Ask A Librarian

Thomas Jefferson at the West Virginia and Regional History Center

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
May 19th, 2014

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian.

 Thomas Jefferson Portrait with Signature

Portrait Image Credit:  http://jrbenjamin.com/tag/thomas-jefferson-the-art-of-power/

The Rare Book Room in the West Virginia and Regional History Center owns many treasures from across the globe, from Austen to Diderot, and Linnaeus to Shakespeare.  The collection also includes many American gems; among these are books by Mark Twain and Isaac Asimov, as well as books associated with well-known individuals, such as the two volume legal dictionary once owned by the author of the Declaration of Independence, former President of the United States, and the founder of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson.

The first edition of A New and Complete Law-Dictionary by Timothy Cunningham, printed by the Law printers to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty in London, 1764-1765, was among the books in Jefferson’s personal library.   Although the date is not known, Jefferson gave this two volume law dictionary to his nephew, Peter Carr.  Jefferson’s gift inscription is penned inside the front cover of both volumes.

 Book inscription, T. Jefferson to P. Carr

According to the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia at Monticello, Peter was the eldest son of Dabney Carr (1743-1773), a childhood friend and brother-in-law to Jefferson, after his marriage to Jefferson’s sister Martha in 1765.  After Dabney Carr’s early death, Jefferson contributed to his nephew’s education, giving Peter this law dictionary to support his studies.  Following his father, who served in the House of Burgesses, and uncle into politics, Peter served as Justice of the Peace for Albemarle County and representative to the House of Delegates.

Endrina Tay, Jefferson scholar and Librarian at Monticello, notes that Jefferson began supervising Peter Carr’s education about 1783, when letters among Jefferson’s correspondence mention ordering books for Carr on languages and the classics during Jefferson’s tenure in Paris when he served with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, the American Ministers to France.

In their correspondence, Carr informed Jefferson that he had begun to read law under George Wythe, the first American Law professor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  It is at this time that Jefferson sends law books to Carr, and with the books he includes instructions for reading and study in a prescribed order.  According to Ms. Tay, Carr owned at least one law dictionary, if not more.  The gift inscription in Cunningham’s New and Complete Law-Dictionary confirms that this two volume set was among those Jefferson gave to Carr.  In a letter to Carr, Jefferson mentions that Peter’s younger brother, Dabney, would be needing Peter’s law dictionary for his own legal studies.

 TJ Signatures

Books from Jefferson’s library can be easily identified by the consistent manner in which he marked his books.  In Jefferson’s day, printed sheets of text were gathered in sequence, with each section of pages marked with a letter of the alphabet as a guide to the binder to assemble the sheets in the correct order.  Each grouping of pages was called a signature.  Jefferson’s habit was to place a “T” in front of the letter “I” signature and a “J” after the “T” signature.  Jefferson’s use of the “I” signature refers to the classical alphabet of Shakespeare’s day, which had only 23 letters, rather than the 26 letters we know today.  The letters J, U, and W, were later additions.

In association with Ms. Tay, the West Virginia University Libraries Jefferson law dictionary is now listed in the Thomas Jefferson Libraries Project, based at Monticello.  The listing can be found at Monticello’s Jefferson Library through the LibraryThing website.

The West Virginia and Regional History Center received Jefferson’s copy of Cunningham’s New and Complete Law-Dictionary as a gift from Charles D. Wise, of the firm McClintic, James, Wise & Robinson, attorneys at Law, Charleston.  Enclosed with the book is a letter from Wise to Dean Robert Munn dated February 9, 1962.  Jefferson’s Dictionary is available for viewing by appointment.    Please contact Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian, Stewart.Plein@mail.wvu.edu or 304-293-6786.

The full title of the book is A New and Complete Law-Dictionary: or, General Abridgment of the Law: On a More Extensive Plan than any law-dictionary hitherto published : containing not only the explanation of the terms, but also the law itself, both with regard to theory and practice. Very useful to barristers, justices of the peace, attornies, solicitors, &c. By T. Cunningham. In two volumes.  Call number KD313 .C86 1764

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