April 13, 1743—Thomas Jefferson, a lifelong bibliophile who sparked one revolution in America and countless others the world over by declaring that "all men are created equal," began a life of fundamental paradox when he was born in Shadwell, Va., on a plantation owned by his slaveholder father, Peter Jefferson.
"The only birthday I ever commemorate is that of our Independence, the Fourth of July," the author of the Declaration of Independence said while serving in the White House. In one of the great ironies of American history, both Jefferson and his longtime friend and former political rival, John Adams, died on that second "birthday" in 1826, each unaware that the other was about to pass away.
A further irony: Jefferson was not only unable to rid his nation of an institution he had castigated in his youth, but incapable of ending his own fatal dependence on it in operating the estate he had built, Monticello.
Jefferson's personality was so multidimensional, his achievements so multitudinous, his times so tumultuous, and his legacy so ambivalent that I'll undoubtedly return, time and time again, with your indulgence, faithful reader, to his life. But as a professional librarian and literary aficionado, I'd like to focus today on one aspect of his existence: Books.
I have visited Monticello several times, most recently two and a half years ago, when I was struck in a new way by how fundamental Jefferson's library was to him. It offers a particularly vivid way of illustrating John F. Kennedy's famous quip, when greeting an assemblage of 49 Nobel Prize winners in April 1962, that it was “probably the greatest concentration of talent and genius in this house except for those times when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
The research of Jack McLaughlin, in Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, highlights just how staggering an achievement his library was for his time. In fact, there were three substantial libraries created by the Virginian in his lifetime: the first, inherited from his father, which was destroyed in the fire that consumed his birthplace Shadwell in 1770; a large general collection that he compiled over the next 45 years at Monticello; and a more specialized one, eventually numbering some 1,000 volumes, that he accumulated in his last decade.
The Monticello library comprises, along with Jefferson's bedroom, the "Greenhouse," and the "Cabinet," one of his favorite architectural forms, the octagon. Freely confessing to the "malady of bibliomania," Jefferson admitted, "I cannot live without books."
Most titles here are not, but his detailed lists made it easy for preservationists to reconstruct this. The books not only are in English, but also in French, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Old English.
Jefferson classified Massachusetts law books in the "foreign law" section of the library – a graphic illustration of his view of the original states and their place in the new republic. A high-backed red chair is a remnant from his term as Vice-President under Adams.
One reason why Jefferson could not free his slaves at his death was that he was entangled in $100,000 in debt—a fortune at the time—accumulated because he was as much a slave to his appetites—for the best furniture, best paintings and sculptures, and best food and wines (680 of the latter)—as his slaves were to him. Only one aspect of his collecting mania seems forgivable (or, at least, understandable) to me: his books. Even in this instance, however, as with so much else with Jefferson, certain aspects of their creation and dissemination are problematic.
Let’s start with how the books were shelved. McLaughlin notes that, breaking with the traditional practice of the time, Jefferson had them classified not by their size but by subject, because he didn’t want to waste any time locating them. The classification scheme he used, based on Francis Bacon’s system of knowledge, was eventually the same one adopted for the Library of Congress.
But how were those shelves created? You guessed it: through slave labor—more specifically, under the supervision of John Hemings, the half-brother of Sally (need we say more about her?), a talented artisan.
During Jefferson’s first term in office, the first Librarian of Congress, John James Beckley, was appointed at his behest – though, as I pointed out in an earlier post, the President did neither the office nor his country any favors by appointing to the job a political hack who had endeared himself to his Virginia patrons Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe by leaking the news of Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.
Even the far more lasting service to the institution that Jefferson rendered – the bargain-basement sale of 6,000 volumes from his own Monticello collection to Congress, after British troops burned its library during the War of 1812—was not without its nettlesome aspects: He did so at a point in his life when he was already financially hard pressed.
As a Virginia grandee, Jefferson was too mired in the mores of his own planter class to understand that libraries could be the province of anyone else besides white males. But eventually, the desires to inform oneself and improve one's life that lie at the heart of libraries would lead African-Americans on a long and tortuous road to freedom. In many ways, access to books still represents the most powerful weapon they—or any of us—possess as we seek the full American promise of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."