Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Two Young Bibliophiles Visit Monticello

Two hundred years ago today, on 4 February 1815, two young Massachusetts bibliophiles arrived at Monticello to visit Thomas Jefferson. George Ticknor and Francis Calley Gray spent the better part of three days with Jefferson, and much of that time was spent viewing Jefferson's books, which would shortly make their way to Washington to reconstitute the Library of Congress. Both Ticknor and Gray wrote about the experience (Ticknor in a letter to his father, Gray in his journal), and Ticknor would go on to engage in a lengthy correspondence with Jefferson through the rest of the former president's life. I'm working on editing a small collection of their letters for the Ticknor Society (the Boston bibliophilic society named for Ticknor and his daughter Anna), and since I've already made preliminary transcriptions of the two accounts of the visit to Monticello, I thought I'd post them here to mark the bicentennial of their visit. 

I should note, too, that John Adams's letter of introduction to Jefferson on Ticknor's behalf is one of my favorites: it contains the great line "As you are all Heluones Librorum [gluttons for books] I think you ought to have a sympathy for each other."

George Ticknor to Elisha Ticknor, 7 February 1815

Charlottesville, February 7, 1815.

We left Charlottesville on Saturday morning, the 4th of February, for Mr. Jefferson's. He lives, you know, on a mountain, which he has named Monticello, and which, perhaps, you do not know, is a synonym for Carter's mountain. The ascent of this steep, savage hill, was as pensive and slow as Satan's ascent to Paradise. We were obliged to wind two-thirds round its sides before we reached the artificial lawn on which the house stands; and, when we had arrived there, we were about six hundred feet, I understand, above the stream which flows at its foot. It is an abrupt mountain. The fine growth of ancient forest-trees conceals its sides and shades part of its summit. The prospect is admirable. ... The lawn on the top, as I hinted, was artificially formed by cutting down the peak of the height. In its centre, and facing the south-east, Mr. Jefferson has placed his house, which is of brick, two stories high in the wings, with a piazza in front of a receding centre. It is built, I suppose, in the French style. You enter, by a glass folding-door, into a hall, which reminds you of Fielding's "Man of the Mountain," by the strange furniture of its walls. On one side hang the hand and horns of an elk, a deer, and a buffalo; another is covered with curiosities which Lewis and Clarke found in their wild and perilous expedition. On the third, among many other striking matters, was the head of a mammoth, or, as Cuvier calls it, a mastodon, containing the only os frontis, Mr. Jefferson tells me, that has yet been found. On the fourth side, in odd union with a fine painting of the Repentance of St. Peter, is an Indian map on leather, of the southern waters of the Missouri, and an Indian representation of a bloody battle, handed down in their traditions.

Through this hall—or rather museum—we passed to the dining-room, and sent our letters to Mr. Jefferson, who was of course in his study. Here again we found ourselves surrounded with paintings that seemed good.

We had hardly time to glance at the pictures before Mr. Jefferson entered; and if I was astonished to find Mr. Madison short and somewhat awkward, I was doubly astonished to find Mr. Jefferson, whom I had always supposed to be a short man, more than six feet high, with dignity in his appearance, and ease and graciousness in his manners. ... He rang, and sent to Charlottesville for our baggage, and, as dinner approached, took us to the drawing-room,—a large and rather elegant room, twenty or thirty feet high,—which, with the hall I have described, composed the whole centre of the house, from top to bottom. The floor of this room is tessellated. It is formed of alternate diamonds of cherry and beech, and kept polished as highly as if it were of fine mahogany.

Here are the best pictures of the collection. Over the fireplace is the Laughing and Weeping Philosophers, diving the world between them; on its right, the earliest navigators to America,—Columbus, Americus Vespuccius, Magellan, etc.,—copied, Mr. Jefferson said, from originals in the Florence Gallery. Farther round, Mr. Madison in the plain, Quaker-like dress of his youth, Lafayette in his Revolutionary uniform, and Franklin in the dress in which we always see him. There were other pictures, and a copy of Raphael's Transfiguration.

We conversed on various subjects until dinner-time, and at dinner were introduced to the grown members of his family. These are his only remaining child, Mrs. Randolph, her husband, Colonel Randolph, and the two oldest of their unmarried children, Thomas Jefferson and Ellen; and I assure you I have seldom met a pleasanter party.

The evening passed away pleasantly in general conversation, of which Mr. Jefferson was necessarily the leader. I shall probably surprise you by saying that, in conversation, he reminded me of Dr. Freeman. He has the same discursive manner and love of paradox, with the same appearance of sobriety and cool reason. He seems equally fond of American antiquities, and especially the antiquities of his native State, and talks of them with freedom and, I suppose, accuracy. He has, too, the appearance of that fairness and simplicity which Dr. Freeman has; and, if the parallel holds no further here, they will again meet on the ground of their love of old books and young society.

On Sunday morning, after breakfast, Mr. Jefferson asked me into his library, and there I spent the forenoon of that day as I had that of yesterday. This collection of books, now so much talked about, consists of about seven thousand volumes, contained in a suite of fine rooms, and is arranged in the catalogue, and on the shelves, according to the divisions and subdivisions of human learning by Lord Bacon. In so short a time I could not, of course, estimate its value, even if I had been competent to do so.

Perhaps the most curious single specimen—or, at least, the most characteristic of the man and expressive of his hatred of royalty—was a collection which he had bound up in six volumes, and lettered "The Book of Kings," consisting of the "Mémoires de la Princesse de Bareith," two volumes; "Les Mémoires de la Comtesse de la Motte," two volumes; the "Trial of the Duke of York," one volume; and "The Book," one volume. These documents of regal scandal seemed to be favourites with the philosopher, who pointed them out to me with a satisfaction somewhat inconsistent with the measured gravity he claims in relation to such subjects generally.

On Monday morning I spent a couple of hours with him in his study. He gave me there an account of the manner in which he passed the portion of his time in Europe which he could rescue from public business; told me that while he was in France he had formed a plan of going to Italy, Sicily, and Greece, and that he should have executed it if he had not left Europe in the full conviction that he should immediately return there, and find a better opportunity. He spoke of my intention to go, and, without my even hinting any purpose to ask him for letters, told me that he was now seventy-two years old, and that most of his friends and correspondents in Europe had died in the course of the twenty-seven years since he left France, but that he would gladly furnish me with the means of becoming acquainted with some of the remainder, if I would give him a month's notice, and regretted that their number was so reduced.

The afternoon and evening passed as on the two days previous; for everything is done with such regularity, that when you know how one day is filled, I suppose you know how it is with the others. At eight o'clock the first bell is rung in the great hall, and at nine the second summons you to the breakfast room, where you find everything ready. After breakfast every one goes, as inclination leads him, to his chamber, the drawing-room, or the library. The children retire to their school-room with their mother, Mr. Jefferson rides to his mils on the Rivanna, and returns at about twelve. At half-past three the great bell rings, and those who are disposed resort to the drawing-room, and the rest go to the dining-room at the second call of the bell, which is at four o'clock. The dinner was always choice, and served in the French style; but no wine was set on the table till the cloth was removed. The ladies sat until about six, then retired, but returned with the tea-tray a little before seven, and spent the evening with the gentlemen; which was always pleasant, for they are obviously accustomed to join in the conversation, however high the topic may be. At about half-past ten, which seemed to be their usual hour of retiring, I went to my chamber, found there a fire, candle, and a servant in waiting to receive my orders for the morning, and in the morning was waked by his return to build the fire.

To-day, Tuesday, we told Mr. Jefferson that we should leave Monticello in the afternoon. He seemed much surprised, and said as much as politeness would permit on the badness of the roads and the prospect of bad weather, to induce us to remain longer. It was evident, I thought, that they had calculated on our staying a week. At dinner, Mr. Jefferson again urged us to stay, not in an oppressive way, but with kind politeness; and when the horses were at the door, asked if he should not send them away; but, as he found us resolved on going, he bade us farewell in the heartiest style of Southern hospitality, after thrice reminding me that I must write to him for letters to his friends in Europe. I came away almost regretting that the coach returned so soon, and thinking, with General Hamilton, that he was a perfect gentleman in his own house.

Two little incidents which occurred while we were at Monticello should not be passed by. The night before we left, young Randolph came up late from Charlottesville and brought the astounding news that the English had been defeated before New Orleans by General Jackson. Mr. Jefferson had made up his mind that the city would fall, and told me that the English would hold it permanently—or for some time—by a force of Sepoys from the East Indies. He had gone to bed, like the rest of us; but of course his grandson went to his chamber with the paper containing the news. But the old philosopher refused to open his door, saying he could wait till the morning; and when we met at breakfast I found he had not yet seen it.

One morning, when he came back from his ride, he told Mr. Randolph, very quietly, that the dam had been carried away the night before. From his manner, I supposed it an affair of small consequence, but at Charlottesville, on my way to Richmond, I found the country ringing with it. Mr. Jefferson's great dam was gone, and it would cost $30,000 to rebuild it.

There is a breathing of national philosophy in Mr. Jefferson,—in his dress, his house, his conversation. His setness, for instance, in wearing very sharp-toed shoes, corduroy small-clothes, and red plush waistcoat, which have been laughed at till he might perhaps wisely have dismissed them.
So, though he told me he thought Charron, "De la Sagesse," the best treatise on moral philosophy ever written, and an obscure Review of Montesquieu, by Dupont de Nemours, the best political work that had been printed for fifty years,—though he talked very freely of the natural impossibility that one generation should bind another to pay a public debt, and of the expediency of vesting all the legislative authority of a State in one branch, and the executive authority in another, and leaving them to govern it by joint discretion,—I considered such opinions simply as curious indicia of an extraordinary character.

Francis Calley Gray Journal, February 1815

[...] On Saturday [4 February] it rained & at twelve o'clock we went from our tavern in a hack to Monticello, three miles east of Charlottesville on the same road we had passed on the day before. Our road passed between Monticello & the S.W. mountain which is much higher & along whose side runs the narrow path which led us between these hills to the gate on the S.E. side of Monticello. The sides of both these hills & the valley between them are covered with a noble forest of oaks in all stages of growth & of decay. Their trunks straight & tall put forth no branches till they reach a height almost equal to the summits of our loftiest trees in New England. Those which were rooted in the valley, in the richest soil overtopped many which sprung from spots far above them on the side of the mountain. The forest had evidently been abandoned to nature; some of the trees were decaying from age, some were blasted, some uprooted by the wind & some appeared even to have been twisted from their trunks by the violence of a hurricane. They rendered the approach to the house even at this season of the year extremely grand & imposing. On reaching the house we found no bell nor knocker & entering through the hall in the parlour, saw a gentleman (Col. Randolph), who took our letters to Mr. Jefferson.

Mr. Jefferson soon made his appearance. He is quite tall, 6 feet, one or two inches, face streaked & speckled with red, light gray eyes, white hair, dressed in shoes of very thin soft leather with pointed toes and heels ascending in a peak behind, with very short quarters, grey worsted stockings, corduroy small clothes, blue waistcoat & coat, of stiff thick cloth made of the wool of his own merinoes & badly manufactured, the buttons of his coat & small clothes of horn, & an under waistcoat flannel bound with red velvet — His figure bony, long and with broad shoulders, a true Virginian. He begged he might put up our carriage, send for our baggage & keep us with him some time. We assented & he left the room to give the necessary directions, sending as we requested the carriage back to Charlottesville. On looking round the room in which we sat the first thing which attracted our attention was the state of the chairs. They had leather bottoms stuffed with hair, but the bottoms were completely worn through & the hair sticking out in all directions; on the mantel-piece which was large & of marble were many books of all kinds: Livy, Orosius, Edinburg Review, 1 vol. of Edgeworth's Moral Tales, &c. &c. There were many miserable prints & some fine pictures hung round the room, among them two plans for the completion of the Capitol at Washington, one of them very elegant. A harpsichord stood in one corner of the room. There were four double windows from the wall to the floor of fine large glass & a recess in one side of the apartment. This was the breakfasting room. After half an hour's conversation with Mr. Jeff. & Col. Randolph, we were invited into the parlour where a fire was just kindled & a servant occupied in substituting a wooden pannel for a square of glass, which had been broken in one of the folding doors opening on the lawn. Mr. J. had procured the glass for his house in Bohemia, where the price is so much the square foot whatever be the size of the glass purchased, and these panes were so large that, unable to replace the square in this part of the country, he had been obliged to send to Boston to have some glass made of sufficient size to replace that broken, & this had not yet been received.

We passed the whole forenoon, which was rainy, in conversation with Mr. Jeff and Mr. Randolph & at 4 o'clock toddy was brought us, which neither of us took, and which was never handed again, & we were ushered back into the breakfast room to dinner, where we were introduced to Mrs. Randolph, Miss Randolph, & Mr. T. J. Randolph. The rest of the family were Mrs. Marks, a sister of Mr. Jefferson & 2 other daughters of Col. Randolph. The drinking cups were of silver marked G. W. to T. J.— the table liquors were beer & cider & after dinner wine. In the same room we took tea & at ten in the evening retired. Fires were lighted in our bedrooms and again in the morning before we rose — the beds were all in recesses.

At 15 minutes after 8, we heard the first breakfast bell & at 9, the second, whose sound assembled us in the breakfast room. We sat an hour after breakfast chatting with the ladies & then adjourned to the parlour. Mr. Jefferson gave us the catalogue of his books to examine & soon after conducted us to his library, & passed an hour there in pointing out to us its principal treasures. His collection of ancient classics was complete as to the authors, but very careless in the editions. They were generally interleaved with the best English Translations. The Ancient English authors are also all here & some very rare editions of them: a black letter Chaucer and the first of Milton's Paradise Lost, divided into ten books, were the most remarkable. A considerable number of books valuable to the Biblical critic were here, & various ancient editions of all the genuine & apocryphal books, Erasmus' edition, &c. Many of the most valuable works on the civil and maritime law & on diplomacy, together with a complete collection of the laws of the different states, those of Virginia in manuscript, & all the old elementary writers & reporters of England formed the legal library. The ancient and most distinguished modern historians render this department nearly complete, & the histories & descriptions of the Kingdoms of Asia were remarkably numerous. Rapin was here in French, though very rare in that language. Mr. Jeff. said that after all it was still the best history of England, for Hume's tory principles are to him insupportable. The best mode of counteracting their effect is, he thinks, to publish an edition of Hume expunging all those reflections & reasonings whose influence is so injurious. This has been attempted by Baxter, but he has injured the work by making other material abridgments. D'Avila was there in Italian, in Mr. J's opinion, one of the most entertaining books he ever read. I was surprised to find here two little volumes on Chronology by Count Potocki of St. Petersburg. Mr. J. has also a fine collection of Saxon & mœso Gothic books, among them Alfred's translations of Orosius and Boethius—& shewed us some attempts he had made at facilitating the study of this language. He thought the singularity of the letters one of the greatest difficulties & proposed publishing the Saxon books in four columns, the first to contain the Saxon, the second the same in Roman characters, the third a strictly verbal translation & the fourth a free one. Mr. J. said the French Dicty of Trévoux was better than that of the Academy, thought Charron's "de la Sagesse" an excellent work & brought us a commentary & review on Montesquieu published by Duane the translator from the French M.S. which he called the best book on politics which had been published for a century & agreed with its author in his opinion of Montesquieu.

Of all branches of learning however that relating to the History of North & South America is the most perfectly displayed in this library. The collection on this subject is without a question the most valuable in the world. Here are the works of all the Spanish travellers in America & the great work of De Brie in which he has collected latin translations of the smaller works published by the earliest visitors of America whose original publications are now lost. It is finely printed & adorned with many plates. Here also is a copy of the letters of Fernando Cortes in Spanish, one of a small edition, & the copy retained by the Editor the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo for himself, but given by him to the American Consul for Mr. Jefferson. This work contains the official letters of Cortes to his court, his maps of the country & plates representing the dress, armour & other contents of the treasury of the Mexican Sovereigns. We saw here also some beautiful modern M.S.S., one of [a] work which had been suppressed in France, most of the Greek Romances. — Mr. Jeff took us from his library into his bed chamber where, on a table before the fire, stood a polygraph with which he said he always wrote.

Mr. Jefferson took his accustomed ride before dinner & on his return told us that the ice was crowded & thick on the banks of the Rivanna & had carried away 30 feet of his mill-dam; this was all he said on the subject, & from his manner I supposed his loss was probably about one or two hundred dollars, but on our ride back to Richmond we heard it everywhere spoken of as a serious loss & the countrymen, some of them, even estimated it at $30,000. This to be sure must [have been] a most wonderful miscalculation, but no doubt the loss was serious.

Ticknor's letter is published in The Life, Letters, and Journals of George Ticknor. Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1876. I:34-37. Gray's journal is published in Francis Calley Gray, Thomas Jefferson in 1814: Being an account of a visit to Monticello, Virginia (ed. Henry S. Rowe and T. Jefferson Coolidge, Jr.). Boston: The Club of Odd Volumes, 1924, pp. 65-74. Also published in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series 8:232-236. The manuscript of Gray's journal is at Duke University.

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