The Reading Room
Jefferson Takes Notes and Copies Quotes on Ideas for the New Republic
“We are now trusting to those who are against us in position and principle, to fashion to their own form the minds and affections of our youth. . . . This canker is eating on the vitals of our existence.”—Thomas Jefferson
If the age of Enlightenment was trans-Atlantic, and we will see that it was, then the credit goes chiefly to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Other intellectuals during the revolutionary war and the “national period” certainly were shaped by the Enlightenment, but Jefferson and Franklin stand out.
Thomas Jefferson was a trans-Atlantic transmission belt for Enlightenment ideas: Montesquieu (separation of powers, checks and balances in government), Thomas Hobbes (purpose of government), John Locke (goal of earthly happiness, nature of government, toleration), Voltaire (religious toleration, separation of church and state), Bishop Joseph Butler (pursuit of happiness), and Cesare Beccaria (rights of the accused, humane punishment)—to name a few.
Jefferson’s life (1743–1826) coincides with the French Enlightenment (1715–1789) and the thinker who ignited it, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), who is commonly acknowledged as the primary influence on Jefferson’s thinking about the new American republic. Jefferson wrote: “Freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us, and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation.”
The Enlightenment influence began with Jefferson’s matriculation into the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, when he was sixteen. He studied mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy with Professor William Small. Small introduced Jefferson to ideas of the British empiricists: John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton. It would be difficult to name more-influential British Enlightenment thinkers than those three. Sixty years later, Jefferson would reflect on Small’s presence at the college as “my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life.” But Jefferson soon moved on to Montesquieu (French Enlightenment) and Adam Smith (Scottish Enlightenment).
Few Americans influenced the new United States of America more than Thomas Jefferson. His phrases in the Declaration of Independence—“All men are created equal” and “the pursuit of happiness”—are among the best known in American history. And his contributions to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, based upon Virginia’s bill of rights, virtually define American political philosophy.
The chief source of information on Jefferson’s learning, and borrowing, from European Enlightenment thinkers is his Commonplace Book. The best-known edition of the work has an introduction by Johns Hopkins University professor Gilbert Chinard (Chinard was among the first to suggest the significance of Jefferson’s reading), published in 1926 by the Johns Hopkins University Press: The Commonplace Book of Thomas Jefferson, a Repertory of His Ideas on Government, with an introduction and notes by Gilbert Chinard.
Today, we would call commonplace books “journals” kept by writers. They go back to antiquity, though, and became popular during the Renaissance and the nineteenth century. Notes, proverbs, adages, aphorisms, quotes, poems, prayers, recipes: anything might be saved in a commonplace book. Unlike diaries, which are chronological, commonplace books were organized by subjects.
The derivation of the name is the Latin term locus communis, which means a general or common topic, such as proverbial wisdom or collections of sayings. It has aspects of an anthology. When printing became easier with moveable type, some of these books were published—especially, for example, travelogues.
The English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, in 1685, wrote about a new method of making such books with formulas for entering quotations, ideas, and speeches. Locke gave tips on arranging material. Given Locke’s reputation, publishers then began to offer empty commonplace books, which had space for headings and indices to be filled in by writers. Erasmus Darwin and Charles Darwin later used them.
It was by Jefferson’s time a frequent practice to keep such a book. The habit was taught to students at Oxford University. In Locke’s most important work of philosophy, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, he included his indexing scheme for a commonplace book as an appendix. Commonplace books became . . . well, commonplace during the Enlightenment on both sides of the Atlantic. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were taught the practice while at Harvard University.
In his notes and his copied quotations from his readings, Jefferson gives more attention to Montesquieu than any other writer. Oddly, Jefferson omits any text of Montesquieu’s on the separation of powers in government, leading to speculation that he compiled these essential notes somewhere other than in his Commonplace Book.
With the growing strains between the American colonies and the crown, Jefferson turned to reading political history, government, and natural law by British Tory leader Henry St. John, first Viscount Bolingbroke; radical Republican opponent of the divine right of kings, Algernon Sidney, executed for treason; and John Locke to write what was to become A Summary View of the Rights of British America.
In the wake of the War for Independence, Jefferson in 1784 was posted to Paris to negotiate commercial treaties with European powers. He brought a list of books he owned and others he wished to own. He came in contact with the French literary and scientific community, including the Marquis de Condorcet, a French philosophe; and François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld. Jefferson’s book-buying sallies resulted in buying 2,000 books to take home, including those of Comte Destutt de Tracy, Condorcet, and La Rochefoucauld. (Back in America, Jefferson translated and published two of de Tracy’s books.) He also obtained books for American friends such as Benjamin Franklin and James Madison—texts that proved invaluable in drafting the U.S. Constitution in 1787.
Books came to the fore when Jefferson became active in the education and social development of his children and grandchildren, for whom he worked out plans for daily reading. When his nephews lost their father, he created reading lists for them and other young men with an interest in law. His recommendations attained a much greater scale when, as a first-term president, he was asked to develop a list of books for the Library of Congress.
That led by 1815 to the sale of his personal library to the Library of Congress after its collection had been burned by British troops, who set fire to the Capitol building in August 1814. He expressed the hope that his precious collection would “not be without some general effect on the literature of our country.” (Even as he packed up books to send to the Library of Congress, he was planning his own replacement library at Monticello for his retirement.) Later, a fire at the Library of Congress destroyed two-thirds of the books that Jefferson sold to the nation.
Many of these books, and more that Jefferson used in retirement to promote ideas such as “the rights of man,” were among the seeming endless stream of works from the “new philosophers” of the European age of Enlightenment. Jefferson willingly directed the studies of young men who requested his advice (and use of his library); his goal was “to keep attention fixed on the main objects of all science, the freedom & happiness of man,” which, in perfect agreement with the credo of the Enlightenment, he described as “the sole objects of all legitimate government.”
For the next four years (1815–1819), Jefferson was in touch with European booksellers and dealers with Philadelphia and New York to fill his bookshelves. When he died in 1826, the new library had grown to about 1,600 volumes. A look at this and earlier collections shows that Jefferson collected and read widely, with a “focus,” it can be called that, on law, politics, history, architecture, science, mathematics, botany, agriculture, medicine, commerce, religion, and literature.
To organize his library, Jefferson turned to a classification scheme favored by the great pioneer of the British Enlightenment Francis Bacon, in his Advancement of Learning (1674), and another still more ambitious scheme by Denis Diderot’s coeditor of the French Enlightment’s Encyclopédie (1751), Jean Le Rond d’Alembert.
In Jefferson’s mind, it came down to a three-part division in all knowledge: history, philosophy, and fine arts. “Natural philosophy,” of course, meant “science,” and in the Encyclopédie Diderot and D’Alembert published side by side with “philosophy” articles on technology, commerce, practical arts, agriculture, and much else. Jefferson kept library catalogs that divided each category into chapters and within chapters, the titles of the books. Jefferson’s professional approach to librarianship reflected the Enlightenment’s view that the domain of the “new philosophy” was all knowledge—including new fields such as sociology, linguistics, calculus, and what we call today “cognitive psychology.”
The books did not go unused. Jefferson opened his library to other readers, including young students, but also immersed himself in the books. Books reportedly were stacked everywhere on tables and the floor. He had a revolving bookstand for consulting multiple volumes at the same time. Isaac Jefferson, one of Jefferson's enslaved people, recalled, “Old Master had abundance of books: sometimes would have twenty of ’em down on the floor at once: read fust one, then tother.”
In his retirement, Jefferson acted on his conviction that informed men and women were the best hope of continuing America’s experiment in freedom. He both proposed a system of public education and founded the University of Virginia, with this famous description of its mission: “the institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
His plan, of course, included a library housed in its central Rotunda—at the epicenter of the campus. His will left his personal library to the university. Unfortunately, he died in debt and the books were auctioned off in Washington and Philadelphia. His nephew sold off some 675 books to dealers in New York City.
Jefferson had been a lifelong “new philosopher” of the age of Enlightenment, and it had enabled him to become a master intellectual architect of what would become the only country truly born of the age of Enlightenment. The results speak well for that era.