Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - March - 2003 Issue

Thomas Jefferson: An Exhibition on the Library of Congress Website

Jefferson1

The Thomas Jefferson Exhibition Image courtesy of Library of Congress


By Mike Stillman

He is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in our nation’s history. He is the primary author of what could be the most important written work in Americana: the Declaration of Independence. His image is one of only four (Washington, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt being the others) to make it to Mount Rushmore. He was once an unquestioned American icon. And he is currently the topic of a fascinating exhibition on the Library of Congress website.

Time has somewhat tarnished Thomas Jefferson’s reputation, at least in some eyes. Interestingly, the issues have little to do with his performance as a “founding father,” but much to do with his personal life. Like so many great leaders, Jefferson was a man of contradictions, high ideals not always put to practice in his personal life. Most particularly, his reputation has been damaged by fact that the author of “all men are created equal” owned slaves, and more recently by claims of paternity: DNA testing in recent years has shown a Jeffersonian father to at least one child of his slave, Sally Hemings, although some maintain that the father was Jefferson’s brother rather than Jefferson himself. The stain is exacerbated by the fact that Jefferson never set Hemings nor most other of his slaves free, as did Washington upon his death (though financial problems may have inhibited Jefferson from showing comparable generosity).

The resurgence of the reputation of John Adams, Jefferson’s rival, hasn’t helped. David McCullough’s recent biography of Adams has had a major impact on the reputation of the rival once primarily associated with the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams’ devotion to free speech left a bit to be desired, but Adams’ loathing of slavery is much more in line with contemporary thought than was Jefferson’s ambiguous acceptance of the institution. However, as this exhibition points out, Jefferson was at least intellectually opposed to slavery and prohibited the importation of any new slaves from foreign countries on the first day this prohibition became constitutionally permissible, January 1, 1808.

Jefferson’s stand on slavery is exemplified by a letter to James Heaton on display in this exhibition. In it, Jefferson states "A good cause is often injured more by ill-timed efforts of its friends than by the arguments of its enemies . . . my sentiments have been 40 years before the public. Had I repeated them 40 times, they would only have become the more stale and thread-bare." What an excuse for not speaking out against slavery, especially from a man who rarely lacked the courage of his convictions when it came to speaking out about anything else! The exhibition also includes a letter written less than a year before his death in response to an attack on slavery by his granddaughter, where Jefferson agrees with her that "One fatal stain deforms what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts." Maybe given a little more time Jefferson would have corrected the one major blot on an exemplary career.

But perhaps we dwell too long on this Jeffersonian Achilles heel. And certainly many of Jefferson’s esteemed contemporaries shared his passive acceptance of slavery. Much of our freedom has descended from the work of Jefferson, this imperfect man. In this exhibition you’ll see letters written late in Jefferson’s life explaining the principles behind the Declaration of Independence. There are documents attesting to Jefferson’s great devotion to religious liberty and separation of church and state.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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