Thomas Jefferson’s Books

From the Lecture Series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen Guelzo, PhD, Gettysburg College

Thomas Jefferson might as well have been born reading. Not because he was born wealthy and had time to read, but rather his father wanted to ensure his son had a better education.

Stack old book and candle. Education
(Image: Poznyakov/Shutterstock)

Jefferson’s Education

Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson, is described by Thomas as being of a strong mind, sound judgment, and eager after information, and though, he said, “my father’s education had been quite neglected, he read much and improved himself.”

That same defect would not be repeated in the case of Thomas Jefferson. When the boy was nine, he was dispatched to the Latin school operated by the Reverend William Douglas in nearby Northam parish, then to the school of the Reverend James Maury, rector of Fredericksville parish, where he had mastery of Latin and Greek fastened onto his mind. In 1760, he was packed off to Williamsburg and the College of William & Mary.

The rear of the Wren Building at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, USA.
In 1760, Thomas Jefferson started studying at the Collage of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. (Image: Jrcla2/Public domain)

James Blair, the first president of William & Mary, corresponded with Englishman John Locke, author of Two Treatises of Government. But little in the college’s curriculum reflected that connection, and when Jefferson arrived there in 1760 as a student, the tiny faculty were preoccupied more with adapting the new sciences to the rule of the old logic rather than emancipating the sciences from the old logic. Jefferson’s real education came from two sources with only tenuous ties to the College. One was George Wythe, under whom he studied law, and the other was Virginia’s lieutenant governor Francis Fauquier. Williamsburg was also the colonial capital; this is why Jefferson had exposure to the lieutenant governor. Fauquier was a man whom Jefferson respected as the ablest man who ever filled that office.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, Wondrium.

First page from Wealth of Nations, 1776 London edition
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite reads. (Image: Gerhard Streminger/Public domain)

Jefferson became part of Fauquier’s circle and owed much instruction to the habitual conversations around Fauquier’s table. How much that instruction revolved around Enlightenment poles can be seen from the first book list Jefferson compiled for a London bookseller, which ordered “Locke on Government” and Oeuvres de Montesquieu. And there was also a much longer reading list he drew up a year later listing LockeMontesquieu, and Adam Smith. Thirty-six years after that, his favorite reading suggestions were still “Locke on Government,” Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and Beccaria On Crimes and Punishments. Thomas Jefferson had read his way into the Enlightenment.

Page 2 of A summary view of the rights of British America
Page 2 of “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” written by Thomas Jefferson in 1774 about the colonial resistance movement. (Image: Jefferson, Thomas, et al. A summary view of the rights of British America/Library of Congress)

Enlightenment politics came easier for Americans than Englishmen because the history of the British North American colonies seemed to follow precisely the stages of social formation that Locke had described in the Two Treatises. The British government failed to understand that, and attempted from 1763 onward to govern the colonies as though they were an inferior segment of an imperial hierarchy. This not only compelled Jefferson to join the colonial resistance movement, but set him to write in 1774 one of the most resounding statements of that resistance, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.”

Our ancestors,” Jefferson announced in good Lockean fashion, “possessed a right which nature has given to all men, of establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.

...the people, and not the king, are the real sovereigns of America.  —Thomas Jefferson Click To Tweet

They, the people, and not the king, are the real sovereigns of America. “Kings,” Jefferson explained, “are the servants, not the proprietors of the people.” The reputation Jefferson earned from the Summary View earned him the ticket as one of Virginia’s delegates to the 2nd Continental Congress. It was there, in 1776, that he was chosen to draft the most important statement of American defiance, the Declaration of Independence, using a portable desk which now resides in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Learn more: Thomas Jefferson’s Books

The opening of the original printing of the Declaration, printed on July 4, 1776 under Jefferson's supervision
The opening of the original draft of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. (Image: Continental Congress/Public domain)

The Declaration was Jefferson’s finest statement of Enlightenment politics. We know these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” not as members of layers of a hierarchy, but as natural equals in that original state of nature, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We were created with rights, not status or qualities; rights, which we receive directly from our Creator, and not from kings or nobles.

Learn more about: Benjamin Franklin’s Leather Apron

A painting of Thomas Jefferson done in 1800 by Rembrandt Peale
(Image: Rembrandt Peale/Public domain)

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The needs of the people, not the decree of a divinely ordained monarch, form the basis and rationale of a government. “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” So, if and when a government loses its focus on serving the interests of the people, the people are fully authorized, as that government’s real makers, to unmake that government and form a new one. The new government Americans would make would be a republic, shorn of kings and nobility.

The curious thing about Jefferson’s political eloquence is that Jefferson the man did not particularly care for politics or commerce once they had to be translated into everyday affairs. “Science is my passion,” he once said, “politics my duty.” And it was not a duty he found very agreeable.

Common Questions About Thomas Jefferson’s Books

Q: How big was Thomas Jefferson’s book collection?

Thomas Jefferson had a library of around 9-10,000 books.

Q: How were Thomas Jefferson’s books destroyed?

Thomas Jefferson survived two fires, the second claiming almost two-thirds of his remaining 6,547 books.

Q: What became of Thomas Jefferson’s books?

Thomas Jefferson donated his remaining books to the Library of Congress, which became one of the world’s largest libraries.

Q: Who built the Library of Congress?

Jesuit priests sold 272 slaves to build the Library of Congress.

This article was updated on June 29, 2020

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