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>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Eric Carle, <i>The Very Hungry Caterpillar,</i> hand-painted collage. Sold for a record $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Charles Addams, <i>Couple passing a giant bird house,</i> watercolor cartoon for <i>The New Yorker,</i> 1948. Sold for $16,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Miriam Troop, <i>Rain on Laundry Day,</i> oil on canvas, cover for <i>The Saturday Evening Post,</i> 1940. Sold for $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Rockwell Kent, <i>To All Fascists,</i> ink broadside for The League of American Writers, circa 1937. Sold for $6,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Jo Mielziner, <i>Pet Shop Drop,</i> backdrop design for <i>Pal Joey</i> on Broadway, 1940. Sold for a record $55,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Lee Brown Coye, acrylic cover illustration for the 25th anniversary of <i>Weird Tales,</i> 1944. Sold for $18,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Virgil Finlay, <i>The Outsider & Others,</i> pen & ink dust jacket illustration for H.P. Lovecraft's book, 1939. Sold for $5,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Al Hirschfeld, <i>Paul Robeson as Othello,</i> illustration for <i>The New York Times,</i> 1942. Sold for $68,750
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Frederic Remington, pen & ink illustration for <i>A Scout with the Buffalo Soldiers</i> in <i>The Century</i> magazine, 1889. Sold for $17,500.
  • <b>Bonhams, Sep. 17:</b> EARLY AVIATION PHOTOGRAPHY ARCHIVE. Chronicling 20th century aviation from the earliest Wright Brothers images through commercial and military applications. $50,000 to $70,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 17:</b> FIRST TELEPHONE CALL TO THE MOON. Partial transcription signed by Apollo 11 astronauts and President Nixon. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 17:</b> SPUTNIK-1 EMC/EMI LAB MODEL, 1957. Full scale vintage test model of the Sputnik-1 satellite, Moscow, [February, 1957]. $400,000 to $600,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 17:</b> Apollo 11 Beta cloth crew emblem, SIGNED BY THE ENTIRE APOLLO 11 CREW. $8,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 17:</b> GEMINI 1/8 SCALE MODEL. Rarely seen large-scale contractor's model. $3,000 to $5,000
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> SMITH, CHRISTOPHER WEBB. 1793-1871. <i>Indian Ornithology.</i> [Patna, India]: 1828. $50,000 to $80,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> DUPRÉ, LOUIS. 1789-1837. <i>Voyage à Athènes et à Constantinople, ou Collection de portraits, vues et costumes grecs et ottomans.</i> Paris: Dondey-Dupré, 1825. $60,000 to $90,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> ADAMS, JOHN. Autograph Letter Signed ("J Adams"), [to Dr. Perkins?] while recovering from his small pox inoculation, [late-April, 1764]. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> AUSTEN, JANE. Autograph Letter Signed ("J. Austen"), to her sister Cassandra, 4 pp, "Thursday – after dinner," [September 16, 1813,] Henrietta St. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> AUDUBON, JOHN JAMES. 1785-1851. <i>The Birds of America, from Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories.</i> New York & Philadelphia: J.J. Audubon & J.B. Chevalier, 1840-1844. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> DODWELL, EDWARD. 1767-1832. <i>Views in Greece.</i> London: Rodwell and Martin, 1821. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> JAMES, JESSE. Autograph Letter Signed ("Jesse W. James"), to Mr. Flood demanding Flood retract spurious accusations, 3 pp, June 5, 1875. $200,000 to $300,000.

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