Jefferson and Reading

Jefferson’s Libraries

From Jefferson’s book lists and correspondence, we know that he had the following book collections:

Shadwell Library (1757 to 1770)
Jefferson inherited his first library from his father, Peter Jefferson, when the latter died in 1757. On 1 February 1770, a fire destroyed almost all of the books in Jefferson’s home at Shadwell. It is not known if Jefferson kept a list of the books he had in his Shadwell Library at the time of the fire. If he did, it would very likely have been destroyed along with all of his personal papers. Here is a reconstructed list of books that Jefferson either inherited, acquired, or was familiar with and hence very likely owned at Shadwell. More about the Shadwell Library Reconstructed ...

Monticello Library Eventually Sold to Congress in 1815
(circa 1770s to 1815)

Jefferson’s second library and his largest is the book collection that he began at Monticello following the fire at Shadwell, and which he later sold to Congress in 1815. Following the Shadwell fire on 1 February 1770, Jefferson wasted no time in replacing the library he lost. The destruction at Shadwell added impetus to his ambitious plans to develop his library and to his efforts to build his new home at Monticello. By August 1771, Jefferson appears to have already built up a collection he considered to be worthy of inspection by others. In his letter to Robert Skipwith dated 3 August 1771, Jefferson invites Skipwith to the “new Rowanty,” evidently a reference to Monticello, his own "mountain of the world," or "Rowandiz, the Accadian Olympos," [1] and to his library there.

Within this second library collection, we can identify the following sub-collections:

a. March 1783 Library Reconstructed (circa 1770s to 6 March 1783)
By 4 August 1773, Jefferson notes in his Memorandum Books
[2] a count of 1,256 volumes in his library at Monticello, not counting volumes of music nor the books he had in Williamsburg. It may well be around this time or even earlier that Jefferson creates a manuscript list or catalog (which eventually becomes the 1783 Catalog) of the books on his shelves to help him keep track of his burgeoning library.

In 1784 as he left America to take up his appointment by Congress as minister plenipotentiary to France, he very likely had with him his 1783 Catalog of the books he owned, along with titles he intended to acquire abroad. Earlier the previous year in Philadelphia, he had noted on page 5 of this catalog a count of 2,640 volumes as of 6 March 1783. He also states that he had placed a checkmark before each title he owned, and that unmarked titles indicate books that he hoped to acquire. Using this specific notation recorded by Jefferson in his 1783 Catalog, here is a reconstructed list by Thomas Baughn of the likely books Jefferson owned as of this date. More about the March 1783 Library Reconstructed ...

b. Books Acquired While in Europe (1784 to 1789)
During his appointment as minister plenipotentiary and later minister to France from 1784 to 1789, Jefferson purchased some 2,000 volumes while abroad. Before he returned to America in 1789, he compiled a separate list of the books he had acquired. This 1789 Catalog is a 50-page unbound manuscript in Jefferson’s hand. It is at the Massachusetts Historical Society and a digitized version is available here. A transcription by Thomas Baughn is also available here. More about the 1789 Catalog ...

c. 1783 Catalog (circa 1770s to 1812)
The 1783 Catalog, a 246-page bound manuscript in Jefferson’s hand, is believed to be a record of his library following the Shadwell fire in 1770. In 1812, when this 1783 Catalog became crammed with interlineations, erasures, and marginal insertions, Jefferson made a fair copy of it, and it is this 1812 Catalogue that he probably maintained up till his offer to sell his library to Congress in 1814. This fair copy was retained by the Librarian of Congress George Watterston who claimed it as his personal property when he was dismissed from his post in 1829. The 1812 Catalogue has never been found. The Trist Catalogue mentioned below is the closest approximation to the contents and order of this lost manuscript catalogue.

The 1783 Catalog is today at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and a digitized version is available here. The catalog includes the titles found in the March 1783 Library Reconstructed list and the 1789 Catalog mentioned above. A transcription by Thomas Baughn is available here. More about the 1783 Catalog ...

d. Books Inherited from George Wythe (1806)
In 1806, while Jefferson was in his second term as President of the United States, he inherited almost 650 volumes from his law tutor and lifelong friend, George Wythe, when the latter suffered an untimely death from arsenic poisoning. In November 2008, a manuscript book list in Jefferson's hand was discovered for the first time at the Massachusetts Historical Society in their Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, and identified as Jefferson's inventory of the books he received from Wythe. Of the 649 volumes in Wythe's bequest, Jefferson gave away 400 volumes to family members and other individuals, while retaining 249 volumes for his own library. This list, made up of three folded sheets forming twelve pages (eight pages written, and four pages blank), was created by Jefferson sometime during September 1806. Images of this book list are available here. A transcription by Jeremy Dibbell and Endrina Tay is available here. More about the Wythe Library List ...

e. Books Sold to Congress (1815)
When the invading British army burned the congressional library in Washington, D.C. in 1814, an outraged Jefferson promptly offered his own library to Congress to replace the one that was lost. The handwritten 1812 Catalogue that Jefferson sent in 1815 to Congress along with his books was retained by the Librarian of Congress, George Watterston, and subsequently lost. In 1942, as part of the bicentennial commemoration of Jefferson’s birth, the Library of Congress commissioned E. Millicent Sowerby to compile an annotated bibliography of the 6,500 books Jefferson sold to Congress. Sowerby utilized the sources available to her at the time, and created her compilation based upon Jefferson's 1783 Catalog and printed catalogs of the books at the Library of Congress in the years following the sale. A five-volume work, The Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson [3], was published between 1952 and 1959. Up till 2007, this long-standing reference work for Jefferson scholars was only available in print. It is now available online through the Library of Congress. A transcribed electronic version was completed for this project and can be browsed here and searched here. More about the Books Sold to Congress and the Sowerby Catalogue ...

There is a second manuscript associated with the books Jefferson sold to Congress. In 1823 Jefferson commissioned Nicholas Philip Trist, the young man who would eventually become Jefferson’s private secretary and his grandson-in-law, to recreate a list of the books that were in his 1812 Catalogue and sold to Congress. This 113-page Trist Catalogue was rediscovered at the Library of Congress and published as a monograph, Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order [4] by James Gilreath and Douglas L. Wilson in 1989. The manuscript has been digitized by the Library of Congress and is available here. Thomas Baughn re-transcribed the Trist manuscript for this project and this transcription is available here. The Trist Catalogue is the closest representation we have of the contents and order of Jefferson's lost 1812 Catalogue. It is an important primary source available to us today to verify the compilation completed by Sowerby in the 1950s. More about the Trist Catalogue ...


Retirement Library (1815 to 1826)
Following the 1815 sale of almost all of his library to Congress, Jefferson continued to acquire books. The Retirement Library Catalogue in Jefferson’s hand constitutes his third and final library at Monticello. This 83-page bound manuscript is at the Library of Congress and available online. After Jefferson died in 1826, his library at Monticello was sold at auction by Nathaniel P. Poor in 1829 in Washington, D.C. The printed Poor Catalogue [5] is available here, and is almost identical to the Retirement Library Catalogue. A transcription of the Retirement Library Catalogue was completed by John R. Barden in 1999, and edited by Thomas Baughn. More about the Retirement Library ...

Poplar Forest Library (1811 to 1826)
After Jefferson’s retirement from public office in 1809, he also maintained a library at his Poplar Forest retreat in Bedford County, beginning around 1811. At his death, his books were inherited by his grandson, Francis Eppes, who offered 675 volumes from this library up for sale in 1873. There is no separate sale catalogue for this library, except for the portion that was listed in the 1873 auction catalogue of George A. Leavitt [6], published in New York City. The Leavitt Catalogue was transcribed by John R. Barden in 1999, and edited by Thomas Baughn and is available here.

In 2006, Baughn reconstructed a list of books Jefferson is believed to have had at Poplar Forest, based on notitia found in Jefferson’s Retirement Library Catalogue and references to specific titles in his retirement correspondence. This Poplar Forest Library Reconstructed list is available here. More about the Poplar Forest Library ...


NOTES:

1. PTJ, 1:81 note.

2. MB, 1:332.

3. E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson (Washington: Library of Congress, 1952-59).

4. James Gilreath and Douglas L. Wilson, eds., Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order (Washington: Library of Congress, 1989).

5. Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library: A Catalogue of the Extensive and Valuable Library of the Late President Jefferson (Copied From the Original Ms., in His Hand-writing, as Arranged by Himself) To Be Sold at Auction, at the Long Room, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington City, by Nathaniel P. Poor, on the [27th] February, 1829 (Washington: Printed by Gales and Seaton, 1829).

6. George A. Leavitt & Co. Catalogue of a Private Library Comprising a Rich Assortment of Rare and Standard Works, Many in Fine Bindings … and a Number of Engraved Copper Plates: Also, the Remaining Portion of the Library of the Late Thomas Jefferson, Comprising Many Classical Works and Several Autograph Letters, Offered by His Grandson, Francis Eppes, of Poplar Forest, Va.: the Whole to be Sold by Auction at the Clinton Hall Sale Rooms, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, November 5th and 6th (New York: George A. Leavitt & Co., 1873).