The Reading Room
by Maxine Carter-Lome
The founding principles of our country have their roots in the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. Ideals such as “liberty, progress, religious tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state” advanced in the books of the day provided our Founding Fathers with a blueprint for the ideals of a democratic society that continues to define us as a country these many centuries later.
There is no doubt that our Founding Fathers were greatly influenced by what they read. Their personal libraries and reading lists are a testament to the influencers and evolution of thought that guided us to take up arms and fashion a new kind of government based on the core values of democratic thought. The books they read, collected, and passed on continue to enlighten and inspire generations of historians, academics, and American citizens.
The Founding Fathers were not only voracious readers but those that could, indulged themselves in building a personal library in their home. Having a dedicated room in one’s home to house books was a point of personal pride and sign of wealth and enlightenment. Often grand in size and scale and emulating the libraries of the great estates of Europe, these rooms not only conveyed the owner’s personal journey of thought but identified him to others as a man of education, interests, and refinement.
The “Gentleman’s Reading Room” is an aesthetic that continues to be associated with our love of collecting books and curating an environment for their enjoyment. One could say the Reading Room was the precursor to today’s man cave but the truth is that collectors of both genders have long been curating private spaces in their home to live among the things they love, and to share them with others.
Thomas Jefferson collected nearly ten thousand books over the course of his lifetime, and designed a Reading Room and Library Room at Monticello to showcase and show off his private library. You can learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s books in this month’s Great Collections column on page 36.
George Washington, considered “too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation” by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, cared greatly for books and created an impressive collection of his own that contained around nine hundred volumes at the end of his life. The contents of Washington’s library counter claims that he was uneducated. He owned books in several languages including Latin, French, and Dutch. His library boasted a host of different subjects including agriculture, philosophy, politics, history, and literature. The majority of these books were on military and political matters, ranging from works of Plato to those of contemporary political philosophers like Thomas Paine.
Benjamin Franklin famously founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, the country’s first lending library and the predecessor of public libraries; however, Franklin’s personal library was a marvel in its own right. In 1787, a visitor to his library described it as “the largest, and by far the best, private library in America.” It is estimated that at his death Franklin’s book collection contained some 4,000 volumes.
As a law student John Adams began collecting books in earnest, writing “I am mostly intent at present, upon collecting a Library, and I find, that a great deal of Thought, and Care, as well as Money, are necessary to assemble an ample and well chosen Assortment of Books.” At the end of his life Adams had amassed a collection of nearly three thousand texts on subjects ranging from classics and science to agriculture and linguistics. His library has great historic significance today, as it is one of the only early American book collections to remain intact.
For those of the time who could not afford a library of their own, such as Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, the Society Library in New York City, formed as a kind of book co-op in 1754, became their personal lending library. The Library, which still exists today and is now located on 79th Street between Madison and Park, not only keeps records of all the books that Burr and Hamilton borrowed (and, mostly, returned) but also has many of the books themselves—not merely the same titles, but the exact same books that Hamilton and Burr handled, thumbed through, read and learned from.
With few exceptions, the founding American libraries of our founding generations have been broken up over the centuries and either donated to universities and museums, or sold at auction and dispersed to museums and private collectors around the world. These books are valued for their provenance, age, condition and the often-found hand-written notations in the margins from the owner. There are potentially thousands more out there buried in boxes of uncatalogued donations to museums, libraries, and university archives, or hidden in plain sight on the shelves of an antiquarian bookshop. That’s certainly part of the fun and appeal of collecting books and building your own library. You never know what you’ll find until you open a book and turn to the first page.
The Reading Room