Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's Books

Years ago, a clergy colleague exclaimed, “I just don’t understand how people get into credit card debt.” Well, Sherlock, it’s easy: you’re having financial difficulties, possibly through circumstances beyond your control, and you still need to buy things. Some of those things you need---like professional clothes for your work---and some things brighten your day and ease your worries, like books. Spending beyond your resources may not be admirable, but it should be easy to understand why it happens.

Thomas Jefferson had a lot of debt, well over a $1 million in today’s money. (The figure when he died in 1826 was $107,000.) He was wealthy in property (sadly, including slaves), but farming brought an inadequate income, plus he had inherited his father-in-law’s debts, was forced to take on a deceased friend’s unpaid debt, and others owed him money. Adding to these and other factors, he loved buying wine, working on his large home, and furnishing it. He spent beyond his means and resources. He also loved books and bought them by the hundreds throughout his life. Famously, he sold his library of over 6700 volumes to Congress after the British burned the Capitol in 1814, destroying the congressional library. Then, Jefferson bought more books, just as he did when his first library was destroyed when his childhood home burned in 1770. When you understand Jefferson's passion for learning and studying, it's easy to understand his passionate acquisition.

When my family and I visited Monticello this summer---the first time ever for my daughter, and the first time in many years for my wife and me---I picked up a monograph in the gift shop, Jefferson’s Books by Douglas L. Wilson. I already admired Wilson’s 1998 book Honor’s Voice about Lincoln’s early years.

Jefferson is such a fascinating, perplexing person to study, and if you love having books, reading about Jefferson’s bookbuying is actually kind of thrilling! It made me so happy to read about Jefferson's drive to collect books. He craved knowledge and he also wanted to build a really comprehensive library that would serve “the public weal” (p. 45). One of his slaves remembered that Jefferson would have open books laid out around the floor (p. 28). Wilson recounts how Jefferson wanted to keep abreast of agricultural techniques, to preserve legal information, to collect material on Native Americans, and many other subjects. In fact, in 1783 Jefferson developed a complex classification table “classed from the Faculties of the mind,” and organized his books, which included history, religion, agriculture, chemistry, surgery and medicine, zoology, botany, minerology, law, mathematics and geometry, physics, and other sciences, as well as gardening, the arts, music, poetry, oratory, and criticism (pp. 37-41).

He sold his many books to Congress for $23,950 in 1815. Wilson notes that about a third of Jefferson’s donation survived an 1851 Capitol fire, but his contribution became the nucleus of “a great national library, one of the finest and most accessible in the world” (p. 52). After his major library was shipped to Congress, he continued to buy books for his “retirement library,” reflecting his current interests. Although Monticello and his contents were sold after his death, the house has several of Jefferson’s books on display.

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