Washington University Owns Thomas Jefferson’s Books

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Thomas Jefferson was a man of many oddly varied interests and talents. As the poet Stephen Vincent Benet wrote of him:

A wild-goose-chaser?

Now and again,

Build Monticello,

You little men!

“Design my plow, sirs,

They use it still,

Or found my college

At Charlottesville.

Jefferson may have founded his own college, the University of Virginia, in 1818 but it turns out some of his library ended up at another school, one that didn’t even exist until he’d been dead for a quarter-century.

According to a piece by Aimee Levitt at the Riverfront Times:

Washington University librarians have learned that a cache of 74 books that have sat in the library’s special collections for 131 years actually belonged to the third President.

Aside from the collections at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, to which Jefferson sold 6,700 books after the British burned down the first library in 1815, and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which Jefferson founded (and where he remains something of a cult figure), it is the largest assemblage of Jefferson-owned books.

But the question remains: How did all these books end up in St. Louis, a city that has no connection to Jefferson except for the fact that he scooped it up in the Louisiana Purchase? And at Wash. U., which didn’t even exist when Jefferson died in 1826?

Well apparently it has a lot to do with the fact that Jefferson was something of a deadbeat.

When he died he left debts in excess of $100,000 (about $2 million in today’s money). His heirs sold his books to try to raise money. Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, bought 74 volumes, some of which had notes from Jefferson in the margins.

Then in 1880 Coolidge’s son-in-law, Edmund Dwight, donated about 3,000 books to Wash U. Dwight gave his books (including the 74 from his wife’s famous great-grandfather) to the school in St. Louis because the founder, William Greenleaf Eliot, was his great uncle.
Dwight apparently forgot to mention the Jefferson books when he made his donation.

Ann Lucas Birle, a scholar at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, figured this little puzzle out.

Washington University is delighted to discover this (kind of tenuous) connection. According to the article: “Washington University is thrilled to have secured and preserved these volumes,” said Shirley Baker of the Wash U. libraries. “It is… appropriate that these books should be here in Missouri. It was Jefferson who acquired this land in the Louisiana Purchase, and St. Louis was the jumping-off point for the expedition Jefferson sent to explore the new territory.”

Well this is sort of like if someone discovered a large collection of Theodore Roosevelt’s personal library at the University of Puerto Rico, but whatever works. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer