Jefferson, Thomas and Books


“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson declared in a letter to John Adams on June 10, 1815. To the man who had authored the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom and founded the University of Virginia, books and reading were “a necessary of life.” Jefferson relied on his books as his chief source of inspiration and practical knowledge, and believed that education was the means to an enlightened and informed citizenry that would help preserve democracy. Jefferson owned between 9,000 and 10,000 books in his lifetime—some were inherited from his father, Peter Jefferson, and his mentor, George Wythe; others were acquired in Williamsburg; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New York City; or Europe. Their subjects included history, philosophy, law, architecture, science and literature. In 1815, Jefferson sold his 6,500-volume library to Congress to replace the one that was destroyed when the British burned the U.S. Capitol on August 24, 1814. He then replenished his personal supply of books by building a smaller collection that reflected his retirement interests. The year before he died, he drew up a catalog of books for the library at the University of Virginia. The list, composed of 6,860 volumes with an estimated total cost of more than $24,000, was the culmination of his lifetime of reading.

Jefferson’s Intellectual Development

Jefferson was born and bred during the Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason), a cultural movement that originated in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries among intellectuals who sought to reform human society through reason and the advancement of knowledge. The ideals of the Enlightenment had a profound impact on Jefferson and influenced the contents of his library.


His father, Peter Jefferson, was a surveyor and self-made man who lacked a formal education but “read much and improved himself.” Like many children of wealthy Virginia planters in the eighteenth century, Jefferson was classically educated. From age five, he was tutored in the basics of English grammar, spelling, and composition while living with his family and cousins at Tuckahoe plantation in Goochland County. When his family returned to their Shadwell home in Albemarle County in 1752, Jefferson attended the Reverend William Douglas’s Latin school, where he learned “the rudiments” of Latin, Greek, and French. After his father’s death in 1757, Jefferson was sent to study with the Reverend James Maury, whom Jefferson referred to as a “correct classical scholar,” at his school in Fredericksville Parish at the borders of Albemarle and Louisa counties. At fourteen, Jefferson would have become familiar with many of the volumes in his father’s Shadwell library. But it was Maury’s extensive library of about 400 books and 44 pamphlets that enlarged Jefferson’s intellectual world. During this formative period Jefferson developed his lifelong love for classical literature, poetry, history, mathematics, and geography. He read Horace, Virgil, Cicero, and Ovid, and copied out passages in his commonplace book, along with favorite verses from poets and playwrights such as Alexander Pope, John Milton, John Dryden, and William Shakespeare, among others. He later described reading the Latin and Greek authors in their original language as a “sublime luxury” and “a rich source of delight.”

In 1760, Jefferson enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and for two years came under the tutelage of William Small. Jefferson described Small, the professor of natural philosophy and mathematics, as a man “profound in most of the useful branches of science,” with “an enlarged & liberal mind.” Small introduced Jefferson to the latest developments in science and mathematics, ethics and natural law, and to the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers and empiricists such as Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke. Sixty years later, Jefferson would reflect on Small’s presence at the college as “my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life.”

In 1762, Jefferson began reading law in Williamsburg under Small’s friend George Wythe, who would become Jefferson’s mentor and “most affectionate friend through life.” There were no law schools at the time, and students trained by apprenticing with a practicing lawyer. Under Wythe, Jefferson studied English common law and equity. He learned about court procedure and precedents and transcribed passages out of procedural manuals, legal treatises, and reports in his legal commonplace book.

Jefferson was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767 and was elected to represent Albemarle County in the House of Burgesses the following year. As a practicing lawyer and lawmaker, Jefferson found himself at the center of Virginia politics. The overwhelming majority of histories and legal authorities that Jefferson read and consulted held up as the historic ideal the mythic Anglo-Saxon democracy in England prior to the Norman invasion of 1066: a society governed by an elected monarch and a popular assembly, where land-tenure systems were not controlled by any one sovereign or government. Enlightenment philosophers also looked to the golden age of Athens and republican Rome for guidance in their quest for ideas and solutions in facing issues of freedom and self-government. In addition to Greek and Roman historians such as Tacitus and Thucydides, Jefferson also valued the study of modern history, particularly French and British, in addressing the contemporary political and social issues of his time.

As Jefferson witnessed the increasing tensions between colony and Crown, he drew on his reading of political history, government, and natural law by individuals such as Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke; Algernon Sidney; and John Locke to write what was to become A Summary View of the Rights of British America.

Declaration of Independence 

In 1776, Jefferson expanded on these arguments when, as one of Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress, he was asked to draft the Declaration of Independence. As a member of the General Assembly, Jefferson drew on his understanding of Anglo-Saxon history and natural law when drafting a constitution for Virginia and, following its break from Britain, revising its laws to rid it of all vestiges of feudal practices. His study of the Saxon past also contributed to his distrust of the established church. In his Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, he argued that “the Almighty God hath created the mind free,” while his draft of the Virginia Constitution of 1776 stated that Virginians should have “full and free liberty of religious opinion” and not be “compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution.”

Books for a New Nation

In 1784, Jefferson was posted to France to negotiate commercial treaties with foreign powers in Europe. He had with him his library catalog, which served as an inventory of books he already owned, and a list of books he hoped to acquire. He quickly recognized this overseas assignment as his golden opportunity to fill that list, which expanded as Jefferson came into contact with the works of members of the French literati and scientific community, such as the Comte de Volney, Destutt de Tracy, the Marquis de Condorcet, and the Duc de La Rochefoucauld. While abroad, Jefferson acquired at least 2,000 volumes on a wide array of subjects ranging from cosmology to steam engines. Years later he remembered his book-buying sprees in this manner: While residing in Paris, I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two, in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hands, and putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare & valuable in every science. besides this, I had standing orders during the whole time I was in Europe, on it’s principal book-marts, particularly Amsterdam, Frankfort, Madrid and London, for such works relating to America as could not be found in Paris.

Portrait of James Madison 

He acquired books on behalf of American friends such as Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, supplying the latter with texts that proved invaluable when he helped draft the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

Jefferson was often sought after for advice on what to read. His recommended reading lists provide insights into his reading preferences and what he deemed foundational, such as the one he drew up for Robert Skipwith in August 1771. He took an active interest in the intellectual and social development of his children and grandchildren, often stipulating detailed reading plans as part of their daily routine. He took it upon himself to supervise the education of his nephews, Peter Carr and Dabney Carr Jr., after the death of their father. He created suggested reading lists for them and for other young men interested in pursuing the law, such as John Garland Jefferson, for whom he provided a reading list in June 1790. In 1802, while serving his first term as president of the United States, he was asked by the congressional library committee to develop a list of books for the Library of Congress.

Ruins of the U.S. Capitol 

Jefferson would have an even bigger influence on the Library of Congress in 1815, when he sold his personal library to the nation to replace the one that had burned when British troops set fire to the Capitol building on August 24, 1814. On the subject of selling his library, Jefferson remarked to Samuel Harrison Smith, “an interesting treasure is added to your city, now become the depository of unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the US. and I hope it will not be without some general effect on the literature of our country.”

Through to his retirement, Jefferson continued to promote to the next generation the “rights of man” he and other founders had fought for in the American Revolution by directing “the studies of such young men as ask it,” allowing them the use of his library and counsel, and endeavoring “to keep their attention fixed on the main objects of all science, the freedom & happiness of man,” so as to “keep ever in view the sole objects of all legitimate government.”

His Library Collections

Jefferson owned between 9,000 and 10,000 books in his lifetime. His first library was largely destroyed by fire when his family home at Shadwell burned in 1770. It included forty-nine volumes inherited from his father, Peter Jefferson, as well as books he acquired in Williamsburg as a student at the College of William and Mary (1760–1762), while reading law (1762–1767), as a practicing lawyer, and as a member of the House of Burgesses late in the 1760s. Among about 400 volumes lost in the blaze were his law books and dictionaries, as well as books on history, politics, religion, architecture, agriculture, and poetry. The library was valued at 200 pounds.


Despite the devastating loss, Jefferson lost no time in rebuilding his library. By August 1773, he recorded a count of 1,256 books in his library at Monticello, his Albemarle County residence. By March 1783, that number had doubled to 2,640. Jefferson further enlarged his library holdings by acquiring more than 2,000 volumes between 1784 and 1789, when he served as minister plenipotentiary and then minister to France. After returning from Europe, Jefferson continued to acquire books in Philadelphia, where he served as secretary of state to George Washington (1790–1793) and as vice president to John Adams (1797–1801), and in Washington, D.C., where he served two terms as the nation’s president (1801–1809). In 1806, he inherited 649 volumes from the library of his law tutor, George Wythe. From this bequest, Jefferson gave away 400 volumes to family members and other individuals, retaining 249 volumes for himself.

By 1814, Jefferson’s library at Monticello had grown to more than 6,500 volumes, making his one of the largest private collections of the time. On learning that the 3,000-volume congressional library had been destroyed when the British burned the U.S. Capitol in 1814, Jefferson offered to sell his library to replace the one that was lost. For fifty years, he had painstakingly assembled a collection that, according to Jefferson, had “no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Amid vocal Federalist objections, Congress finally agreed to purchase Jefferson’s library for the princely sum of $23,950.

Naturally, Jefferson’s lifelong compulsion to feed his “canine appetite for reading” did not stop with the sale of his library to Congress in 1815. While preparing to send his books to their new home in Washington, Jefferson was already planning a replacement library, his third and final one at Monticello. Between 1815 and 1819, Jefferson tapped booksellers in Europe and in metropolitan centers like Philadelphia and New York to replenish his empty bookshelves. By the time of his death in 1826, this reconstituted library had grown to some 1,600 volumes. A quarter of the size of the library he sold to Congress, it represented Jefferson’s retirement interests over the last eleven years of his life. He viewed it as a smaller collection, “where amusement, and not use,” was the only future object.


Besides the library at Monticello, Jefferson also maintained a satellite library at his Poplar Forest retreat in Bedford County. Beginning around 1811, Jefferson began bringing books from Monticello for the petit-format library he kept in the drawing room there. Many of these were collected works in small format by Jefferson’s favorite Greek, Latin, British, and Italian poets, as well as works by French philosophers.

Library Organization

Jefferson acquired and read books on a wide range of subjects, most notably law, politics, history, architecture, science, mathematics, agriculture, botany, medicine, commerce, religion, and literature. He organized his library according to a classification scheme based on Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (1674) and very likely also on an expanded scheme by Jean Lerond d’Alembert in the monumental Encyclopédie (1751). Jefferson divided human knowledge into three major categories: history, philosophy, and fine arts, which corresponded to Bacon’s “faculties of the soul,” namely, memory, reason, and imagination. In his library catalogs, each category was subdivided into chapters. Individual titles within each chapter were listed according to an arrangement he referred to as “sometimes analytical, sometimes chronological, & sometimes a combination of both.” This placed the titles in an order that reflected their relationship to a subject and to each other, whether historically, chronologically, or by some other analytical connection. On the shelves, they were arranged according to size. Duodecimos occupied the top shelves, octavos and the quartos in the middle ranges below them, followed by large folios on the bottom shelves. Extra-large folios were shelved separately.

Early Sketch of Monticello 

In the first iteration of Monticello, built between 1769 and early in the 1780s, Jefferson’s library was one large room located on the second floor. In the redesigned Monticello, constructed largely between 1796 and 1809, Jefferson relocated his library to the ground floor and integrated it with his bedchamber and cabinet (study). Apparently, books were everywhere, stacked high on tables and on the floor. One of Jefferson’s slaves, Isaac Jefferson, recalled, “Old Master had abundance of books: sometimes would have twenty of ’em down on the floor at once: read fust one, then tother.” His revolving bookstand allowed him to consult up to five volumes at a time.

Unlike George Wythe, Jefferson did not use a bookplate to indicate ownership of his books. Except for the books in his first library, where he wrote, “Ex Libris Thomae Jefferson,” on the title page, Jefferson typically indicated his ownership of a volume subtly by adding his initial T in front of the I-quire signature in a book, and where a T-quire signature was present, by adding his initial I—the Latin equivalent of J—after it. (Each quire—the folded leaves of paper that are then sewn together into a book—was signed with a letter or number to indicate to the bookbinder its placement in the finished volume.) Where quires were signed in numerals instead of alphabets, he would place his initial T in front of the first quire that was numbered “1.”

The Italian Architect Andrea Palladio

As a self-taught architect, he depended on his architecture books for his building designs. While working with Jefferson on the President’s House in Washington, D.C., Benjamin Henry Latrobe complained of Jefferson’s strict adherence to his sources when he wrote, “Jefferson was an excellent architect out of books,” and “I am cramped in this design by his prejudices in favor of the architecture of the old french books, out of which he fishes everything.” As president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797 to 1815, Jefferson received countless scientific treatises and pamphlets from scientists and authors eager to hear his ideas or receive an endorsement of theirs. On the arts, he readily admitted, “You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen.”

Jefferson was fascinated with languages and philology. He read in seven languages—English, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and Anglo-Saxon. He collected Indian vocabularies, and owned dictionaries and grammars in languages such as Arabic, Welsh, and Gaelic. His granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph recalled, “Books were at all times his chosen companions, and his acquaintance with many languages gave him great power of selection.”

His Legacy

Virtual Tour of the Academical Village at the University of Virginia 

Jefferson believed early on that an informed citizenry was key in preserving the nation’s fledgling democracy, and he proposed a system of public education, which included a plan for a university.

Jefferson’s vision was finally realized with the establishment of the University of Virginia, an institution “based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind,” not afraid “to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” His plan for the university included a library housed in the central Rotunda. The catalogue of books Jefferson drew up in 1825 for the library, with recommendations from University of Virginia faculty, was the culmination of his lifetime of reading. It totaled 6,860 volumes at an estimated cost of more than $24,000.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826. Among the books he was reading when he died were The Complete Collection of Political and Literary Pamphlets, by Paul-Louis Courier; The Life and Speeches of the eminent French patriot and orator, General Foy; Aristotle’s Politica; and the works of Seneca. He had stipulated in his will that his retirement library at Monticello was to become part of the University of Virginia’s collection after his death. In an effort to settle his debts, it was dispersed at auction in Washington, D.C., from February 27 to March 11, 1829, with the remainder sold off later in a smaller sale held in Philadelphia on December 3, 1831. His Poplar Forest house, along with the contents of the library, became the property of Jefferson’s grandson Francis Eppes, who put 675 volumes from the library up for sale in New York City in 1873.

Thomas Jefferson is tutored in the basics of English grammar, spelling, and composition alongside his siblings and cousins at Tuckahoe, the Randolph family plantation in Goochland County.
Thomas Jefferson attends Reverend William Douglas's Latin school in Saint James Northam Parish, in Goochland County, where he learns the rudiments of Latin, Greek, and French.
Thomas Jefferson inherits his father's library of forty-nine books and maps.
Thomas Jefferson attends the school of classical scholar Reverend James Maury in Fredericksville Parish, located at the borders of Albemarle and Louisa counties. Maury's library, to which Jefferson has access, contains about 400 books and 44 pamphlets.
Thomas Jefferson studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
Thomas Jefferson studies law in Williamsburg under the tutelage of George Wythe.
After being elected to the House of Burgesses from Albemarle County, Thomas Jefferson acquires books from London on history, government, and parliamentary procedure.
February 1, 1770
A fire destroys the house at Shadwell, in Albemarle County, including most of the books in Thomas Jefferson's first library—about 400 volumes.
June 1776
Thomas Jefferson drafts the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson drafts a bill "for establishing religious freedom" as part of an effort to revise Virginia's colonial laws in order to remove vestiges of monarchy and align them more closely with the state's republican principles and its new, independent status.
Thomas Jefferson acquires a near complete set of the Virginia Gazette from the estate of Reverend William Willie and expresses interest in acquiring books from the library of Reverend Samuel Henley, a purchase that is eventually completed in 1785.
March 6, 1783
Thomas Jefferson records in his library catalog a count of 2,640 books in his Monticello library, located on the second floor of the house.
May 10, 1784
Thomas Jefferson sells forty-six books, mainly French works on natural law, to James Monroe before leaving to take up his new diplomatic appointment in Paris.
August 1784—September 1789
Thomas Jefferson serves first as minister plenipotentiary to negotiate commercial treaties with foreign powers, and then as minister to France.
Thomas Jefferson publishes Notes on the State of Virginia in Paris.
Thomas Jefferson publishes his work A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States.
Thomas Jefferson prepares a catalog of books to be acquired for the Library of Congress while in his first term as U.S. president.
June 12, 1806
Thomas Jefferson learns that he has inherited 649 books from the library of his law tutor and mentor, George Wythe.
Thomas Jefferson moves his library to his Book Room in Monticello's southeast wing.
Thomas Jefferson begins to transfer books from Monticello to his Poplar Forest retreat in Bedford County to form his petit-format library.
Thomas Jefferson prepares a fair copy of his library catalog of the books he held in his Monticello library.
January 30, 1815
Thomas Jefferson sells his Monticello library, which numbers more than 6,500 volumes, to Congress to replace the library that was destroyed when the British set fire to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. His books fetch a sum of $23,950.
Thomas Jefferson rebuilds his third and final library at Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson completes his version of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly referred to as The Jefferson Bible.
ca. February—April 1820
Thomas Jefferson creates a manuscript catalog to record the titles in his third library.
At Thomas Jefferson's request, Nicholas P. Trist, Jefferson's personal secretary and grandson-in-law, draws up a list of 6,860 books Jefferson has determined, with recommendations from faculty, should be acquired for the University of Virginia's library.
March 16—17, 1826
Thomas Jefferson writes his last will and testament. He leaves some 1,600 books to the University of Virginia and to his grandsons-in-law, Joseph Coolidge and Nicholas P. Trist. His Poplar Forest library is left to his grandson Francis Eppes.
July 4, 1826
Thomas Jefferson dies at Monticello.
October 7, 1826
Thomas Jefferson's grandson and executor, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, obtains permission from the University of Virginia board of visitors to withhold Jefferson's bequest and to have his books temporarily stored at the university, on the understanding that these may need to be withdrawn and sold to settle Jefferson's debts.
December 1828
Books that had belonged to Thomas Jefferson on deposit at the University of Virginia are reclaimed for sale.
February 27—March 11, 1829
Nathaniel P. Poor sells Thomas Jefferson's third library at auction in Washington, D.C.
December 3, 1831
Moses Thomas sells the remaining books from Thomas Jefferson's third library at auction in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
December 24, 1851
A fire at the Library of Congress destroys two-thirds of the books Thomas Jefferson sold to the nation in 1815.
November 5—6, 1873
Thomas Jefferson's grandson Francis Eppes puts up 675 volumes from Jefferson's Poplar Forest library for sale at auction in New York City by George A. Leavitt & Co.
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APA Citation:
Tay, Endrina. Jefferson, Thomas and Books. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/jefferson-thomas-and-books.
MLA Citation:
Tay, Endrina. "Jefferson, Thomas and Books" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, February 23
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