The Reading Habits of Presidents and Other Great Thinkers

Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and William Henry Harrison are just some of the historical figures who left behind direction on the books that inspired them as great leaders and thinkers 


Thomas Jefferson’s Love of Books

Thomas Jefferson wrote the oft-quoted sentiment, “I cannot live without books,” in a letter to John Adams in June of 1815. The two men had had their political ups-and-downs, but they shared a deep reverence for reading. At the time, Jefferson was in the process of completing the sale of his library, which he offered to Congress to form a new Library of Congress after the British had burned down the first one in 1814. It was a bittersweet decision for Jefferson; his library contained, he believed, “the choicest collection of books in the US,” and he hoped it would have a lasting impact. On the other hand, he was not content without his library.

Thomas Jefferson Letter October 5 1815

In a newly discovered autograph signed letter recently acquired by Raab, we see Jefferson as he begins building a second library. The letter, directed to bookseller Joseph Milligan, is dated October 5, 1815 and requests two books he particularly desires: Mathematical Tables by Charles Hutton, published as a set in 1804, and Complete Set of Nautical Tables, published in 1806, both of which Jefferson was known to have owned. His ‘second library’ ultimately contained 1,600 volumes of history, science, philosophy, and literature in several languages. 

Charles Darwin Reads His Critics

To many, the 19th-century scientist Charles Darwin is known for one thing: his own book, On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. Digging deeper, we learn that Darwin was a world traveler, a fossil collector, and a voracious reader (and annotator). So much so that he kept ‘reading notebooks’ and regularly mentioned the books he was reading in his prolific correspondence. When he died, his son gave Darwin’s working library, nearly 1,500 volumes, to Cambridge University. A digital reconstruction allows us to flip through those volumes from anywhere.  

Reading was a fundamental tool in Darwin’s scientific practice,” as one source put it. He not only read books from authors with which he agreed, but also those with which he did not. That is evident from a book order, written by Darwin on his personal Down House notecard, currently on offer at Raab. Posted to the librarian at the Royal Society, Darwin requests two books by one of his opponents: Lionel Smith Beale’s Bioplasm (1872) and Protoplasm (1870). He read these works to better defend his own theories about evolution and natural selection. 

FDR’s Copy of Robert Louis Stevenson

Like many presidents before him–Jefferson, Adams, and indeed his own cousin Theodore RooseveltFranklin Delano Roosevelt was an inveterate reader. In fact, according to the Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY, Roosevelt loved to both read and collect books–about 32,000 by the end of his life, spanning naval history to murder mysteries.  

FDR-owned book

At Raab we have FDR’s copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu (privately printed, 1930). In it, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt has written an ownership signature in her husband’s name, adding the words “his book.” Below that, she wrote her own initials. While Stevenson was famous for his novels like Treasure Island, this was a book dear to both his heart and to Roosevelt’s. Originally written in 1890, the book is a defense of the Catholic martyr who lived among the lepers in Hawaii. Father Damien died in 1899, and when his remains were repatriated to Belgium in 1935, it was President Roosevelt who sent a U.S. Navy ship to transport the casket. 

William Henry Harrison’s Battlefield Library

Long before he became the ninth president of the United States–and famously the president with the shortest tenure, serving just one month before dying from pneumonia–William Henry Harrison was a military officer. He served under General Anthony Wayne and spent much of his time in western frontier lands. During the War of 1812, he was appointed a general.  

A book from Harrison’s battlefield library, for sale at Raab, finds him in the thick of that war. It is a copy of Plutarch’s Lives, a didactic and popular series of 48 biographies of famous men from ancient Rome and Greece that has been printed and reprinted for hundreds of years. On the day before the Battle of Lake Erie commenced in 1813, Harrison signed and sent this book that had so inspired him, to his son, with the following inscription: “Willm. H. Harrison sends this set of Plutarch’s to his beloved son J.C. Symmes Harrison in the hope that he will diligently study the lives of great men contained in it & that if he is unable to rival their splendid achievements in their country’s service, he will at least imitate their private victories. Head Qtr. Seneca Town. 9th Sept. 1813.”     

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