I sat down with a design of executing your request to form a catalogue of books to the amount of about 50 lib. sterl. But could by no means satisfy myself with any partial choice I could make. Thinking therefore it might be as agreeable to you I have framed such a general collection as I think you would wish and might in time find convenient to procure. Out of this you will chuse for yourself to the amount you mentioned for the present year and may hereafter as shall be convenient proceed in completing the whole.
Source: To Robert Skipwith, August 3, 1771
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders are very well-read!
The recipient was the brother-in-law of Martha Wayles Skelton, whom Jefferson would marry 17 months later. Skipwith had requested a reading list, “suited to the capacity of a common reader who understands but little of the classicks and who has not leisure for any intricate or tedious study. Let them be improving as well as amusing..“ He was willing to spend 50 pounds. (Jefferson would have been wiser still had he applied Skipwith’s self-limitation to himself. Strict when it came to public spending, Jefferson demonstrated little discipline in his personal finances.)
The 28 year old Jefferson could not whittle his reading list to the budget. Instead, he gave a much more extensive one and suggested Skipwith spend 50 pounds on some of these works now and acquire the rest as he was able.
Jefferson’s letter to Skipwith includes the list.
Monticello’s web site adds helpful “brief subject categories” to that list.
How much, you ask, is “50 lib. sterl.” in today’s money? Good luck. This article from Colonial Williamsburg explains the difficulty in answering that question. Perhaps it would be $3-4,000 in 2013. (The top photo in this article features Bill Sommerfield, aka George Washington. We presented together five times, four at his invitation, once at mine. He was excellent and greatly encouraging to me! Bill passed away several years ago.)
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The Moral Liberal Thomas Jefferson Editor, Patrick Lee, is a professional speaker, actor and writer. Since 1990, he has inspired, entertained and educated audiences from Maine to Hawaii with his authentic, first person leadership presentations as President Thomas Jefferson, Frontiersman Daniel Boone, and Lewis & Clark Co-Leader William Clark. He also appears as himself, The Hopeful Humorist™, with a program of motivational humor, patriotism and inspiration.