By Steven Foster |
“I cannot live without books”, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Adams. On May 29th National Public Radio aired a segment on Thomas Jefferson’s library. In 1814 the British burned the 3,000 books in the Library of Congress. Devastated by the loss, Thomas Jefferson offered the American people his own library —6,487 titles — then the largest library in North America. Another fire in 1851 destroyed all but 2,000 books from the Jefferson collection. For the last decade the Library of Congress has quietly been rebuilding the original collection of 6,000+ titles and now has all but the last 250. I searched for a list of those titles on the internet, but instead found an 1989 Library of Congress publication of a manuscript with Jefferson’s notes on the titles in the library: “Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order“.
What was Jefferson reading? I looked at the list of 46 botany titles. Darwin’s The Botanic Garden? Never heard of it. The author is Erasmus Darwin (1731-1803), physician, philosopher, poet and grandfather of Charles Darwin. I downloaded that title and over half of the other books at www.archive.org. I can read them on my iPhone as PDF files. Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815) was tasked by Jefferson to describe the plants collected on the Lewis and Clark expedition. He was unable to do so because of poor health. Instead, Lewis took the premier edition of Barton’s “Elements of Botany” (1803), the first botany textbook published in America. Barton writes on the value of recording the time of natural events such as flowering seasons, bird migration and weather in the form of a Calendaria Florae:
“Calendaria Florae, if they be properly kept, form some of the most interesting notices in the natural history of a country. They form, next to the living, the best, picture of the country. They show us, in the most beautiful and impressive manner, the relations of the vegetable and the animal kingdoms to each other, and to the various agents by which they are surrounded, and by which they are affected. They enable us to compare together the climates of different countries or places, which are included within nearly the same latitudes, such as Florida and Palestine, Philadelphia and Pekin, New-York and Rome, not to mention many others. In the hands of future ages, they will be deemed among the most precious monuments of natural history that can be bequeathed by an inquisitive and enlightened people. For, to apply the observation to the countries of the United- States: if our climates have (as is by many asserted) already undergone considerable changes, our winter in particular becoming much more mild and open, will it be doubted, that a great alteration is to take place in respect to the periods of the germination, frondescence, the flowering , the defoliation, &c., of many of our vegetables? And as the migrations of birds are essentially governed by the state of the climate, which governs vegetation, and the changes of insects, will it be doubted, that the seasons of the movements of our birds may, at some future period, be essentially varied from their present ones?” [Barton, B.S. 1812. Elements of Botany or Outlines of the Natural History of Vegetables. 2nd ed., Philadelphia: Printed for the author. pp. 300-301. Link to 3rd edition, 1827]
Indeed, Professor Barton.
Here’s an on-going student project for an enterprising school teacher: Go to Jefferson’s own catalogue and see how many of the 6,487 books in his library can be downloaded from or read on the internet? My guess is at least 50 percent. Catalog link.