Manuscript Catalogue of Thomas Jefferson's Library


Throughout his life, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) collected books on a wide array of topics and in many languages. While serving as the United States minister to France during the American Revolution, he acquired thousands of books for his library at Monticello. By 1814, the final year of the War of 1812 in which the British burned Washington and the Library of Congress, Jefferson owned the largest personal collection of books in the United States. He offered to sell his library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British. Congress accepted the offer, and Jefferson was paid $23,950 for 6,487 volumes. In the 18th century, most libraries were arranged alphabetically. But Jefferson chose to organize his library using a modified version of a system created by British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626). He classified his books according to the categories of Memory, Reason, and Imagination, which Jefferson translated as History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts, and further divided these categories into 44 chapters. Presented here is a catalog of Jefferson’s library, copied at his request by Nicholas Trist, who studied law with Jefferson, married one of his granddaughters, and served as an executor of his estate. Trist apparently worked from a copy of the printed 1815 Catalogue of the Library of the United States, prepared by George Watterston, Librarian of Congress, which Jefferson marked in order to restore, in place of its alphabetical arrangement of each subject category, the original order of entries that Jefferson preferred. Trist reported completion of the task in a letter from Louisiana dated October 18, 1823. A fire on Christmas Eve of 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson.

Last updated: February 18, 2016