The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson

The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson

The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson

The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson

Synopsis

Thomas Jefferson was an avid book-collector, a voracious reader, and a gifted writer--a man who prided himself on his knowledge of classical and modern languages and whose marginal annotations include quotations from Euripides, Herodotus, and Milton. And yet there has never been a literary life of our most literary president.

In The Road to Monticello, Kevin J. Hayes fills this important gap by offering a lively account of Jefferson's spiritual and intellectual development, focusing on the books and ideas that exerted the most profound influence on him. Moving chronologically through Jefferson's life, Hayes reveals the full range and depth of Jefferson's literary passions, from the popular "small books" sold by traveling chapmen, such as The History of Tom Thumb,which enthralled him as a child; to his lifelong love of Aesop's Fables and Robinson Crusoe; his engagement with Horace, Ovid, Virgil and other writers of classical antiquity; and his deep affinity with the melancholy verse of Ossian, the legendary third-century Gaelic warrior-poet. Drawing on Jefferson's letters, journals, and commonplace books, Hayes offers a wealth of new scholarship on the print culture of colonial America, reveals an intimate portrait of Jefferson's activities beyond the political chamber, and reconstructs the president's investigations in such different fields of knowledge as law, history, philosophy and natural science. Most importantly, Hayes uncovers the ideas and exchanges which informed the thinking of America's first great intellectual and shows how his lifelong pursuit of knowledge culminated in the formation of a public offering, the "academic village" which became UVA, and his more private retreat at Monticello.

Gracefully written and painstakingly researched,The Road to Monticelloprovides an invaluable look at Jefferson's intellectual and literary life, uncovering the roots of some of the most important--and influential--ideas that have informed American history.

Excerpt

Fire! The word struck fear into every homeowner in colonial America. In a land where homes were shingled with wood, heated by wood, and lit with candles, fires were inevitable. All a person could do was to take some modest precautions and then try not to worry about the damage an errant spark might cause. There is no evidence to indicate that Thomas Jefferson, the youthful master of the family plantation in the Virginia Piedmont known as Shadwell, was worried about the mansion house there when he left home one February afternoon in 1770 to conduct some business in nearby Charlottesville. Already he had been master of Shadwell for half his life, since the death of his father, Peter Jefferson, thirteen years earlier. Having left the property countless times before, occasionally for months at a stretch, he had no reason to be more concerned this day than any other.

But during his brief absence, the house caught fire. The blaze spread quickly, and the house was soon engulfed. Both the building and its contents were almost completely consumed. The Virginia Gazette reported that Jefferson’s home “burnt to the ground with all his furniture, books, papers, &c.” He was less concerned with the furniture or the et cetera: the loss of his books and papers pained him much more. Family tradition tells what happened next. From Shadwell a slave was dispatched to locate Jefferson and inform him of the disaster. Once he told him what had happened, Jefferson had but one question: what about the books? The answer he received was disturbing. No, the man informed him, none of the books had survived.

Though this anecdote may not indicate precisely what happened that day, it has the ring of truth. The story conveys something expressed in many different ways over the course of his life: Jefferson was a man with a profound love of books. Both the Virginia Gazette report and this . . .

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