefferson's library

Some sharp debates occurred in Congress about the wisdom of purchasing Jefferson's library as a replacement for the nearly destroyed contents of the Library of Congress. Some congressmen were particularly concerned that there were large numbers of books in foreign languages and about subjects not believed germane for the use of Congress. Jefferson had anticipated such concerns in his September 21, 1814, letter written to Samuel H. Smith, his friend and editor of the National Intelligencer.

National Intelligencer. January 27, 1815. Serial and Government Publications Division (220)

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Thomas Jefferson's classification scheme in his library catalog

In Thomas Jefferson's day, most libraries were arranged alphabetically. But Jefferson preferred to arrange his by subject. He chose Lord Bacon's table of science, the hierarchy of Memory (History), Reason (Philosophy) and Imagination (Fine Arts) to order his arrangement of books by subject with some modifications. The resulting arrangement as illustrated in the Nicholas Trist (1800–1870) copy of Jefferson's library catalog for 1815 is a combination of subject and chronology. In practice, however, Jefferson shelved his books by size.

Nicholas Trist. “Catalog of Library of Thomas Jefferson.” 1823. Bound manuscript. Page 2. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (222)

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Jefferson misreads “two Pieces of Homespun”

John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1812, enclosing John Quincy Adams' (1767–1848) Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in two volumes that he referred to as “two Pieces of Homespun.” Jefferson misinterpreted this as homespun cloth and wrote on January 21, 1812, a long letter on the virtues of producing homespun cloth in America. Only later did Jefferson learn that John Adams had been referring to his son's book.

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams. January 21, 1812. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (222b)

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Cicero's Tusculan Disputations

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) Roman philosopher, orator, and statesman, was Jefferson's favorite classical scholar. Jefferson is believed to have modeled his own life on Cicero's love of study and aristocratic country life. Most of Jefferson's Ciceronian extracts are from the Tusculan Disputations a discourse or dialogue about pain, grief, and the necessity of coming to grips with death. Jefferson owned more than forty Cicero titles during his life. This is one of the fourteen Cicero titles that came to the Library of Congress in 1815.

Marcus Tullius Cicero. M. Tulli Ciceronis Tusculanarum disputationum libri quinque . . . Glasguae: Robertus Folis, 1744. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (28)

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