A reminder of Jefferson’s humanity
Thomas Jefferson was a collector of books. He owned an extensive library covering a multitude of subjects, and his collection replenished the Library of Congress, which was established by an act of Congress on April 24, 1800, and was originally meant to contain only “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress …”
The library was established with $5,000 and was housed in the Capitol until August 1814, when British troops in the War of 1812 set fire to the Capitol. Jefferson offered his library of almost 10,000 volumes as a replacement, a collection he had spent 50 years accumulating, one of the finest in the United States, and after some debate on the need for some of the books, which were in foreign languages and on subjects possibly not germane to its needs, Congress appropriated $23,950 for 6,487 books.
Page Smith, in his book “Jefferson A Revealing Biography,” said that Jefferson sold the books out of financial need. The sale likely was as much out of necessity as it was magnanimous. Jefferson treasured books, and I can’t picture him selling them unless absolutely necessary. When his family home, Shadwell, burned in 1770, Jefferson was most upset over the loss of his books. While minister to France in the 1780s, Jefferson bought thousands of books.
Ken Burns said at a lecture that people elevate their heroes to godly status, that they expect great people to be perfect. Smith said the same in his biography of Jefferson, which often bordered on scathing. He said his purpose was not to condemn Jefferson but to show him as a human being with human failings who accomplished great things.
We act surprised when we encounter faults in people such as our country’s founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin, accomplished in so many fields, lived for years in a state much like marriage with a woman in England who was his housekeeper while his wife stayed in Philadelphia; George Washington single-handedly kept the Continental Army together in 1776 when everyone else would have given up but also drove Indians off their lands so he could take the land for personal gain; and Jefferson in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence wanted to prohibit slavery, but he owned dozens of slaves and enjoyed a life of leisure at the expense of those he held in bondage, and he had an affair and children with one of his slaves.
Distance, especially in time, exalts people. We read Jefferson’s elegant prose — he called slavery a “firebell in the night that awakened me and filled me with terror” — and we forget that he was human. He shied from public speaking and preferred the company of one or two people, and although he promoted the rights of man, he had little interest in the average man.
If I say I admire Jefferson, someone may respond, “He kept slaves, and he died deep in debt,” and I say, “I admire him in spite of his shortcomings.” And because he loved books, I feel a strong connection to this man who, like so many people, was a walking mass of contradictions.