It’s not often that the discovery of a collection of rare books makes national news – but when those books are Thomas Jefferson’s, even the Today Show takes notice.
This morning – on President’s Day – there was an announcement on the NBC news program that a large number of books belonging to our third president were discovered among the collections of Washington University in St. Louis.
That makes the university the third largest holder of Jefferson’s surviving book collection, after the Library of Congress in the District, and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
After a bit of sleuthing, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation – located at Jefferson’s home Monticello in Charlottesville – discovered 74 of those books at Washington University’s library. They had been donated in 1880 from the collection of a husband of one of Jefferson’s granddaughters, but lost to historians for 130 years.
It turns out that they took a circuitous route there – from Charlottesville to Washington, D.C. to Boston, and finally to St. Louis. Missouri was a fitting repository for the collection – it was part of the territory in the Louisiana Purchase bought by Jefferson during his presidency.
Jefferson was the nation’s first bibliophile president, and once famously declared, “I cannot live without books.” When he retired from the presidency in 1809, the private library at Monticello was the largest and best in the nation.
A few years later, during the War of 1812, the British invaded the District and burned most of the city’s government buildings, including the White House and Capitol. The Library of Congress, housed in the Capitol building, also went up in flames.
The only library that could even begin to replace Congress’s collection – both in size and subject-matter – was in the bookroom of Monticello. Its owner decided to sell more than 6,000 volumes to the federal government, and that’s how Jefferson’s library became the nation’s library.
Jefferson let Congress set the price, but stipulated that they had to take the entirety of his library – including books on philosophy, religion, art, architecture, basically everything under the sun.
“There is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” he wrote in explanation.
It was his way of trying to impose his intellect on Congress, and still guides the Library’s philosophy today. Every book copyrighted in the U.S., regardless of subject matter, is deposited into the Library of Congress.
There was some opposition in Congress – one representative objected to institutionalizing Jefferson’s “infidel philosophy,” and buying books that were “good, bad, and indifferent…in languages which many can not read, and most ought not.” (One could envision a similar debate taking place in today’s Congress.)
When Congress finally authorized the purchase after a close vote, they had undoubtedly gotten a deal. Not only had they doubled the size of their original library, they now had the most varied and interesting collection in the entire country. Today, it’s the largest library in the world, with more than 140 million items.
Although the sale was an altruistic move on Jefferson’s part, it also helped him alleviate some of his mounting debts. But, true to his word, Jefferson couldn’t live with empty book shelves. He began amassing a retirement collection of more than a thousand volumes. He hoped to bequeath that library to the public institution he called “the hobby of my old age,” the University of Virginia.
UVa is actually my alma mater, and where I had my first job as a tour guide giving historical and admissions tours. I also became a guide at Monticello during my last summer and year of college, and so spent a lot of time in Jefferson’s bookroom.
I happened to be in Charlottesville on Saturday visiting a friend, and took a stroll on the grounds of what’s known locally as Mr. Jefferson’s University.
I stopped by the Rotunda, a beautiful domed building that Jefferson designed as a library at the center of what he called the Academical Village. It’s a red brick, scaled-down version of the Pantheon in Rome, one of
Jefferson’s favorite buildings from antiquity (and later the model for the Jefferson Memorial in D.C.).
The Rotunda was meant to inherit Jefferson’s retirement library, but very few of his books actually made it there. He died more than $100,000 in debt, and most of the collection was dispersed after his death at an auction in Washington in 1829.
It was from that collection that Jefferson’s granddaugher Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge and her husband Joseph Coolidge bought the volumes that ended up at Washington University. The books all bore the mark of Jefferson, with his initials inscribed in the corner of the pages, and even his notations and comments in the margins.
Two of those books – Freart de Chambray’s “Parallels of Architecture” and Andrea Palladio’s “Arhictecture of Palladio” – he used to help design the Rotunda and other University of Virginia buildings. He lent them to his workmen with his own mathematical notations written inside. These were the second copies of the books he had owned – the first ones he had used to design Monticello, but were among the volumes he sold to the Library of Congress.
The collection held by Congress also suffered a devastating loss in 1851, when a Christmas Eve fire destroyed about two-thirds of Jefferson’s original volumes. His surviving books are held in the grand Italian Renaissance-style building that was constructed to house the Library of Congress in 1897. It was appropriately named the Thomas Jefferson Building, in honor of our third president’s legacy as the nation’s early librarian-in-chief.
A few years ago the Thomas Jefferson Building was home to an amazing exhibit on Jefferson’s legacy. The Library of Congress is also attempting to recreate Jefferson’s original collection, book by book.
After Jefferson’s first library arrived in the District in 1815, he wrote that “an interesting treasure” had been added to the city. He was referring to what he called “the choicest collection of books in the US.”
You can tell a lot about a person from the contents of his library. Jefferson’s books are treasured today not so much for what they tell us about the world, but for what they can tell us about the man.
Although much of that treasure has been lost to time and circumstance, a large piece of it was found in St. Louis. In the process, we also found a bit more of Thomas Jefferson himself.