Retirement Library Catalogue

Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong compulsion to feed his "canine appetite for reading" [1] did not stop with the sale of his library at Monticello to Congress in 1815. Soon after concluding negotiations for the sale in mid February 1815, and even before his books had left the mountaintop to make its way to Washington, D.C., Jefferson was already making plans to reconstitute his library at Monticello, albeit on a smaller scale – one whose primary function was for "amusement" and pleasure, rather than "use". Jefferson envisaged this library – the one scholars refer to as his Retirement Library, as "a collection for my self of such as may amuse my hours of reading." [2] He envisaged a select library of lifelong favorites - classical works and works of history, imported chiefly from metropolitan centers across the Atlantic like Paris and London, as well as in the United States [3].

Jefferson's vision was fortuitously aided by the introduction of George Ticknor, Boston-bred scholar and bibliophile, to Jefferson in early February 1815. Ticknor and his companion, Francis C. Gray, had arrived at Monticello on 4 February 1815, carrying letters of introduction from John Adams. Jefferson was very much impressed by the knowledgeable Ticknor, and accepted Ticknor’s offer to act as Jefferson’s book buyer and procurement agent while in Europe for an extended visit to further his literary studies. In a letter to John Adams dated 10 June 1815, Jefferson informed his friend,

"I thank you for making known to me mr Tickner & mr Gray … mr Ticknor is particularly the best bibliograph I have met with, and very kindly and opportunely offered me the means of reprocuring some part of the literary treasures which I have ceded to Congress to replace the devastations of British Vandalism at Washington [4]. I cannot live without books; but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object ..." [5]

Between 1815 and 1819, Jefferson’s correspondence and memorandum books reflect a book buying frenzy. With the aid of Ticknor and the American consul in France, David Bailie Warden, and others, Jefferson tapped booksellers across the Atlantic in Europe, and in metropolitan centers like Philadelphia and New York to replenish his empty bookshelves at Monticello. Jefferson re-acquired many of his lifelong favorites, classical works by Tacitus, Thucydides, Homer, Shakespeare and Cervantes, often in the same editions as the ones he had sold to Congress. He did acquire new editions of previously owned works, as well as new titles that had not been in his library before. He also continued to receive, through 1826, presentation copies of new works, often on science or politics, from friends and admirers, as well as individuals eager for an official endorsement of their work by the venerated Mr. Jefferson.

By the time of his death in 1826, this reconstituted library grew to some 1,600 volumes, a quarter the size of the library he sold to Congress. It represented Jefferson’s retirement interests, amassed over the last 11 years of his life.

We know about Jefferson’s Retirement Library collection because of the record Jefferson left in the form of a manuscript catalogue that survives among the Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress [6]. This manuscript catalogue is a fair copy. In other words, this is not the first catalogue Jefferson kept from 1815 onwards as he began to rebuild his library at Monticello. We know this by the uniformity of Jefferson’s manuscript entries for books he acquired as late as February 3, 1820. The extant library catalogue Jefferson kept till his death in 1826 was created during the first half of 1820, sometime between February and early April 1820, five years after the sale of his library to Congress in 1815. We can probably safely assume that Jefferson, the consummate list-maker, would have maintained at least one earlier version of this Retirement Library manuscript catalogue prior to 1820, even though no such surviving catalogue exists today.


Jefferson willed his personal papers to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. At his death in 1826, these papers, along with the Retirement Library manuscript, came into Randolph’s possession. Jefferson's papers were sold to the federal government in 1848, and this manuscript is today in Series 7 of the Thomas Jefferson Papers collection at the Library of Congress.


The Retirement Library catalogue is a crudely bound volume with 124 numbered pages, measuring approximately 8.5 inches long and 5 inches wide, sandwiched on each end by boards covered by what appears to be sheep leather. Each gathering appears to be made up of 4 sheets of paper, each measuring 17 inches by 5 inches folded into half. These gatherings are stitched and knotted together at the spine. The crude binding was probably the work of one of Jefferson’s family members, possibly one of his granddaughters, Ellen Wayles Randolph (aged 24 in 1820), Cornelia Jefferson Randolph (aged 21), Virginia Jefferson Randolph (aged 19), or their mother, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson's daughter. Other possible candidates include Jefferson’s personal secretary for a time and later grandson-in-law, Nicholas Philip Trist, or even Jefferson himself, though quite unlikely. The crudeness of the binding does rule out, however, Jefferson’s professional bookbinders during this period – Joseph Milligan of Georgetown, Frederick A. Mayo of Richmond, and William F. Gray of Fredericksburg.

The catalogue is organized into 33 unnumbered sections, according to the classification scheme outlined by Jefferson on the first fly-leaf. It resembles the organization scheme Jefferson utilized previously for his Monticello library (see classification scheme from the Trist catalogue), but with a few differences. The scheme is simpler with only 33 sections, reflecting the smaller size and arguably, narrower scope, of the library, compared to the 44 chapters found in the Trist catalogue. Jefferson made some slight adjustments to the hierarchical organization, bringing Occupations of Man, Anatomy, and Physiology under the Natural History category he termed, “Animals.” He placed Geography and Astronomy, previously classified under Mathematics and Philosophy, under the Natural History categories, “The Earth” and “The Heavens” respectively. He also used slightly different collective nouns to describe some sections. For example, he refined the sub-categories for Moral Philosophy from Ethics and Jurisprudence into Morality, Moral Supplements (consisting of Religion and Law), and Social Organization (i.e. Politics). Pure Mathematics he now termed “The Science of Quantity”, and Geometry became “The Science of Space.” The Fine Arts categories, Architecture, Gardening, Painting, Sculpture and Music, he now collectively termed, “Beaux Arts,” while Poetry, Oratory and Criticism became “Belle Lettres.”

Recent new research on Jefferson’s Retirement Library manuscript has established that Jefferson’s short title entries were unnumbered when he maintained his catalogue. None of the strikeouts in pencil seen on the manuscript were present either. The numbers and strikeouts were added later, circa January 1829, by Jefferson’s grandson-in-law, Nicholas P. Trist. Trist had been charged by Jefferson’s executor, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, with producing a printed catalogue of Jefferson’s library for the auction sale of the library in Washington, D.C. The sale was held from February 27 to March 11, 1829, in an attempt to raise funds to settle the debts from Jefferson’s estate. Trist marked up Jefferson’s manuscript catalogue, numbering Jefferson’s book entries and adding strikeouts. The strikeouts functioned as guidelines to Gales and Seaton, printers of the auction catalogue, as to what to exclude in the printed auction catalogue. Trist pared Jefferson’s short title entries down in order to limit the catalog entries to what was essential to identify the work and its edition.

There is a second set of annotations that are also post Jefferson. These annotations, which begin first on page 1 as an “X” beside certain entries, and continue from page 2 onwards in the form of either a lowercase “l” or uppercase “L” beside certain title entries. The same research that identified Trist as the individual behind the first set of annotations described above, has also established that these second set of annotations are in the hand of William Wertenbaker, the librarian at the University of Virginia at the time of Jefferson’s death in 1826. These markings were probably added some time during the immediate months following Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826. Jefferson had stipulated in his will that his library at Monticello was to go to the University at his death, except for the books that the University already owned. These “duplicates” were, according to Jefferson’s will, to be divided between Jefferson’s grandson-in-laws, Nicholas P. Trist and Joseph Coolidge. Apparently, Wertenbaker was tasked to determine which of the books on Jefferson’s manuscript catalogue were already owned by the University, and hence, deemed “duplicates.” In late 1826, when Thomas Jefferson Randolph obtained permission from Rector James Madison and the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia to deposit Jefferson’s books temporarily at the University, we have reason to believe that only the books that were not already held by the University were placed in the Rotunda for safekeeping. The “duplicates” or the books marked by the lowercase “l” or the uppercase “L” were apparently held back at Monticello by the Jefferson family.

With this new understanding of the Retirement Library Catalogue, we have rendered the catalogue transcription on this site to reflect what we have come to understand as the three different views of this single manuscript:

(1) As at July 1826 at Jefferson’s death;

(2) The period, circa July to August 1826, when Jefferson’s family executes his will and has William Wertenbaker identify which books were already held at the University of Virginia; and

(3) January 1829, when Jefferson’s library is put on the auction block in Washington, D.C.


Retirement Library Catalogue from the Library of Congress

Transcription of the Retirement Library Catalogue


1. Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 17 May 1818, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.

2. Thomas Jefferson to David Bailie Warden, 27 February 1815, David Bailie Warden Papers, Maryland Historical Society. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 8:291-293.

3. Thomas Jefferson to John Vaughan, 1 March 1815, John Vaughan Papers, American Philosophical Society. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 8:301-302.

4. Referring to the burning of Washington by British troops on August 24, 1814, in which soldiers set fire to the Capitol, destroying the 3,000-volume congressional library there.

5. Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 10 June 1815, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 8:522-523.

6. Second Library: Offered for Sale at Public Auction, 27 February 1829, Series 7, volume 7. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.

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