Examine selected books in the “Reason” (Philosophy) section and view the pages of Niccolò Macchiavelli’s The Prince, which describes ways in which a ruler might obtain and maintain political power.
Work of Moral Philosophy
Jefferson collected the works of Richard Price because the English nonconformist minister explored questions of moral philosophy and supported the American and French revolutions. Jefferson, who held eleven titles by Price, was in regular correspondence with the minister and told him, “Everything you write is precious.”
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Jefferson’s Interest in Voltaire
Jefferson was profoundly interested in the work of the French philosopher and historian Voltaire and owned seven works by the author. The French influence in Jefferson’s collection did not go unnoticed.
Congressman Cyrus King objected in 1814 that: “It might be inferred from the character of the man who collected it, and France, where the collection was made, that the library contained irreligious and immoral books, works of French philosophers, who caused and influenced the volcano of the French Revolution which had desolated Europe and extended to this country.”
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Essays by British Feminist
The essays of Mary Chudleigh appear in the category of “Ethics—Moral Philosophy” because she consistently addressed the rights and capabilities of women. She argued that women were capable of intellectual pursuits and advocated, much as Jefferson did, for the education of women.
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Central Document in Abolition Effort
This essay by Scottish naval doctor and Anglican minister James Ramsey sparked an intense pamphlet debate on the nature of slavery and the slave trade. Jefferson may have identified with Ramsey’s circumstances; he lived on and benefited from the work on a sugar plantation in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, Ramsey argued for reform and abolition, and, as a result, published one of the central documents in the abolition effort.
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Work by the “Father of International Law”
This work by the Dutch jurist and statesman Hugo Grotius formulated the basic principles of modern international law, especially as it relates to war. Grotius believed that nations are bound by natural law based on human nature. His views significantly influenced Jefferson’s concept of the law of nations, including the validity of treaties when an alliance has grown dangerous or disagreeable. Jefferson cited Grotius in a 1793 memo he wrote as secretary of state in which he argued that the United States had an obligation to honor treaties made with France before the French Revolution changed its government.
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Jefferson’s Copy of the Koran
It appears that Jefferson purchased George Sale’s translation of the Koran in 1765 from the office of the Virginia Gazette. At the time, Jefferson was engaged in his law studies at the College of William and Mary, so it is likely that he purchased the book as an example of Arabic law as his textbooks suggested. This edition is the first English edition to have been translated directly from the Arabic and is often regarded as the best early translation of the Koran. Jefferson cataloged the book in his section on “Religion,” where it shared the shelves with early Greek and Roman mythology and the Bible.
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First Bible with Numbered Verses
The modern form of the Bible with the text arranged in numbered verses was first fully introduced by Robert Estienne in his Bible published in Geneva. Estienne, a noted French printer and scholar, also published a concordance to the Bible in the same year. Jefferson owned this 1555 edition of the work.
Robert Stephanus [Robert Estienne] (1503–1559). Biblia. R. Stephanus Lectori. En tibi Bibliorũ vulgata editio, in qua iuxta Hebraicorum versuum rationem singula capita versibus distincta sunt, . . . Geneva: R. Stephanus, 1555. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (S. 1465) (28.00.00)
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Blackstone’s Law Commentaries
The commentaries of the English jurist and author William Blackstone were typically considered the defining source of common law in the British colonies. Jefferson argued consistently with many of Blackstone’s positions, complaining that his take on common law had done more towards the suppression of the liberties of man, then all the million of men in arms of Bonaparte.
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Laws Concerning Women
English Common Law often provided the basis for judicial law in colonial America. But because of the lack of uniformity in the courts and legislative bodies from colony to colony, laws were subject to wide interpretation. By the later part of the eighteenth century, laws, even regarding women, became more specific.
Thomas Jefferson owned this 1632 British volume attributed to Sir John Dodderidge, “which comprehends all our Lawes concerning Women, either Children in government or nurture of their Parents or Gardians, Mayds, Wives, and Widowes, and their goods, inheritances, and other estates.”
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Book of Maritime Law
Irish lawyer and professor of law Arthur Browne compiled this two-volume overview of maritime law while teaching at the University of Dublin.
Arthur Browne (1756?–1805). A Compendious View of the Civil Law, and of the Law of the Admiralty, Being the Substance of a Course of Lectures Read in the University of Dublin. 2 vols. London: G. Woodfall, 1802. Volume II. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (S. 2109) (33.00.00, 33.01.00)
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Institutes of Justinian in English Translation
Often considered a landmark in American law, Thomas Cooper’s translation and edition of The Institutes of Justinian shaped the manner in which Roman law was understood by American jurisprudence. Jefferson’s copy was a gift of the translator, with whom he carried on an engaging correspondence regarding the close reading of several related texts.
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Priestly’s Political Thinking
Jefferson frequently included Joseph Priestley’s work on lists of recommended reading, claiming that it was one of the books that laid the groundwork for the principles of the Constitution. English scientist, philosopher, and theologian, Priestly was a model thinker of the Enlightenment, equally important for his work on the nature of oxygen as he was for his political treatises.
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Sir Thomas More’s Utopia
Like his counterpart Erasmus of Rotterdam, Sir Thomas More became a significant humanist philosopher. His fictional Utopia, published in Latin, depicted a perfect government that promoted harmony and hierarchical order. However his description could be construed as a polemical attack on the powers that be. More’s defense of Catholicism would later lead to his execution on the orders of England’s King Henry VIII. Jefferson also owned the 1743 English-language edition of Utopia, printed in Glasgow by Robert Foulis.
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Although he occasionally mentioned Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic political works, Jefferson’s politics owed nothing to the Florentine’s most famous theory—achieving worldly success through deceitful scheming. Nevertheless, Jefferson was well read in all aspects of politics, as evidenced by the numerous titles by Machiavelli in his library.
Jefferson divided this multi-volume set of the great Florentine’s political works, locating each volume in its appropriate subject category. This volume, containing Machiavelli’s Discourses and The Prince, falls in the chapter on “Politics,” tucked away between Xenophon and Voltaire.
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Adams’s Defense of the U.S. Constitution
John Adams prepared these volumes of essays concerning the nature of the American Constitution while serving as the first U.S ambassador to England. Each “letter” tackles a historical or conceptual problem. He explores ancient forms and structures of government, the Bill of Rights, the nature of the legislature, and the three-pronged structure of government. Concerning separation of powers, he commented: “Without three divisions of power, stationed to watch each other, and compare each other’s conduct with the laws, it will be impossible that the laws should at all times preserve their authority, and govern all men.” Adams sent these volumes to Jefferson when Jefferson was serving in Paris as Minister Plenipotentiary. Jefferson attempted to have the work translated into French and printed in Paris, although he ran into some opposition to the idea because of the strong Anglophilic leanings Adams expressed in the text.
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