Jefferson's Literary Commonplace Book

Jefferson's Literary Commonplace Book

by D. L. Wilson

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This work is a new edition of Thomas Jefferson's literary commonplace book, a notebook of his literary and philosophical reading. Unlike the only previous edition, published in 1928, it contains full annotation, pertinent information on the authors and works commonplaced, and a rationale for dating the entries. Thus it is now possible to show that most of the four


This work is a new edition of Thomas Jefferson's literary commonplace book, a notebook of his literary and philosophical reading. Unlike the only previous edition, published in 1928, it contains full annotation, pertinent information on the authors and works commonplaced, and a rationale for dating the entries. Thus it is now possible to show that most of the four hundred seven passages were entered when Jefferson was a young man, between the ages of fifteen and thirty. As such, they reflect the range of his literary interests from his school days to about the time of his marriage and involvement in politics.

As one of the few surviving documents from Jefferson's early years, this notebook assumes special importance as a source of insight into the least known period of his life. In the introduction the editor presents reasons for thinking that the commonplace book was more to Jefferson than a literary sampler and was in some respects a deeply personal notebook with direct connections to the emotional events and preoccupations of his formative years. In addition to the text and annotation, the book contains a register of authors and an illustrated essay on Jefferson's handwriting that provides the rationale for assigning approximate dates to the entries of the commonplace book.

Originally published in 1989.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Editorial Reviews

This work is a new edition of Thomas Jefferson's literary commonplace book, a notebook of his literary and philosophical reading, in which most entries were made when he was between the ages of 15 and 30. Unlike the only previous edition, published in 1928, it contains full annotation, pertinent information on the authors and works commonplaced, and a rationale for dating the entries. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Princeton University Press
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Jefferson's Literary Commonplace Book

By Douglas L. Wilson


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04720-1




Herodot. 1.2. c.104.


Herod. 1.2. c.123.


Herodot. 1.4. c.94, 95.

[4] It is said that the sacred authors writ agreeably to all the vulgar notions of the ages and countries in which they lived, out of regard to their ignorance and to the gross conceptions of the people: as if these authors had not writ for all ages and all countries, or as if truth and error were to be followed, like fashions, where they prevailed.

Bolingbroke's philosoph. works. Essay 1. sect. 5.

[5] It may be said that an extraordinary action of god on the human mind, which the word inspiration is now used to denote, is not more inconceivable, than the ordinary action of mind on body, and of body on mind: and I confess that it is not. but yet the cases are so widely different, that no argument can be drawn from one in favor of the other, it is impossible to doubt of an action which is an object of intuitive knowledge, and whereof we are conscious every moment; and it is impertinent to deny the existence of any phaenomenon merely because we cannot account for it; but then this phaenomenon must be apparent, and the proof that it exists, or has existed, must be such as no reasonable man can refuse to admit; otherwise we shall be exposed to make frequently the ridiculous figure that philosophers have sometimes made, when it has been discovered after they had reasoned long about a thing, that there was no such thing.

Id. Ib.

[6] We must not assume for truth, what can be proved neither à priori, nor à posteriori, a mystery cannot be proved à priori; it would be no mystery if it could: and inspiration is become a mystery, since all we know of it is, that it is an inexplicable action of the divine on the human mind[.] it would be silly, therefore, to assume it to be true, because god can act mysteriously, that is, in ways unknown to us, on his creature man: for just so Asgyll did prove, or might have proved, that men do not die but are translated, because god can translate them, there is then no possibility of proving inspiration a priori; and the proofs that are brought à posteriori for Christian inspiration, are not more decisive to Christians, than those, which the Stoicians brought in favor of vaticination and divination, were to them; nor than those which the Mahometans and the worshippers of Foe bring of the same kind, are to them.

Id. Ib.

[7] No hypothesis ought to be maintained if a single phaenomenon stands in direct opposition to it.

Id. sect. 8.

[8] If nothing which is an object of real knowledge could be opposed to the immateriality and immortality of this substance, the insuperable difficulty of accounting for the action of mind on body, and of body on mind, that are reciprocally and in their turns both active and passive, would stop our philosophical enquiries.

Id. Ib.

[9] Solidity and extension are the primary qualities, and in our ideas the essence of matter, of which we can frame no conception exclusively of them, what then are the primary ideas of spirit or immaterial substance?

Id. Ib.

[10] it will cost a reasonable mind much less to assume that a substance known by some of it's properties may have others that are unknown, and may be capable, in various systems, of operations quite inconceivable by us, according to the designs of infinite wisdom; than to assume that there is a substance, concerning which men do not pretend to know what it is, but merely what it is not.

Id. Ib.

[11] As long as matter is senseless and inert, it is not a thinking substance, nor ought to be called so. but when, in any system of it, the essential properties, extension, solidity &c. are maintained, that system is material still, tho' it become a sensitive plant, a reasoning elephant, or a refining metaphysician, it would be nonsense to assert, what no man does assert, that the idea of incogitativity can be the idea of thinking: but it is nonsense, and something worse than nonsense, to assert what you assert, that god cannot give the faculty of thinking, a faculty in the principle of it entirely unknown to you, to systems of matter whose essential properties are solidity, extension &c. not incogitativity. this term of negation can be no more the essence of matter, than that other, immateriality, can be the essence of spirit, our ideas of solidity and extension do not include the idea of thought, neither do they include that of motion; but they exclude neither:

Id. Ib.

[12] Body or matter is compounded and wrought into various systems before it becomes sensible to us. we behold some that are indeed inert, senseless, stupid, and in appearance merely passive, but we behold others that have vegetative life juices and spirits that circulate and ferment in them, by which they are nourished, and by which they grow, they have not the power of beginning motion; but motion, which is renewed in them after it has entirely ceased, and both by causes as material as themselves, continues in them, and they live, and move, and propagate their species; till their frame is dissolved by age or sickness, or some external violence, we behold others again that have animal life, and that go from rest to motion, and from motion to rest, independently of any outward cause that determines such effects by a physical necessity in this case, as we observe to be done in the former, we discover, by the help of microscopes, an immense variety of these animal systems, where they begin, god alone their creator and ours can tell: — — As these animal systems come to be more and more sensible to us, and as our means and opportunities of observing them increase, we discover in them, and according to their different species, or even among individuals of the same species, in some more in others fewer, of the same appearances that denote a power of thinking in us, from the lowest conceivable degrees of it, up to such as are not far, if at all, remote from those in which some men enjoy it. I say some men, because I think it indisputable that the distance between the intellectual faculties of different men, is often greater, than that between the same faculties in some men and some other animals. If now we are to form a general conclusion from all these concurrent phaenomena, without any further reasoning about them than such as they justify, what must it be? it must be plainly this, that there is in the whole animal kind one intellectual spring, common to every species, but vastly distinguished in it's effects; that tho' it appears to be the same spring in all, yet it seems to be differently tempered, and to have more elasticity and force in some and less in others; and that, besides this, the apparent difference in the constitutions and organizations [of] animals seems to account for the different determinations of it's motion, and the surprising variety of its effects.

Id. sect. 9.

[13] The power of thinking, that very power whereof we are conscious is as necessary to the perception of the slightest sensation as it is to geometrical reasoning, there is no conceivable difference in the faculty or power: the sole difference arises from the degree in which it is or can be exerted.

Id. Ib.

[14] It is absurd to affirm that a god sovereignly good, and at the same time almighty and alwise, suffers an inferior dependent being to deface his work in any sort, and to make his other creatures both criminal and miserable.

Id. Essay. 2. sect. 7

[15] To say of a monarch in the true sense of the word, who is invested with absolute power, that he suffers one of his subjects to abuse the rest without controll, and to draw them into crimes and revolts for which he punishes them afterwards, is the most injurious accusation that can be brought.

Id. Ib.

[16] I combat the pride and presumption of metaphysicians in a most flagrant instance, in the assumption by which man is made the final cause of the whole creation; for if the planets of our solar system are worlds inhabited like ours, and if the fixed stars are other suns about which other planets revolve, the celestial phaenomena were no more made for us than we were for them. That noble scene of the universe, which modern philosophy has opened, gives ample room for all the planetary inhabitants, whom it leads, and even constrains us to suppose, where the spirits of the other system reside was [a] question easily answered, when superstition and hypothesis made up the sum of religion and philosophy, but it is not so easy to be answered now. are the good and pure spirits in heaven? but where is heaven? Is it beyond all the solar systems of the universe? or is it, like the intermundia of Epicurus, in expanses between them? are the evil and impure spirits in hell? but where is hell? is it in the center of any one planet for every system? or is it in the center of every planet? do others wander in air? or reside latent in every element?

Id. Postscript Essay. 2.

[17] A polytheist who beleives one self-existent being, the fountain of all existence, by whose immediate or communicated energy all things were made, and are governed, and who looks on all those other beings whom he calls gods, that is, beings superior to man, not only as inferior to the supreme, but as beings all of whom proceed from him in several subordinate ranks, and are appointed by him to the various uses and services for which he designed them in the whole extent of the divine economy; such a polytheist, I say, will approach nearly to true theism, by holding in this manner nothing that is absolutely inconsistent with it: whilst the monotheist, who beleives that there is but one god, and ascribes to this god, whom he should conceive as an all-perfect being, the very worst of human imperfections, is most certainly ignorant of the true god, & as opposite to true theism as the atheist: nay he is more injuriously so.

Id. Essay. 3. sect. 1.

[18] They who compare the ideas and notions concerning the supreme being that reason collects from the phaenomena of nature, physical and moral, which we know to be the work of god, with those that the books of the old testament, which we suppose to be his word, give us, will be apt to lay these spectacles aside, and to conclude that the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, cannot be that glorious supreme all-perfect being whom reason shewed them, and whom they discerned with their naked eyes.

Id. sect. 2.

[19] A polytheist, who worshipping many gods, that is, inferior divinities, acknowledged still one supreme being, the monarch of gods and men; was scandalised when he saw this being, of whom he had the sublimist conceptions that the mind of man can frame, degraded into the rank of a local, tutelary divinity, the god of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, the god of one family, and one nation, of a family who had strolled into Egypt for bread, of a nation who had been long slaves in that country.

Id. Ib.

[20] If we take the words of some divines that the beleif and worship of one god could be communicated no other way to mankind than by revelation, and that this sacred deposite was trusted to a people chosen to preserve it till the coming of the messiah; this assumption will appear as little conformable to the reason of things, as several others are which the same men advance to be parts of the divine economy and for which they appeal to the reason of mankind, reason will pronounce, that no people was less fit than the Israelites to be chosen for this great trust on every account, they broke the trust continually; and the miracles, that were wrought to pre serve it notwithstanding their apostasies, would have preserved it at least as well all over the world, besides, the revelations made to them were 'shut up in a little corner of the world, amongst a people by that very law, which they received with it, excluded from a commerce and communication with the rest of mankind,' as mr Locke observes very truly, a people so little known, and contemned, and thought vilely of by those nations that did know them, were therefore very 'unfit, and unable to propagate the doctrine of one god in the world.'

But wherefore then was this deposite made to them[?] it was of no use to other nations before the coming of Christ, nor served to prepare them for the reception of his gospel; and after his coming, it was in this great respect of little use, if of any, to the Jews themselves, they beleived universally one god, but they were not universally disposed to beleive in his son. monotheism might indispose them to the gospel, as well as their attachment to the law of Moses, the expectation of the Messiah did not clash with monotheism, but they might imagine, that the beleif of god the son, and god the holy ghost, did so very manifestly; the trinity not having been early reconciled to the unity of god. other nations seemed to be better prepared by philosophy, by that of Plato particularly, and by the polytheistical notions of divine natures, some in the godhead, and some out of it, for the reception of the gospel, or of the theology which the teachers of the gospel taught, accordingly we find, that when Christ came, and threw down the wall of partition, if he did throw it down, and not St Paul, the miracles wrought to propagate Christianity had greater effect out of Judaea than in it. on the whole matter, it is impossible to conceive, on grounds of human reason, to what purpose a divine economy, relative to the coming of Christ, should have confined the knowledge of the true god to the Jews, and have left the rest of mankind without god in the world.

Id. Ib.

[21] To recapitulate, therefore, and to conclude: I think it plain, that the knowledge and worship of the one true god must have been the religion of mankind for a long time, if the mosaical history be authentic, and was not therefore confined from the beginning to the family of Sem, nor to the Israelites who pretended to be of it. I think it plain, that the assumed confinement of this orthodox faith and worship could answer no imaginable design of a divine economy, preparatory to the coming of Christ; since the Jews who had it, were not better prepared than the Gentiles, who are said not to have had it, to receive and embrace the gospel; and since this doctrine was propagated much more by heathen philosophers than by Jewish doctors. I think it plain, that, if we suppose the unity of god to have been discovered by reason, and to have been propagated by human authority merely, the beleif of it must have gone through all the vicissitudes, and have been exposed to all the corruptions, that appear to have attended it.

Id. Ib.

[22] When we consider the great and glorious purposes of this revelation, the manner in which, and the person, even the son of god himself, by whom it was made; and all the stupendous miracles in the heavens, and on earth, that were wrought to confirm it; we are ready to conclude that such a revelation must have left reason nothing to do, must have forced conviction, and have taken away even the possibility of doubt, this consequence seems so necessary, that if such events were stated hypothetically the hypothesis would be rejected as defective and inconsistent, unless they were supposed to have had their full effect: and yet in fact, an universal submission of all those, who were witnesses of the signs and wonders that accompanied the publication of the gospel, did not follow, the learned men among the Jews, the scribes, the pharisees, the rulers of the people, were persecutors of Christianity, not converts to it: and the vulgar, as well as they were so far from beleiving Jesus to be the messiah their nation expected, or any divine person sent by god, that when Pilate inclined to save him, instead of Barrabbas a notorious criminal, the whole crowd cried out, 'let his blood be upon us and our children;' and insisted, with a sort of mutinous zeal, on his execution.

What are we to say now? — — the infidel will insist, that all these miracles were equivocal at best, such as credulous superstitious persons, and none else, beleived, such as were frequently and universally imposed by the first fathers of the christian church, and as are so still by their successors, wherever ignorance or superstition abound.

Essay. 4. sect. 1.

[23] if we suppose ourselves transported back to that time, and inquiring into the truth of this revelation on the very spot where it was made, we shall find that, far from being determined by authority in favor of it, our reason would have had much to do in comparing the various and contradictory testimonies, and in ballancing the degrees of probability that resulted from them.

Id. sect. 2.

[24] We have the concurrent testimony of the sacred writers: and it has been asked, whether we have not as much knowledge of them as we have of several profane writers whose histories pass for authentic? — — we read the histories of Arrian, and even of Q. Curtius, tho' we do not know who the latter was, and the commentaries of Caesar, as authentic histories, such they are too for all our purposes; and if passages which we deem genuine should be spurious, if others should be corrupted, or interpolated, and if the authors should have purposely, or through deception, disguised the truth, or advanced untruth, no great hurt would be done. But is this the case of the scriptures? in them, besides all the other circumstances necessary to constitute historical probability, it is not enough that the tenor of facts and doctrine[s] be true; the least error is of consequence.

Id. Ib.


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