Jefferson (and Macintosh) in Paris and London

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown (1786). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. NPG.99.66.

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown (1786). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. NPG.99.66.

Until May, the Library of Congress is staging an exhibition—Out of the Ashes: A New Library for Congress and the Nation—to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of its acquisition in 1815 of Thomas Jefferson private library. Jefferson’s library—6,487 volumes strong—was bought (for almost $24,000) to replace an existing collection that had been destroyed by the British during the War of 1812. Sadly, in 1851, a fire destroyed two thirds of the Jefferson collection.

Jefferson, an avid, life-long  book collector considered his library to be “unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the US”. Jefferson added to his collection most enthusiastically while based in Paris (from August 1784 to September 1789) as Congressional representative to Europe. Of his time in that city, Jefferson later recalled that “I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two, in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science”.

Jefferson’s book hunting was not, however, limited to Paris and continued just as enthusiastically during a visit to London in 1786, particularly so at the shop of the publisher John Stockdale, where Jefferson is reported to have “spent for books four times as much as he paid Mather Brown to paint his portrait [above]”. On his return to Paris, Jefferson wrote to Stockdale to request additional books, including “Mc.intosh & Capper’s voiages. the smallest edition.” (i.e., Macintosh’s Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa (1782) and James Capper’s Observations on the passage to India (1785)). At the same time, Jefferson attempted to obtain a second copy of Travels for his friend, the Marquis de Lafayettebut found to his disappointment that “Mc.Intosh’s [book] is not to be bought, the whole edition being exhausted”.

Jefferson’s copy of Travels was among the 6,487 volumes which comprised the Library of Congresses’s 1815 purchase, but was not, it appears, one that survived the 1851 fire. It is not currently clear whether or not the Marquis de Lafayette ever managed to locate the copy of Travels he desired.

Stockdale, Eric. “John Stockdale, London bookseller and publisher of Adams and Jefferson.” In The libraries, leadership, and legacy of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, edited by Robert C. Baron and Conrad Edick Wright, 41–55. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2010.

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