Thomas Jefferson’s Books

From a Lecture Series Produced in Partnership With Smithsonian

Thomas Jefferson might as well have been born reading. Not because he was born wealthy and had time to read, rather his father wanted to ensure his son had a better education.

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Jefferson’s Education

Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson, is described by Thomas as being of a strong mind, sound judgment, and eager after information, and though, he said, “my father’s education had been quite neglected, he read much and improved himself.” Well, that same defect would not be repeated in the case of Thomas Jefferson. When the boy was nine, he was dispatched to the Latin school operated by the Reverend William Douglas in nearby Northam parish, then to the school of the Reverend James Maury, rector of Fredericksville parish, where he had mastery of Latin and Greek fastened onto his mind. In 1760, he was packed off to Williamsburg and the College of William & Mary.

James Blair, the first president of William & Mary, corresponded with Englishman John Locke, author of Two Treatises of Government. But little in the college’s curriculum reflected that connection, and when Jefferson arrived there in 1760 as a student, the tiny faculty were preoccupied more with adapting the new sciences to the rule of the old logic rather than emancipating the sciences from the old logic. Jefferson’s real education came from two sources with only tenuous ties to the College. One was George Wythe, under whom he studied law, and the other was Virginia’s lieutenant governor Francis Fauquier. Williamsburg was also the colonial capital; this is why Jefferson has exposure to the lieutenant governor. Fauquier was a man whom Jefferson respected as the ablest man who ever filled that office.

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Jefferson became part of Fauquier’s circle and owed much instruction to the habitual conversations around Fauquier’s table. How much that instruction revolved around Enlightenment poles can be seen from the first book list Jefferson compiled for a London bookseller, which ordered “Locke on Government” and Oeuvres de Montesquieu. And there was also a much longer reading list he drew up a year later listing Locke, Montesquieu, and Adam Smith. Thirty-six years after that, his favorite reading suggestions were still “Locke on Government,” Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and Beccaria On Crimes and Punishments. Thomas Jefferson had read his way into the Enlightenment.

Enlightenment politics came easier for Americans than Englishmen because the history of the British North American colonies seemed to follow precisely the stages of social formation that Locke had described in the Two Treatises. That the British government would not only fail to understand that, but attempt from 1763 onward to govern the colonies as really they were just some kind of inferior segment of an imperial hierarchy, that not only compelled Jefferson to join the colonial resistance movement, but set him to work writing in 1774 one of the resounding statements of that resistance, A Summary View of the Rights of British America.

...the people, and not the king, are the real sovereigns of America. -Thomas Jefferson Click To Tweet

“Our ancestors,” Jefferson announced in good Lockean fashion, “possessed a right which nature has given to all men, of establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.” They, the people, and not the king, are the real sovereigns of America. “Kings,” Jefferson explained, “are the servants, not the proprietors of the people.” The reputation Jefferson earned from the Summary View got him the ticket as one of Virginia’s delegates to the 2nd Continental Congress, and it was there, in 1776, that he was chosen to draft the most important statement of American defiance, the Declaration of Independence, using a portable desk which now resides in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Image of The Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,”

The Declaration was Jefferson’s finest statement of Enlightenment politics. We know a lot of these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” not as members of layers of a hierarchy, but as natural equals in that original state of nature, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We were created with rights, not status or qualities; rights, which we receive directly from our Creator, and not from kings or nobles.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The needs of the people, not the decree of a divinely ordained monarch, form the basis and rationale of a government. “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” So, if and when a government loses its focus on serving the interests of the people, the people are fully authorized, as that government’s real makers, to unmake that government and form a new one. And the new government Americans would make would be a republic, shorn of kings and nobility.

photo of painting of Thomas JeffersonThe curious thing about Jefferson’s political eloquence is that Jefferson the man did not particularly care for politics or commerce once they had to be translated into everyday affairs. “Science is my passion,” he once said, “politics my duty.” And it was not a duty he found very agreeable.

From the Lecture Series: America’s Founding Fathers
Taught by Professor Allen Guelzo, Ph.D.