A Biographer Explains Why He Thinks Another Biography of Jefferson Was in Order


Mr. Hayes is a member of the Department of English, University of Central Oklahoma. He is the author of The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, 2008).

As my recent biography, The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, 2008), neared completion, I had the opportunity to attend the Symposium on Biography sponsored by the American Literature Association. The symposium was quite enjoyable. (Did I mention it was held in Puerto Vallarta?) Besides a full schedule of formal presentations, it also offered plenty of opportunities for attendees to share their thoughts informally -- breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, happy hours, dinner meetings, late-night bull sessions on the beach. The one idea that sticks in my mind more tenaciously than any other is something Whitman biographer Jerome Loving said. You cannot justify a new biography, he told me, unless it contains at least ten percent new information. In graduate school at the University of Delaware -- can it be? -- twenty years ago I had learned the importance of finding new information. Never before had I heard it quantified so precisely, however. Throughout the research and composition of The Road to Monticello, I strived to maximize the amount of new information the book would contain. Does it measure up to Prof. Loving’s rule? I think it does -- and more.

In The Road to Monticello, I identify formerly unidentified books from Jefferson’s now-lost Shadwell library, books on agriculture, books on architecture, classic treatises and modern novels. John James's Theory and Practice of Gardening, for instance, helped shape Jefferson's theories of gardening significantly. Thoughts of Cicero presented a compilation of extracts from the great Roman orator and philosopher treating a variety of different subjects: conscience, old age, passion, religion, wisdom. These passages were annotated with much additional information from such prominent eighteenth-century thinkers as Francis Hutcheson and John Locke. I briefly touch on these annotations: someone else may examine them in detail to see how they influenced Jefferson's thought.

I also found much new information about Jefferson's great library, the one he spent so much time, cash, and effort assembling and ultimately sold to Congress. E. Millicent Sowerby's catalogue of Jefferson's great library, though a model of its kind, still leaves much to discover. Discussing Lorenzo Pignotti's collection of satirical verse fables in Italian, for example, Sowerby expressed uncertainty whether Jefferson's copy went to the Library of Congress. As it turns out, it did not. He bought it soon after coming to Paris to brush up his Italian and later gave it to his daughter Martha to help her learn Italian. Sowerby also lists John James Bachmair's Complete German Grammar but does not say when Jefferson acquired it. The manuscript wastebook of Philadelphia bookseller Robert Aitken, which survives at the Library Company of Philadelphia, shows that Jefferson bought the book from Aitken in 1776. Why was Jefferson studying German around the same time he was writing the Declaration of Independence? The Road to Monticello elicits such questions but by no means exhausts all possible answers.

Jefferson's Annapolis library, which he assembled the last time he served in the Continental Congress, has never been studied in detail. The fact that Jefferson sold it to James Monroe lends additional importance to this collection. Most evenings in Annapolis, Jefferson spent reading French. He was deepening his study of natural law with such works as Emer de Vattel's Questions de Droit Natural. He also freely lent his books to his congressional colleagues. The presence of S. A. D. Tissot's De la Santé des Gens de Lettres in his Annapolis library indicates Jefferson's curiosity about the physical and mental health of the man of letters.

The books in Jefferson's retirement library have never been fully identified, but the catalogue of the retirement library shows he was keeping up with current literary trends. He had a copy of Goethe's Faust with illustrations by Moritz Retzsch and a copy of Stendhal's Histoire de la Peinture en Italie -- the bible of the Romantic artist. Why, this old Neoclassicist was reading books like a Romantic! Though no copies of Byron appear in the catalogue of his retirement library, evidence indicates that copies of Byron circulated around the Jefferson family. The bookish references in the letters of his daughters and grandchildren indicate a huge undercurrent of literary activity unrepresented by Jefferson's library catalogues.

While examining surviving volumes formerly in Jefferson’s possession, I transcribed his marginalia from such books as Jean Bodin’s Six Livres de la République and William Shakespeare’s Works. Jefferson's copy of Shakespeare, which survives at the University of Virginia, shows he was reading with a copy of Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry nearby. He clearly recognized Shakespeare's debt to traditional English ballads. I also found new literary sources for the Declaration of Independence, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, and The Anas -- Jefferson’s documentary record of Washington’s presidency.

But perhaps this aggregate of tidbits alone is not what makes this new biography an important addition to Jefferson scholarship. What makes this biography fundamentally new is the approach it takes to Jefferson’s life. Amazing as it seems, there has never been a literary biography of our most literary president. Previous biographers have briefly noted the importance of literature to Jefferson, but it has typically been treated solely as a means of exploring other aspects of his life. No previous biographer has explored how important literature was to Thomas Jefferson or how deeply it shaped the way he saw the world. Literature was an integral part of his life. “I cannot live without books,” Jefferson famously said to John Adams. The Road to Monticello explains why.

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