Thomas Jefferson and His Books

"I cannot live without a book" is just one of many famous quotes attributed to Thomas Jefferson. The only record of him ever saying such a thing is found in a letter he penned to John Addams on June 10th, 1815. He wrote, "I cannot live without books: but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object." This wasn't just something Jefferson believed to be true, he lived by those words. He refused to live or work without books. He viewed books as tools and absolute essentials. He read books to expand his mind, obtain new skills, and learn about various topics.

When Jefferson's birthplace and family home, Shadwell, burned to the ground in 1770, he lost all of his books in the fire. This grieved Jefferson, however, within three short years his library at Monticello contained more than 1,200 newly acquired books from his travels. He had an incredible dedication to scholarship. It's been estimated that he owned between 9,000 to 10,000 books in his lifetime. In his day, Jefferson had the largest and most extensive private library in America. In 1814, after British troops set fire to the Library of Congress which contained roughly 3,000 books, Thomas Jefferson offered the books in his library as a replacement. In 1815, Jefferson sold his 6,487 books to Congress for $23,950. He, of course, began to buy books for his new library soon after.

Mark Dimmunation, the Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, had this to say about Jefferson: "His love of books and bibliography, his travels and his worldly learnedness, and his ample means provided him the unique opportunity to build a private library that was truly unrivaled in America. He was not buying first editions, the best editions, or the best copies. He wanted working texts, ordinary books for the 18th century. He was not building a gentleman's library for show. He was building a scholar's library to meet his needs as a philosopher, statesman, diplomat, scientist, planter, architect, musician, and scholar. He truly is the American enlightenment. He embodied the philosophy of the entire 18th century. He believed concerted rational thought focused on a problem would produce a reasonable solution. He studied the classics in order to construct his understanding of democracy and the republic in very much the same way he would approach a problem with his crops or a scientific question."

After the second fire in 1851 at the Library of Congress, two-thirds of Jefferson's books perished. Now the quest to find copies of his books and rebuild his library continues. If you look closely at the photographs I've shared of Thomas Jefferson's book collection, each one contains a ribbon within its pages. The dark green ribbon indicates that the book physically belonged to Jefferson, he owned it. The golden ribbon indicates that it's an exact copy: same edition and printing press. A black box with a title indicates that the book is still missing.

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