Keeping Up With the Jeffersons

Reading when books were books and men were men

Thomas Jefferson

I listen regularly to a podcast called The Thomas Jefferson Hour, a little bit of exciting history in my otherwise non-historical life. In this week’s episode, the hosts discussed reading in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. President Jefferson was one of the most well-read men in all of the colonies, and he went into repeated bankruptcy in part due to his collection of thousands of books.

On June 11, 1790, Jefferson wrote a letter to a distant relative, John Garland Jefferson, who had inquired of the future president what he should do to prepare for a career in law, there being no law schools to speak of in America. Thomas Jefferson proposed a two-to-three-year reading course during which the younger Jefferson would spend close to eight hours a day rubbing his nose against paper and ink.

All that is necessary for a student is access to a library, and directions in what order the books are to be read. This I will take the liberty of suggesting to you, observing that as other branches of science, and especially history, are necessary to form a lawyer, these must be carried on together. I will arrange the books to be read into three columns, and propose that you should read in the first column till 12. oclock every day; those in the 2d. Form 12. to 2. those in the 3d. after candlelight….

The letter continues with a listing of around four dozen volumes of necessary reading. Most of them are law books, but the list also includes history, poetry, and treatises on government and morality. I had only heard of a handful of the authors (Bacon, Smith, Voltaire, Blackstone, Locke, Montesquieu), and only one of the books is even close to being on the Well-Read Man Project list, in the form of Locke’s Leviathan. (For a full listing of the books, visit the podcast’s episode guide and scroll down to show number 927.)

The show also mentioned Jefferson’s voracity in reading. Some web sites indicate that he typically read two hours per day–about what I’m doing for the project. But Clay Jenkinson, the host of the podcast and an expert on Jefferson, said that the president spent many years reading 10 or 12 hours per day, and there were some days where as many as 15 hours were spent enjoying pages from his library. And he still had time to be a founding father. It’s sort of depressing, and makes me wonder how Dancing with the Stars is going.

Jefferson wasn’t all about books. He also spent close to two hours per day in exercise, including horseback riding. But it was reading that held a special place in his heart, and he saw the pursuit of books as the key to enhancing one’s life. That’s why he summed up his recommend reading course with an encouragement to gain knowledge and insight from the written word. “It is superiority of knowledge which can alone lift you above the heads of your competitors, and ensure you success.”


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