Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Wealth of Thomas Jefferson's Library

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.



  1. Hello Mark:
    All of this is amazing, as are your graphics which really do convey the size of Jefferson's library. What surprises us is that at the time so few people had any books to call their own.

  2. Jeffersons's Library is one of those in which I would not just want to gape or look at the architecture--I would want to take down books and start to read.

    Another amazing restored library is that of Horace Walpole, now in Farmington Connecticut, reconstituted by collector Wilmarth Lewis. It is now part of Yale University, and well worth a visit if you are near Hartford.
    --Road to Parnassus

  3. I forgot to mention...nice graphic with the red book and chart.--RtoP

  4. Notice that the bookcase is made of separate cases. This was to allow the books to be moved out of the house quickly and safely in the event of fire.

    Also, contemporary book collectors may be amused to know that Congress paid Jefferson not on the basis of the collective value of individual titles, but rather according to measurements of the sizes of the books. In other words, they were -- in as sense -- buying books "by the yard."

  5. All I can say as a lover of books is WOW! It is interesting to note the size of the books back in Jefferson's day.

  6. Hello Jane and Lance,

    Another way to gauge how unusual it was to own books is revealed in a biography of Benjamin Franklin. When he arrived in Philadelphia as a very young man, he brought with him a footlocker of books. That marked him as so interesting and unusual, that the governor asked to meet him.

  7. Hello Road to Parnassus - Thanks to you, and Jane & Lance for enjoying the graph!

    I would be interested in visiting Horace Walpole's library, and many other collections that are a part of Yale. Also in New England is the fine library assembled over generations by the Adams family.

  8. Thanks, The Ancient, for your comments. I did not know about the bookcases being designed for speedy evacuation, but that makes perfect sense.

    When the Library of Congress was looking at Jefferson's collection, those delegated to buy wanted to pick and choose. Jefferson replied that there would be no subject that a senator wouldn't be interested in.

  9. Hello Mr. David Toms - It's what you call "condensed reading material."

  10. Hello Mark - What clever graphics. I started trying to count the top and sides to do the maths but gave up...... I trust you. I wish I knew how to do things like that on the computer.
    From the book open on the reading table, it appears to be beautifully illustrated.

  11. Hi, Rosemary - My graph started out as a VERY large document in Adobe Illustrator, but thank goodness the program includes a scaling tool!

    Thanks for calling my attention to the handsomely engraved book on the reading stand (or perhaps that's a standing desk). I imagine the staff has to rotate books often, so as not to cause damage.

  12. Wow, that graphic stunned me, Mark. What an incredible library he must have owned. Of course it's the quality of the books that count, not so much the quantity. But I am assuming that Jefferson had good taste in his reading material.

    And equally obviously, it seems The Library of Congress was fire prone. What a shame.

  13. Hi, Yvette - Wikipedia's entry on the Library of Congress says that "Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating a wide variety of books, including ones in foreign languages and volumes of philosophy, science, literature..."

    He collected cookbooks and we know that he read, studied and copied from Andrea Palladio's "Four Books on Architecture." Jefferson also knew the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Alexander von Humbolt, so I'm guessing that he was gifted with a number of scientific books.

  14. that is remarkable- I love collecting books and can only hope to achieve a factions of the collection that TJ did.

  15. Hello, Ren - Part of what is remarkable, I think, is how all those books fit into Monticello. I've been there a couple of times have a hard time imagining how they were all squeezed in!

  16. Hello Mark,
    I have caught up and had my Ruffnerian fix. Utterly interesting, as usual, thank you.

  17. Thank you, Anyes - I hope you're having a well-deserved rest from all your restoration work!