Library Hunts for Books Handpicked by Thomas Jefferson
By Brian McNeill
Law School librarians are working to recreate a collection of rare law books — some dating back to the 1500s — that Thomas Jefferson personally selected for the university's library.
The titles of the law books are listed in the "Catalogue of the Library of the University of Virginia," a list compiled in 1828 by UVA's second librarian, William Wertenbaker, who relied on a manuscript prepared by Jefferson.
Taylor Fitchett, director of the Arthur J. Morris Law Library, said the collection of the books listed in the 1828 catalogue provides scholars with valuable insight into the mind of the university's founder, whose 269th birthday was celebrated April 13th.
"If you look at the titles he picked, you see the classicist, lawyer, philosopher, politician and historian that he was," she said. "These books helped shape the man. Those doing research on Jefferson ask to see the particular edition of a work that he owned or that the writers of the Constitution would have used, to further their understanding of him and his colleagues."
To date, the library has acquired 317 of the books and is continuing to hunt down the remaining 58.
"Some of these books are hard to find or very expensive, but little by little, over a period of 40 years, we have been trying to acquire these books," said Cecilia Brown, a special collections archivist. "Jefferson wanted to have everything from [books] explaining canon law to English law to maritime law and English reports. We try to get the edition that he specified. When something comes onto the market, we try to buy it."
The 1828 catalogue collection is stored in law library's rare book room, located on the third floor, just past a display case filled with various Law students' artifacts from the 1800s and another containing U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren's custom-made 16-gauge shotgun.
Many of the law books originally in the university's library were lost in the 1895 fire that consumed the Rotunda. "We would love to have all the books that Jefferson said we should have," Brown said. "Many of them were here until the fire."
The law library's most recent acquisition for the collection, the 1739 text "Jus parliamentarium; or, The ancient power, jurisdiction, rights and liberties, of the most high court of Parliament, revived and asserted," was purchased in October for $750 from Meyer Boswell Books, a San Francisco-based dealer specializing in antiquarian law books.
In addition to buying the books when they come onto the market, the law library also picked up a significant portion of its 1828 catalogue collection from a transfer from the university’s Alderman Library in 1996.
Also, Baltimore lawyer, E. Nicholson Gault Jr. '71, donated a number of the books, including 11 titles in 2011. Gault, who has been collecting early English law books since his first year in law school, said Professor Hardy Dillard's common law class sparked his fascination.
"It is an affliction that I have," he said, laughing. "To call it a hobby would be a disservice. I spend literally thousands of hours a year looking, researching, chasing, tracing, and so on these books." Gault said the library's effort to collect all of the books in the 1828 catalogue could allow scholars to one day "back-to-front, inside-out, glue it all together and understand how Mr. Jefferson's mind worked."
"It's a way of understanding the way his brain operated, what he appreciated, what he put stock in, in the writings of another person," he said. "Smarter people than I could size up these works, their content, their authors, their philosophy — everything about them, everything they have to say — and reconstruct the legal thought process of Mr. Jefferson. Why did he single these books out?"
Gault added that he would love to know why Jefferson chose one specific volume of a law book and not another. "A number of these books, he specifies very early imprints, from the 1500s for example, where there are literally scores of editions through the 1600s and the 1700s," he said. "In a lot of these cases, he could have included much more recent editions. In many others, he could have had older editions. Why the mish-mash? Why the potpourri of earlier and later imprints?"
Jefferson might have seen something notable in that specific edition, Gault said, or maybe one particular volume over another was simply what was handy when Jefferson drew up his list.
Gault praised the law library's project, likening it in a certain sense to the antiquities collections of J.P. Morgan or Andrew Carnegie. "What a gift they've made to the modern world by collecting what they collected when they did," he said.