Top of page

A Birthday Fit for a President

Share this post:

Mural of Thomas Jefferson with his residence, Monticello, in the background, by Ezra Winter. Library of Congress John Adams Building. Photo by Carol Highsmith.

Saturday is the 270th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth (April 13, 1743). And, the Library of Congress owes much to this esteemed third president. After the British invaded Washington in the War of 1812, they burned down the Capitol building, including the Library of Congress collection housed there. Jefferson, an avid book collector, sold his 6,487 volumes – the largest personal collection in the United States – to help restart the Library.

Jefferson was renown for being many things: author of the Declaration of Independence, father of the University of Virginia, founding father of the nation, respected scholar and prolific inventor.

The Library has original letters, cartographic materials, drawings, manuscripts and other items as part of its Thomas Jefferson Collection.

Several letters from the Library’s Manuscript Division reveal insight into Jefferson, who was a faithful public servant, powerful advocate of liberty, skilled writer and advocate of knowledge and learning.

In a letter to James Madison on Dec. 20, 1787, he defined what he did and did not like about the new federal Constitution, which was still being ratified by the states. He was “captivated by the compromise of the opposite claims of the great and little states.” However, Jefferson was disturbed by the lack of a bill of rights, which “is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.” Despite his criticisms, he would support a ratified Constitution “in hopes that they [the states] will amend it whenever they shall find it works wrong.”

Cipher from Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, April 20, 1803. Thomas Jefferson Papers.

January of that same year, Abigail Adams had corresponded with Jefferson, expressing her concern about the uprising led by Massachusetts farmer and Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shay over pain caused by the state’s postwar financial policies. Calling the protestors “ignorant, wrestles desperadoes,” Adams believed they were without cause for their grievances. Jefferson disagreed and responded with a little daring: “I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.”

Jefferson’s correspondence wasn’t limited to letter writing alone. When he sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark off to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, he hoped for periodic reports along the way. To keep it all a secret, he gave Lewis a cipher. “Suppose the keyword to be ‘Antipodes,’” Jefferson wrote in his explanation for how to use the key. On the back he revealed a real keyword: Artichokes.

The Louisiana Purchase was a major coup in Jefferson’s presidency, and several maps from the Library’s Geography and Map Division highlight the Lewis and Clark expedition, whose primary purpose was to explore and map the newly acquired territory. A pre-expedition map is believed to be a chart that the intrepid explorers carried on their journey at least as far as the Mandan-Hidatsa Villages on the Missouri River, where Lewis annotated in brown ink additional information obtained from fur traders. In addition, the first printed map of the Lewis and Clark expedition (1810) was the first published map to display reasonably accurate geographic information of the trans-Mississippi West and was the landmark map that laid the foundation for the future mapping of the West.

Thomas Jefferson’s only published map. 1787. Geography and Map Division.

Considering Jefferson’s varied interests in geography and natural history, it should come as no surprise he dabbled in cartography himself. Jefferson’s only published map (1787) features the area between the Albermarle Sound and Lake Erie. It was prepared as a fold-out illustration for his sole book-length publication, “Notes on the State of Virginia.”

The Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division holds perhaps the most significant piece of printing produced in the 18th-century colonies, the Dunlap Broadside. This was the first printing of the Declaration of Independence. It was produced in the evening following the final vote of the session.

The Dunlap Broadside. 1776. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

According to the National Archives, interest in reproductions of the Declaration increased as the nation grew. An unusual copy features the document printed on silk, known as the Ingraham 1823 Declaration, in honor of the three surviving signers: John Adams, Charles Carroll and Jefferson.

Another item is a rare satin broadside of Jefferson’s 1801 inaugural address. It is embellished with a portrait of Jefferson at the top, the only known broadside edition to be illustrated in such a way. Jefferson had actually requested the copy from printer Mathew Carey.

Other items include the first-known draft of Jefferson’s inaugural address, a survey – in his own hand – of his Elk Hill Plantation and a catalog of his library reflecting Jefferson’s preferred book organization into the categories of history, philosophy and fine art. (For many years, this manuscript was mistakenly labeled as a catalog of the University of Virginia library but was rediscovered in 1980 and properly identified.)

The Library is the home of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library and the largest collection of original Jefferson documents in the world.

Comments (2)

  1. Mr. Thomas Jefferson. (Abril 13, 1743; 270 aniversario de su natalicio)

    Recordemos con agrado a Mr. Jefferson, muchos días como este.

    Y, agradezcamos, a un de los grandes pioneros y visionarios de la cultura.

    Atte. Oscar S. Dávila S.

  2. Three cheers for Mark Dimunation, Chief of Rare Books and Special Collections, for re-assembling the original Jefferson collection, which formed the nucleus of the Library!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *