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• Last updated: September 24, 2021

The Libraries of Famous Men: Thomas Jefferson’s Recommended Reading

The libraries of famous men by Thomas Jefferson.

Welcome back to our series on the libraries of great men. The eminent men of history were often voracious readers and their own philosophy represents a distillation of all the great works they fed into their minds. This series seeks to trace the stream of their thinking back to the source. For, as David Leach, a now retired business executive put it: “Don’t follow your mentors; follow your mentors’ mentors.”

Thomas Jefferson is best known for being the 3rd President of the United States and drafting the Declaration of Independence. And for good reason — these monumental tasks are enough to get any man into the annals of American history. Amazingly, though, Jefferson didn’t stop there. After his presidency, he took on the work of re-creating education in the young country. Up until that point, education was largely a religious undertaking from youth all the way through university. Jefferson, however, believed that one’s education should encompass much more than just knowledge of the divine.

So, in 1819, at the ripe age of 76 years old, he founded the University of Virginia as a secular institute. At the center of this undertaking — quite literally — was the library. Traditionally, the chapel would be at the center of campus. At UVA, though, Jefferson put the library in the center of campus, thereby signaling his belief that books were central to one’s education.

It would be easy to imagine Jefferson as a stuffy reader, but he was quite the opposite. He actually found history and ethics to be fairly dull:

“Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that ever were written.”

He was well-versed in all disciplines, but works of fiction were perhaps his favorite:

“A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant.”

Throughout his life, Jefferson was a habitual writer of letters, and he frequently responded to requests from strangers for lists of books and ways to improve oneself. In one particular letter, he responds to the commonly held belief of the time that one could only be educated in virtue through Greek and Roman classics:

“Everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity, and conceive an abhorrence of vice.”

In that letter, as well as many others, Jefferson gave a lengthy list of books that he found to be uplifting for both moral gain as well as pleasure. What’s listed below is a sampling of the books that Jefferson mentioned in various letters throughout his life. He even went so far as to often organize them by category, so I’ve done the same.

As Jefferson himself noted, these works don’t encompass the entirety of what a man should read, but will provide an excellent base:

“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 knowledge in these branches.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Recommended Reading List

Thomas Jefferson sitting at desk illustration.

Ancient History
The HistoriesHerodotus
History of the Peloponnesian War
Anabasis & Hellenica
Life of Alexander the Great
Quintus Curtius Rufus
The Gallic War & The Civil War
Julius Caesar
Annals & Histories
History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbons
Works of Plato
Works of Cicero
Moral Epistles & Essays
Memorabilia of SocratesXenophon
MeditationsMarcus Aurelius
The Enchiridion
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
John Locke
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
David Hume
Introductory Discourse and the Free Inquiry
Conyers Middleton
Nicomachean Ethics
Literature/Epic Poetry/Plays
The Iliad & The Odyssey
The Aeneid
Paradise Lost
John Milton
Oedipus Trilogy
Orestian Trilogy
The Plays of Euripides
The Works of Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
The Misanthrope
Gulliver’s Travels
Jonathan Swift
A Modest Proposal
Jonathan Swift
Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes
The Adventures of David Simple
Sarah Fielding
The Adventures of Roderick Random
Tobias Smollett
The Vicar of Wakefield
Oliver Goldsmith
Tristram Shandy
Laurence Sterne
The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer
PoemsEdmund Waller
Politics/Religion/Modern History
Spirit of the Laws
Two Treatises of Government
John Locke
Discourses Concerning Government
Algernon Sidney
The Bible
The History of America
William Robertson
Historical Review of Pennsylvania
Benjamin Franklin
A History of the Settlement of Virginia
Captain John Smith
On Electricity
Benjamin Franklin
The Gentleman Farmer
Henry Home
The Horse Hoeing Husbandry
Jethro Tull
Buffon’s Natural History
Georges-Louis Leclerc
Anson’s Voyage Round the World
Richard Walter

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