The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson by Kevin J. Hayes. Published by Oxford University Press, New York. 709 pages, 2008.
Thomas Jefferson is a complex figure among America’s Founding Fathers, and we shall forever debate, discuss, and disagree about this enigma, what famous American historian Joseph Ellis calls, “The American Sphinx.” He drafted the key words that are American scripture, such as our Declaration of Independence, believed in the natural rights of man, yet owned hundreds of slaves. Yet Jefferson is product of his time, and unlike others like John Adams who abhorred slavery, he like many other gentlemen planters could not see themselves without the institution of slavery.
Jefferson is also a master of the English language, and his political thoughts are essential to the understanding of the evolution of the concept of liberty in modern human history. Kevin Hayes is an English Professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, who delves into the evolving intellectualism of one of the most important minds of the late eighteenth century, not just in the United States but in the world. The book is a delight as it traces Jefferson’s voracious and lifelong appetite for books, how they have influenced his writings and his discussions with Americans founders such as Madison, Washington and Hamilton.
Jefferson read widely from gardening to classical history, he owned perhaps the earliest translation of the Quran by George Sale entitled, “The Koran, Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mohammad.” He read how religious customs and beliefs were passed from one culture to another, and tried to understand all works that influence the course of human events. At Williamsburg, Virginia, Jefferson studied at the College of William and Mary, before leaving to apprentice as a lawyer under the famous and thorough George Wythe. You can see Wythe’s home today in Colonial Williamsburg.
At this juncture Jefferson could not afford many fine books, but many allowed him to borrow from their personal library like William Small, and even Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauqier not only provided books but invited him for discussions on philosophy, science, and political events. Williamsburg, Virginia was an important part in the education of Thomas Jefferson, it was here he heard Patrick Henry’s oration, “give me liberty or give me death.” Only three and a half hours from Washington DC, it is recommended you visit. Members of the United States Armed Forces enter Colonial Williamsburg free of charge on Veteran’s Day.
The book continues with Jefferson preparing a draft of the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms,” in 1775. This is a different document than the Declaration of Independence in which Jefferson drafted, and the book devotes an entire chapter on the books and pamphlets as well as ideas that formulated the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson asked that books on such topics as Irish Rebellion be sent to him, he also had use of Benjamin Franklin’s first ever lending library, established in Philadelphia. The book continues with Jefferson’s lifelong love of books, while America’s Minister to Paris, he would walk around Europe’s major cities acquiring books.
A major portion of Jefferson’s collection would be sold to the Library of Congress, and you can visit and view this marvelous collection that was purchased for about $23,000. It is displayed on the 2nd Floor of the Library of Congress. Regrettably, a fire in 1851 destroyed two thirds of Jefferson’s books. Those interested in language, Jefferson, American history, and America’s founding will enjoy this new volume by Hayes. For a full Jefferson experience here are some recommended websites to plan your visits while you are stationed in the Washington DC area:
http://www.monticello.org/ is the website for Jefferson’s home Monticello, located near Charlottesville, Virginia.
http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/ is the website for the Library of Congress Jefferson book exhibit in downtown Washington DC.
http://www.history.org/ is the website for Colonial Williamsburg, plan to stay more than just a day and obtain your tickets through MWR.
Editor’s Note: Commander Aboul-Enein is an avid reader who maintains a regular book review column in NDW Waterline.