Friday, July 20, 2012


July 20, 2012:

     I was in Washington in late June at the Library of Congress for a magazine piece I'm writing and was shown a few of Jefferson's books. Shown--I mean they were brought to a table in the reading room of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division and set before me. Jefferson's books as a whole are housed in a special exhibition room in the Library, and they constitute its core and its origin (more than a million people visit that room every year). In 1814 the British burned the Capitol, where the previous Library of Congress was housed, and destroyed it, every single volume. The following year Jefferson offered his own library for sale to the government as the beginning of a new Library of Congress and, after some dispute in Congress, the government bought his books, all 6400 of them. It was the largest library of its time in this country, public or private, and the most comprehensive. And there I was, looking at a small stack of them. The curator handed me first Jefferson's own copy of the parliamentary manual he had written in 1801 for the use of the U. S. Senate, whose presiding officer he had been as John Adams's Vice-President. Then he gave me Jefferson's copy of the Koran; it was the first English translation from the original. It caused a bit of a flap in 2007 when a new Congressman, the first Muslim ever elected to the U. S. Congress, asked if he could be sworn in on it. Some Congressional Neanderthal screamed about the Bible, but as it turned out Congressmen aren't sworn in on a book; they simply take an oath of office, collectively. But the fellow did get to carry the book with him when this was done.

     The little pile also contained Jefferson's copy of the Federalist Papers. That was a thrill. It had been given to him by Elizabeth Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton's wife, and had her signature in spidery handwriting above the title. Alexander Hamilton was one of Jefferson's enemies, and I wondered what the story was behind the gift.

     But most of all I just wondered. I spent perhaps an hour in the exhibition room looking at the books, and they were, collectively, simply amazing. Books on agriculture, on politics, on history; the classics in their original languages; the Enlightenment philosophers, in French, in Italian, in German; a little book on card games; magnificent books on architecture, which he practised, and extremely well; books on dozens of subjects. He read Latin and Greek, spoke French, Italian, German, and Spanish, could work his way through a Dutch book if he had to. On his way to France in 1784 to serve as minister to the French court he read Cervantes in the original, to brush up on his Spanish.

     Six years ago I put together an anthology of Jefferson's writing from France for the National Geographic Society (it's called Thomas Jefferson Travels), and some of the letters I included were written to his nephews, and others seeking his advice, about what to read, how to educate oneself, especially to prepare for a life of public service. He advised his nephew Peter Carr to begin with ancient history, always in the original language, "reading the following books in the following order. Herodotus. Thucydides. Xenophontis helenica. Xenophontis Anabasis. Quintus Curtius. Justin." He moves on to Roman history, then modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, he recommends Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer. "In morality read Epictetus, Xenophonsis memorabilia, Plato's Socratic dialogues, Cicero's philosophies." Then he ordered the books sent to him from London. And this was just the beginning. In later letters he expands on the list, sends him to modern political philosophy. He sent James Madison dozens of books, among them Hume's Essays, which had a major influence on Madison's thoughts on the U. S. Constitution. He sent books to Monroe, too. To Jefferson, clearly, it was unimaginable that one would consider a leadership role in a political setting without being familiar with ancient and modern history, without being steeped in political philosophy, without being learned in other arts and sciences. When some Congressmen objected to the range of subjects contained in his library, he responded that there was no subject a U. S. legislator might not need to know about in the course of serving his country.

     We just don't make them like this any more, and it is a huge loss to all of us. What language besides English does John Boehner speak, or even read? Do you suppose Mitt Romney has learned anything significant from ancient Greek and Roman history? Jefferson was the first to figure out what the currency of the United States should be. He wrote a comprehensive, well-informed account of the American whaling industry for the benefit of European governments. His parliamentary manual is no longer in use, but until the 1980s parts of it were used in the House of Representatives. At the risk of prison he smuggled Italian rice seeds out of Italy in order to jump start the rice industry in South Carolina with a better variety of rice.

     But most important, he believed in and actively preached about the importance of education for the survival of a republic. Without an educated public, without an understanding of what it means not just for our political life but for our character, the tone of public discourse, and for the culture as a whole, we get what we have now: intransigence and extremism in political life; a pop culture of appalling violence; and a level of discourse so low, so barren, as to sicken the heart.