Contact: Helen Dalrymple (202) 707-1940
View the exhibition online.

March 13, 2000

Library of Congress Celebrates Bicentennial with Major Exhibition on Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson's Library Reassembled for First Time Since 1815

The keystone for the Bicentennial celebrations of the Library of Congress is an exhibition about the Library's very own "founding father," Thomas Jefferson, whose personal library of 6,487 books was the seed from which the nation's library grew. Congress purchased Jefferson's library after its own collections, housed in the U.S. Capitol, were burned by the British in 1814.

That library -- the original volumes that came to Washington in carts from Monticello -- will be a major feature of the "Thomas Jefferson" exhibition. Because of an 1851 fire in the Library, many of those original books had been lost. Spurred by a very generous donation of Jerry and Gene Jones as a Bicentennial "Gift to the Nation," the Library has been reassembling copies of the same editions of the works that Jefferson held. The reconstituted Jefferson's library should be more than 90 percent complete by April 24.

The display of Jefferson's library as part of this exhibition will be the first time ever that the public will be able to view Jefferson's library. It is also the first time that the volumes have been assembled in one place in the original order that Jefferson himself devised since the collection came to Washington in 1815. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to tell which volumes were owned by Jefferson and sold to Congress in 1815, which were recently identified and pulled from the Library's general collections, which have been recently purchased, and which are still missing.

"Thomas Jefferson" will be on view in the Northwest Gallery and Pavilion of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street S.E., from April 24 through October 31. Hours for the exhibition are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday- Saturday.

Items from the exhibition are available on the Library's Web site at, and by April 24 the Library's entire collection of Jefferson Papers (more than 25,000 items) will be accessible on-line.

Thomas Jefferson -- founding father, farmer, architect, inventor, slaveholder, book collector, scholar, diplomat and third president of the United States -- was a complex figure who contributed immeasurably to the creation of the new republicanism in America. Wherever Anglo- American culture has shaped political and intellectual developments, Jefferson is almost inevitably part of the mix. Drawing on the extraordinary written legacy of Thomas Jefferson that is held in the Library's collections, the exhibition traces Jefferson's development from his earliest days in Virginia to an ever- expanding realm of influence in republican Virginia, the American Revolutionary government, the creation of the American nation, the revolution in individual rights in America and the world, the revolution in France, and the burgeoning republican revolutionary movement throughout the world. Items borrowed from other institutions contribute to the exhibition's attempt to offer viewers a fully rounded portrait of the nation's third president.

The exhibition focuses on the complexities and contradictions of Thomas Jefferson, the man, the myth, the model. He was simultaneously an unquenchable idealist and a hard-headed realist. He deplored inequality among men, but owned slaves, supported servitude, and relegated women to a secondary role. He supported freedom of the press until his own foibles and politics became the focus. He was a firm believer in the separation of church and state, but he was often accused of being anti-Christian. He expounded the virtues of public education, ensured that his own daughters were well educated, and founded a public university at Charlottesville, but he assumed that access to higher education would be strictly limited. His life embodies the public and private struggles of life in a democratic republic.

Some 150 items in the eight sections will illustrate and provide a context for the life and character of Thomas Jefferson. The final and ninth section will be the reassembled "Jefferson Library." Visitors to the exhibition will see such items as the only surviving fragment of the earliest known draft of the Declaration of Independence as well as the desk on which he composed the Declaration; Martha Jefferson's thread case; Jefferson's instructions to Lewis and Clark; political cartoons of the day lampooning Jefferson; and the last letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to the mayor of the city of Washington just 10 days before he died, espousing his vision of the Declaration of Independence and the American nation as signals of the blessings of self-government to an ever- evolving world.

"Life and Labor at Monticello" examines how Jefferson's family, his era, education, role as plantation master and slaveholder, and his love and use of books influenced his character and the formation of his ideas on individual and institutional rights and limits. Items include:

  • Thomas Jefferson's Memorandum Book, 1773, where he kept detailed records on his expenditures including the purchase of slaves
  • Plantation account books kept by Jefferson's wife and then his granddaughter, recording purchases made from Monticello slaves, especially the Hemings family, for vegetables and fowl from the slave families' own flocks and gardens
  • The 1873 memoir by Madison Hemings published in the Pike County (Ohio) Republican, who testified that his mother, Sally Hemings, gave birth to five children "and Jefferson was the father of them all."
  • Letters Jefferson exchanged in 1791 with Benjamin Banneker, a free black living in Maryland, in which Jefferson praised Banneker's mathematical accomplishment ("no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men...") as well as with Abbé Henri Gregoire in 1809 trying to explain why he asserted the inferiority of African Americans in his Notes on the State of Virginia published in 1785
  • Letter written by Thomas Jefferson to John Adams in 1815 in which he says, "I cannot live without books, but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object."

The exhibition continues by demonstrating the expanding influence of Jefferson on American life and his interest in creating a culture based on republican principles -- first in his own state of Virginia, then on the federal scene with his drafting of the Declaration of Independence and his election to the presidency in 1800. On view are:

  • One of the nation's greatest treasures -- Jefferson's "original Rough draught" of the Declaration of Independence. The "Rough draught" is the final draft presented by Jefferson to his fellow committee members and indicates changes made by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
  • Fragment of the earliest known draft of the Declaration of Independence in Jefferson's hand
  • An 1806 document in President Jefferson's hand calling upon Congress to end the practice of importing slaves as soon as permitted by the U.S. Constitution in 1808
  • Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785, the only book ever published by Thomas Jefferson

"The West" explores Thomas Jefferson's persistent fascination with the vast part of the continent that lay beyond Virginia -- an area he never saw -- and his conviction that the new nation had to expand westward in order to survive. A highlight is Jefferson's instructions to the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark before they set out to map and explore the Western territories with their Corps of Discovery in 1803. Visitors can also see a Nicholas King manuscript map documenting the Lewis and Clark expedition that is annotated by Lewis with information from fur traders and Native Americans.

The influence of Jefferson's republican ideas were felt far beyond America, especially in France, his first experience on the world stage beyond America. He became an ardent supporter of the French revolution and often consulted with Lafayette during the drafting of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. In a July 9, 1789, letter to Jefferson, Lafayette asked him for his "observations" on "my bill of rights" before presenting it to the National Assembly. On view in the exhibition is a manuscript copy of the French Declaration written in a clerical hand, with emendations in the hand of Thomas Jefferson. Also in the exhibition is the 1789 passport that Thomas Jefferson used upon his return from France, signed by King Louis XVI.

The exhibition concludes with "Epitaph: Take Care of Me," which reviews Jefferson's own evaluation of the meaning of his life and his thoughts about how he would be viewed by history. Key items here are:

  • A sketch and wording for Jefferson's tombstone, in his own hand
  • A letter explaining his position on slavery, written just six weeks before his death
  • A letter to Jefferson from his granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, despairing of the "canker of slavery" that oppresses the Southern states
  • A newspaper account of the sale of Jefferson's slaves by his heirs in order to pay off estate debts

A volume accompanying the exhibition, Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty, includes an introduction by Garry Wills and essays by Jefferson scholars Pauline Maier, Charles A. Miller, Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter S. Onuf and Joseph J. Ellis. Published by Viking Studio, the hardcover volume is highly illustrated with mostly color images and sells for $35. It is available in major bookstores and from the Library's Sales Shops; order with major credit card by calling (202) 707-0204.

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PR 00-009
ISSN 0731-3527

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