Thomas Jefferson's Recommended Reading

Think Like a Founding Father

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Thomas Jefferson supplied lists of recommended books in letters to Robert Skipwith1 in 1771 and Bernard Moore2 about the same time, to his nephew, Peter Carr, in 17853 and 1787,4 to John Minor5 in 1814, and to several others.6 The following is a distillation and synthesis of his recommendations in classical studies -- history, philosophy, religion, and literature. Items in each section are in a rough suggested reading order based by Jefferson's comments. Clearly more works could be added; as Jefferson wrote to Moore:

"These by no means constitute the whole of what might be usefully read in each of these branches of science. The mass of excellent works going more into detail is great indeed. But those here noted will enable the student to select for himself such others of detail as may suit his particular views and dispositions. They will give him a respectable, an useful and satisfactory degree of knowlege in these branches."2

         1. Ancient History
         2. Philosophy
         3. Literature
         4. American History
         5. Quotes
         6. Notes
         7. Resources


Ancient History

Herodotus - c. 450 BC, 'Father of History'

Thucydides - c. 395 BC

Xenophon - c. 400 BC, philosopher, student of Socrates, general

Polybius – c. 150 BC

Julius Caesar - c. 50 BC

Sallust (historian) - c. 50 BC

Livy – c. 1 AD; Roman historian

Quintus Curtius Rufus - Roman Historian, c. 50 AD

Josephus – c. 80 AD, Jewish general and historian

Plutarch - c. 100 AD; Greek philosopher, Delphic priest, biographer, prolific writer

Suetonius - c. 100 AD

Tacitus - c. 100 AD; Roman senator and historian

Justin (historian) – 2nd century AD

Herodian – c. 210 AD

Aurelius Victor – c. 350 AD

Gibbons - the classic study of Rome's decline, first published in 1776


Philosophy

Plato – Athens, c. 400 BC

* Jefferson, sought in this work practical suggestions for the American Republic and felt disappointed. Had he understood it, rather, as mainly an allegory for the governance of the human soul, i.e., a psychological work (a modern and ancient view, but misplaced in the Enlightenment), his opinion might have been better.

Cicero – Roman, c. 45 BC

Plutarch – Greek, c. 100 AD

Xenophon – Greek, c. 400 BC

Seneca – Roman statesman, Stoic philosopher, writer

Epictetus – Greek Stoic philosopher writing in Roman times

  • The Enchiridion - a concise handbook of Stoic morality and maxims, adopted by Christianity

Pythagoras

Marcus Aurelius – Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher

Lucretius – c. 60 BC, Roman Epicurean philosopher

John Locke – one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers

Henry Home, Lord Kames

David Hume

Voltaire

Claude Adrien Helvétius

Conyers Middleton

Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke

James Beattie

Two further suggestions consistent with Jefferson's lists are the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius and the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle.


Literature

Homer

Virgil

John Milton

Sophocles

Aeschylus

Euripides

Demosthenes – c. 340 BC; Athenian orator

Isocrates – c. 380 BC; Athenian orator

William Shakespeare

Terence – c. 150 BC, Roman playwright

Horace – c. 10 BC, Roman lyric poet

Edward Young – English

Theocritus – 3rd century BC; Greek bucolic poet

Anacreon – c. 540 BC, Greek lyrical poet

Joseph Addison

Moliere – French playright

Metastasio (Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, 1698 –1782)

Jonathan Swift – Anglo-Irish satirist

Alexander Pope

'Ossian' (James Macpherson)


American History

William Robertson

William Douglass [more]

Thomas Hutchison

William Smith

Samuel Smith

Benjamin Franklin

Captain John Smith

William Stith

Sir William Keith

Robert Beverly



Quotes

"Jefferson scarcely passed a day without reading a portion of the classics." —Rayner's Life of Jefferson p. 22.

"The moral principles inculcated by the most esteemed of the sects of ancient philosophy, or of their individuals; particularly, Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca and Antoninus, related chiefly to ourselves, and the government of those passions which, unrestrained, would disturb our tranquillity of mind. In this branch of philosophy they were really great. In developing our duties to others, they were short and defective. They embraced, indeed, the circles of kindred and friends, and inculcated patriotism, or the love of our country in the aggregate, as a primary obligation; towards our neighbors and countrymen they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity, and love to our fellow men, or embraced with benevolence the whole family of mankind."
     ~ Syllabus Of The Doctrines Of Jesus (1803)

"To read the Latin and Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury; and I deem luxury in science to be at least as justifiable as in architecture, painting, gardening, or the other arts.
     ~ To Dr. Joseph Priestley (A sublime luxury, Philadelphia, January 18, 1800)

"I think the Greeks and Romans have left us the present [purest?] models which exist of fine composition, whether we examine them as works of reason, or of style and fancy; and to them we probably owe these characteristics of modern composition. I know of no composition of any other ancient people, which merits the least regard as a model for its matter or style."
     ~ To Dr. Joseph Priestley (A sublime luxury, Philadelphia, January 18, 1800)

"The utilities we derive from the remains of the Greek and Latin languages are, first as models of pure taste in writing. To these we are certainly indebted for the natural and chaste style of modern composition, which so much distinguishes the nations to whom these languages are familiar. Without these models we should probably have continued the inflated style of our northern ancestors, or the hyperbolical and vague one of the East."
     ~ To John Brazier (The value of classical learning, Poplar Forest, August 24, 1819)

"To whom are they [the classical languages] useful? Certainly not to all men. There are conditions of life to which they must be forever estranged. ... to the moralist they are valuable, because they furnish ethical writings highly and justly esteemed; although in my own opinion the moderns are far advanced beyond them in this line of science; the divine finds in the Greek language a translation of his primary code, of more importance to him than the original because better understood; and, in the same language, the newer code, with the doctrines of the earliest fathers.... The lawyer finds in the Latin language the system of civil law most conformable with the principles of justice of any which has ever yet been established among men, and from which much has been incorporated into our own. The physician as good a code of his art as has been given us to this day.... The statesman will find in these languages history, politics, mathematics, ethics, eloquence, love of country, to which he must add the sciences of his own day, for which of them should be unknown to him? And all the sciences must recur to the classical languages for the etymon, and sound understanding of their fundamental terms.... To sum the whole, it may truly be said that the classical languages are a solid basis for most, and an ornament to all the sciences.
     ~ To John Brazier (The value of classical learning, Poplar Forest, August 24, 1819)

"The learning of Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe. I know not what their manners and occupations may call for; but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their example in this instance.
     ~ Notes On Virginia, Query 14 ('Laws')

"I read one or two newspapers a week, but with reluctance give even that time from Tacitus and Horace, and so much other more agreeable reading."
     ~ To David Howell (Monticello, December 15, 1810)

"I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus, and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid, and I find myself much the happier."
     ~ To John Adams (Monticello, Jan. 21, 1812)

"Our newspapers for the most part, present only the caricatures of disaffected minds."
     ~ To Mr. Pictet (Washington, February 5, 1803)

"Books were at all times his chosen companions."
     ~ Ellen Wayles Randolph (Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter)

"I endeavor to beguile the wearisome of declining life by the delights of classical reading and of mathematical truths, and by the consolations of a sound philosophy, equally indifferent to hope and fear."
     ~ To William Short (I too am an Epicurean, Monticello, October 31, 1819)

"A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life."
     ~ To Nathaniel Burwell (Female education, Monticello, March 14, 1818)

This mass of trash, however, is not without some distinction;... Some is useful for forming style and taste. Pope, Dryden, Thompson, Shakspeare, and of the French, Moliere, Racine, the Coneilles, may be read with pleasure and improvement."
     ~ To Nathaniel Burwell (Female education, Monticello, March 14, 1818)

Till VIII o'clock in the morning employ yourself in Physical studies, Ethics, Religion, natural and sectarian, and Natural law....
From VIII. to XII. read law
From XII to I. Read Politics.
In the AFTERNOON. Read History.
From Dark to Bed-time. Belles lettres, criticism, Rhetoric, Oratory.
     ~ To Bernard Moore (included in Jefferson to John Minor, Monticello August 30, 1814)

"Oratory. This portion of time (borrowing some of the afternoon when the days are long and the nights short) is to be applied to acquiring the art of writing & speaking correctly by the following exercises. Criticise the style of any books whatever, committing your criticisms to writing. Translate into the different styles, to wit, the elevated, the middling and the familiar. Orators and poets will furnish subjects of the first, historians of the second, and epistolary and Comic writers of the third. Undertake, at first, short compositions, as themes, letters etc., paying great attention to the correctness and elegance of your language. Read the Orations of Demosthenes & Cicero. Analyse these orations and examine the correctness of the disposition, language, figures, states of the cases, arguments etc."
     ~ To Bernard Moore (included in Jefferson to John Minor, Monticello August 30, 1814)

"Note. Under each of the preceding heads, the books are to be read in the order in which they are named. These by no means constitute the whole of what might be usefully read in each of these branches of science. The mass of excellent works going more into detail is great indeed. But those here noted will enable the student to select for himself such others of detail as may suit his particular views and dispositions. They will give him a respectable, an useful & satisfactory degree of knowlege in these branches, and will themselves form a valuable and sufficient library for a lawyer, who is at the same time a lover of science."
     ~ To Bernard Moore (included in Jefferson to John Minor, Monticello August 30, 1814)


Notes


  1. Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, (A gentleman's library; Monticello, August 3, 1771). In: Merril D. Peterson (ed.), Thomas Jefferson Works, 1984. (pp. 740 – 745). ^

  2. Jefferson to Bernard Moore (from Jefferson to John Minor, Monticello August 30, 1814). In: Paul Leicester Ford (ed.). The Works of Thomas Jefferson, 12 vols. Vol. 11 (1808-1816). New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1905. (notes, pp. 420 – 426). The original letter to Moore does not exist; Jefferson enclosed a copy with his letter to John Minor in 1814. ^

  3. Jefferson to Peter Carr (An honest heart, a knowing head; Paris, August 19, 1785). In: Merril D. Peterson (ed.), Thomas Jefferson Works, 1984. (pp. 814 – 818). ^

  4. Jefferson to Peter Carr (The homage to Reason; Paris, August 10, 1787). In: Merril D. Peterson (ed.), Thomas Jefferson Works, 1984. (pp. 900 – 906). ^

  5. Jefferson to John Minor (Monticello, August 30, 1814). In: Paul Leicester Ford (ed.). The Works of Thomas Jefferson, 12 vols. Vol. 11 (1808-1816). New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1905. (pp. 420 – 421).

  6. For example, to William G. Munford (1798), Joseph C. Cabell (1800), John Wyche (1809), and Samuel R. Demaree (1809). ^


Resources


Books

Foley, John P. (ed.) The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia: A Comprehensive Collection of the Views of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1900. [ more ]

Ford, Paul Leicester. The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Federal Edition. In 12 vols. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5. Monticello Aug. 30. 1814

Hayes, Kevin J. The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2008

Gilreath, James; Wilson, Douglas L. (eds.). Thomas Jefferson's Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order. Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1989.

Peterson, Merrill D. (ed.) Thomas Jefferson Writings. Literary Classics of the United States. New York, 1984. (Letters, pp. 733 to 1517). Letters online .

Richard, Carl J. The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995 .

Richard, Carl J. The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Articles

Cothran, Martin. The Classical Education of the Founding Fathers. Classical Teacher, Spring 2007.

Great Books Lists and Topics

The 100 Best History Books of All Time – David Thomson's excellent list

List of Great Books Lists – by Robert Teeter

Center for the Study of the Great Ideas – Mortimer Adler's list

Great Books of the Western World – Encyclopedia Brittanica series

Great Books and Classics

Great Books Lists (Columbia, Pepperdine, and St. John's universities)


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Last updated: 27 May 2015 (Young, Addison, Areopagitica)
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