The Daily Need

A founding father’s books discovered in Missouri library

Researchers announced Monday that 74 volumes in the rare books collection at the Washington University in St. Louis originally belonged to none other than Thomas Jefferson, our country’s third president and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Scholars at Monticello, Jefferson’s sprawling Virginia plantation, were thrilled. In the 1800s, Jefferson’s extensive library was legendary, and it still carries quite a legacy in our country’s intellectual history; parts of it went on to form today’s Library of Congress. The rest was auctioned off following its owner’s death on Independence Day 1826. By looking at the books Jefferson thought were worth reading, we can get a feel for the literature and worldviews that shaped the early days of our country.

That, at least, is the argument put forward by Monticello scholar Endrina Tay, who is creating a publicly accessible catalog of all the books Jefferson ever read, owned or even recommended. Tay and her Monticello colleague, Lisa Ann Birle, discovered the volumes at Washington University, a find that Tay described as “the culmination of three months of intense and thrilling detective work.”

Among the 28 titles (split among 74 volumes) are architecture books containing a few of Jefferson’s handwritten notes and calculations, Aristotle’s “Politica” (most  likely the last book Jefferson read before he died), and Plutarch’s “Lives” (which included a handwritten note,  in Greek, tucked inside).

The University received the books in 1880 as part of a donation. The donor failed to mention, however, that the volumes’ original owner was one of our country’s founding fathers.

 
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