|Photograph by Langdon Clay | Jefferson's Monticello, William Howard Adams, 1983|
There is a great difference between being schooled and being educated, and while Thomas Jefferson was not the best schooled American of his day, he was very likely the best educated. His pursuit of knowledge was relentless, and along the way, he amassed the country's largest book collection.
The average American family of Jefferson's day likely owned only one book, the Bible. A person of success might own three or four or five, and don't forget that two generations after Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln was walking miles to borrow just one book. Thomas Jefferson owned thousands.
One way to gauge the extent of Jefferson's library is by the number of books that he sold to the Library of Congress. When much of the library was destroyed by fire during the War of 1812, Jefferson offered to sell his entire collection to make up the difference. Jefferson's mounting debts made such a sale mutually beneficial.
Below is the number of books with which Jefferson parted.
|The 6,487 books that Jefferson sold to the Library of Congress|
With the sale of those 6,487 books (for $23,950), Jefferson still retained a couple thousand! He kept them under lock and key in his private quarters — a suite of bedroom, study and library. Truly honored guests at Monticello were invited into the inner sanctum for a private tour.
At his death, Jefferson was again hugely in debt, and his family was required to sell what remained of the library, as well as Monticello itself.
In 1851, a second fire at the Library of Congress destroyed approximately two-thirds of Jefferson's books. Today, with a generous grant from Jerry and Gene Jones, the Library of Congress is in the process of rebuilding Jefferson's collection as it was originally sold.