When President Thomas Jefferson was home from Washington, D.C. on his biannual visit to his beloved Monticello in August 1806, he was eagerly awaiting a special delivery of books from Richmond, Virginia. This shipment was arriving under less than happy circumstances, however. They were a bequest from the estate of George Wythe, Jefferson's law professor at the College of William and Mary, and his "faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life." A prominent jurist, and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Wythe suffered an untimely death on June 8, apparently poisoned two weeks earlier with yellow arsenic by his grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney. Jefferson later wrote in his notes for the biography of George Wythe for John Sanderson: "No man ever left behind a character more venerated than G. Wythe."
Jefferson learned of Wythe's tragic poisoning and subsequent death in early June 1806 from William DuVal, Wythe's executor. The President received DuVal's letter in Washington on June 7 informing him of Wythe's poisoning on May 25. Wythe was still alive but had suffered greatly. On June 12, Jefferson received another letter from DuVal informing him that "our venerable great and pious Friend" had died that morning of June 8. George Wythe Sweeney had apparently forged checks to pay gambling debts and then resorted to murdering both his granduncle and Wythe's fifteen-year old ward and former slave, Michael Brown, in the hope of inheriting Wythe's estate.
Earlier that year, Wythe had modified his will, drawn up in 1803, to include Jefferson among his heirs. In a codicil to his will dated 19 January 1806, Wythe bequeathed Jefferson his library together with other personal objects:
"I give my books and small philosophical apparatus to Thomas Jefferson, president of the united states of America; a legacie considered abstractlie perhaps not deserving a place in his musaeum, but, estimated by my good will to him, the most valuable to him of any thing which i have power to bestow."
On learning of Wythe's demise, Jefferson wrote,
"His advanced years had left us little hope of retaining him much longer, and had his end been brought on by ordinary decays of time and nature, altho a subject of regret, it would not have been aggravated by the horror of his falling by the hand of a parricide . . . I had reserved with fondness, for the day of my retirement, the hope of inducing him to pass much of his time with me. It would have been a great pleasure to recollect with him first opinions on the new state of things which arose soon after my acquaintance with him; to pass in review the long period which has elapsed since that time, and to see how far those opinions had been affected by experience and reflection, or confirmed and acted on with self-approbation. But this may yet be the enjoyment of another state of being."
Soon after, DuVal wrote to Jefferson requesting him to appoint an agent who could receive Wythe's legacy. Jefferson appointed his Richmond agent and cousin, George Jefferson, for the task. On June 22, he instructed,
"Mr. DuVal the executor of my deceased friend mr Wythe, informs me that he bequeathed to me his books, philosophical instruments & some other articles, which he is anxious should be immediately delivered . . . I have taken the liberty to inform him that you will receive those articles, & that you will be so good as to relieve him from all trouble & expense of packing etc by hiring some person on my account to do this. The packages are to be forwarded to Monticello by careful boatmen. The Philosophical articles will probably require very careful packing."
On July 12, DuVal informed Jefferson that "A catalogue of the Books, the Small Phylosophical Apparatus, with the two Cups and Gold Headed Cane, also Mr. Wythe's portrait" had been delivered to the care of George Jefferson. He added that Wythe's terrestrial globe was missing, probably sold off by Sweeney. Sweeney had a history of stealing his granduncle's property to finance his debts, including selling three trunks of Wythe's law books.
Sometime between August 17 and 30, Wythe's library arrived at Monticello packed in five boxes. The book catalogue that accompanied the books has never been found and is lost. During the month of September, while minding the affairs of state remotely from Monticello, building the foundation of his retirement retreat at Poplar Forest and overseeing his tobacco farm there, Jefferson took time out from his busy schedule to inventory Wythe's books. The consummate list maker compared the titles he received against his own library catalog, and created this list of the titles he decided to retain for his own library collection, and the duplicate titles he would offer to family members and other individuals.
The Wythe Library list is made up of three folded sheets forming twelve pages (eight written, four blank). The first five pages consist of lists of books in Jefferson's hand under various headings. Apart from several of these headings being entirely shaved away, the headings that are clearly discernible on the pages are: (on page 1) To James Dinsmore; (on page 2) M[r]. Randolph, Mr. Ogilvie, Anne Randolph & Ellen, Martha Randolph, J. W. Eppes; and (on page 3) Th. J. Randolph. Jefferson intended these individuals to receive the books he had designated for them.
The heading at the top of page 1 has been shaved off, as is the name of the recipient of the law books and law reports listed on this first page. Despite this loss, we know from correspondence and from extant copies (with Wythe's bookplate in them) that these works went to Jefferson's nephew, Dabney Carr. These were standard law works Jefferson already held in his extensive library, and he decided that Carr, who had been admitted to the Virginia bar in 1796 and appointed commonwealth's attorney for Albemarle County in 1801, would be the best person to put Wythe's books to good use. In his letter to Carr on 11 September 1806, he wrote,
"Th. Jefferson with his affectionate salutations to Mr. Carr, sends for his acceptance some books, as part of Mr. Wythe's law library, which may be useful for him in his law-labors. in this disposition of them he believes he fulfills the philanthropic views of the testator than by retaining them himself."
The top of page 2 is similarly shaved off, and the intended recipient of those books (mostly works by classical authors) is not known. The titles on page 3, continuing on to the top of page 4, went to Jefferson's son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, many of which later appear in Randolph's estate inventory. In a letter to Randolph on 10 October 1806, Jefferson wrote,
"P.S. With your boxes of books I left a small one addressed to DuVal. It contains some books of accounts of Mr. Wythe, which I wish returned."
The books on page 5, mostly classics and works on history and mathematics, went to Jefferson's fourteen-year-old grandson and namesake, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. This young man had read Latin under his father's tutelage since age ten, and his grandfather took a personal interest in his education and development from a young age.
The final three pages list books Jefferson retained for his personal collection and recorded in his 1783 Catalog. The left margins of the pages contain subject classification headings used by Jefferson to order his books. In 1815, Jefferson sold his library to Congress, and the Wythe volumes journeyed to Washington, D.C. with the rest of Jefferson's books. Some 20 of these titles survived the Christmas Eve 1851 fire at the Library of Congress and are extant today.
Of the 338 titles representing 649 volumes in Jefferson's list, he gave away 183 titles in 400 volumes, and retained for himself 155 titles in 249 volumes.
This manuscript list, previously unknown to Jefferson scholars, was identified for the first time in November 2008 by Endrina Tay among the primary documents in the Coolidge collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society. It had been kept together with Jefferson's 1783 Catalog in a separate envelope. Tay worked with Jeremy Dibbell, the then Assistant Reference Librarian at the Society, to successfully match extant Jefferson books with a Wythe connection in the Library of Congress and University of Virginia with titles found in the book list. This manuscript list in Jefferson's hand is the only documentation known today of the contents of Wythe's library at his death in 1806.
Tay, Endrina and Jeremy Dibbell. "Reconstructing a Lost Library: George Wythe's "legacie" to President Thomas Jefferson," Common-place 10, vol. 2 (January 2010).
The George Wythe Room at the Wolf Law Library at the College of William and Mary's Marshall-Wythe School of Law
Reconstructed Wythe Library from the Wolf Law Library's Wythepedia
3. William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 4 June 1806. Recipient copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
4. William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 8 June 1806. Recipient copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
5. George Wythe's Last Will and Testament dated April 30, 1803, with Codicil dated 19 January 1806, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
6. Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 14 June 1806. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
8. William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 12 July 1806. Recipient copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
9. 1783 Catalog of Books, Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society.
10. James Dinsmore (c. 1771-1830) was an Irish joiner who worked at Monticello from 1798 to 1809. It is unclear if Jefferson gave Dinsmore Stuart & Revett's The Antiquities of Athens Measured and Delineated, or merely intended to lend it to him. Jefferson's rendering of the header "To James Dinsmore" differs from the others who were given books from Wythe's library.
12. James Ogilvie (1760-1820) was a Scottish teacher and lecturer, who in 1806 was conducting an academy at Milton (near Monticello). Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was one of his students. Earlier in January 1806, Jefferson had granted Ogilvie free access to his Monticello library.