“I cannot live without books.” – Thomas Jefferson
Did you know that one of America’s most influential founding fathers was also one of early America’s most extraordinary antique book collectors?
That’s right, Thomas Jefferson, acclaimed statesman and third President of the United States, was also an avid reader and book collector. Over the years and throughout his career, Jefferson amassed an awe-inspiring collection of books covering an enormous range of subjects.
During his lifetime, Jefferson’s library was the greatest private book collection in young America, and to put his immense collection in order, Jefferson employed the use of an organization library system designed by one of England’s best-known philosophers, Sir Francis Bacon.
During the Revolutionary War and post-war period, Jefferson continued to acquired literally thousands of books on all manner of topics such as history, philosophy and fine arts to name a few. Arranged on endless shelves in his home library at Monticello, Jefferson, who was quoted as saying “I cannot live without books,” devoured all manner of reading, helping to broaden his knowledge of the world beyond what he was able to absorb in his own life experience.
“… unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the US.”
Following Jefferson’s presidency, the British returned to the shores of the United States and, during the War of 1812, burned the nation’s Capitol and the Library of Congress, sending all 3,000 volumes of Congress’ growing library up in flames.
In what was a pretty incredible gesture, Thomas Jefferson wrote to newspaper publisher Samuel H. Smith asking him to offer Congress his personal library as a replacement for the books that were destroyed. Jefferson stated that he would accept any price determined by Congress, telling Smith that “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from this collection . . . there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
Congress buys Jefferson’s antique books for $23,950 (in 1815, mind you)
While Jefferson’s collection of antique books numbered somewhere between a whopping 9,000 and 10,000 volumes, historical records indicate that Congress ultimately purchased only 6,487 books, effectively doubling what had originally been in the nation’s library.
The price tag? $23,950 – that’s roughly $319,612 in 2017 dollars!
It seems that after selling his antique books, Jefferson keenly felt their absence in his library and began collecting anew. He managed to amass another several thousand books, and it was this version of his library that was sold at auction in 1829 following his death.
As history tells us, fires were a regular presence in 19th century life, and unfortunately, on Christmas Eve, 1851, yet another fire turned two-thirds of Congress’ 6,487-piece Jefferson collection into ashes.
Visit Washington, D.C. to see what’s left of Jefferson’s library
In the 175+ years since that auction, portions of the library have scattered across the globe and into the hands of private antique book collectors.
Thankfully, the surviving volumes from Jefferson’s library are currently part of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and have been part of an ongoing public exhibition since 2008. The Library of Congress is in fact attempting to reassemble the collection as it was originally sold to the Congress in 1815.