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Thomas Jefferson’s Unique, Personally Assembled Seven-Volume Set of the Works of Greek Tragedian Aeschylus
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Jefferson chose specific editions of the works of Aeschylus in English, French, Greek, and Latin, and had them cut up and rebound to make this unique set of seven volumes. In addition to ten of his customary ownership autograph initials (on signatures “I” and “T” throughout the set) parts of four title-pages have autograph amendments by Jefferson and there are approximately 18 marginal autograph annotations, presumably made by him (largely in Vols. IV and V).

This was the second time Jefferson owned these translations. The first set he acquired was sold to Congress as part of his library in 1815.

THOMAS JEFFERSON. Signed or owned books. The Works of Aeschylus. Illustrated with engraved plates from the French du Thiel edition. Original marbled tan calf, stamped in gilt, spines and joints professionally restored to style; marbled edges, matching marbled endpapers; by Frederick A. Mayo, Richmond, Virginia, and with his binder’s ticket on front paste-down of each volume. The volumes are housed in seven individual fall-down-back archival boxes, enclosed in a single slipcase. The binder’s tools used during restoration are included in a matching fall-down-back box.

Inventory #27809       SOLD — please inquire about other items

Historical Background
Beginning in March, 1820, Jefferson tasked Philadelphia-based bookseller John Laval (1769-1839) to acquire different editions of Aeschylus in order to construct this multilingual set. Jefferson requested Laval to “procure me a copy of Aeschylus with a Latin translation, the Latin on distinct leaves both recto and verso: because I wish to interleave them in the edition of du Theil. an 8vo would be best, but 12mo might do if an 8vo edn cannot be found. I care nothing about binding, or the Greek leaves, as they will be sacrificed. I shall be glad also to get Potter’s Eng. translation of Aeschylus. it is in 2. vols 8vo…if you have not these books yourself, pray hunt them up at the other bookstores and send them one by one by the mail…”

By the end of the summer of 1820 Jefferson had received the requested volumes, and in February, 1821, he sent them to his bookbinder, Frederick Mayo, in Richmond. Mayo followed Jefferson’s specific instructions to bind them to form this seven-volume set, with each volume containing a single work comprised of interleaved sheets from the different editions. Mayo completed the task a month later. From the end of March 1821, they resided on Monticello’s library shelves. Up until his final years, Jefferson took great pleasure in reading them, as can be gleaned from what are presumably his manuscript corrections, and from the observation of his granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge, who wrote that “in his youth (Jefferson) had loved poetry, but by the time I was old enough to observe, he had lost his taste for it, except for Homer and the great Athenian tragics, which he continued to the last to enjoy. He went over the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, not very long before I left him (the year before his death)…In fact,he derived more pleasure from his acquaintance with Greek and Latin than from any other resource of literature…I saw him more frequently with a volume of the classics in his hand than with any other book.” (Sarah N. Randolph, The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson, p. 340).

This unique polyglot set demonstrates Jefferson’s high regard for classical literature as well as his intellectual desire for close reading across multiple languages. Explaining his fascination with textual scholarship, Jefferson wrote to bookseller George Ticknor, “I am attracted to the scholia of the Greek classics because they give us the language of another age; and with the Greek classics prefer translations as convenient aids to the understanding of the author.” (Louis B. Wright, Thomas Jefferson and the Classics, p. 231).

The classics occupied a prominent place in Jefferson’s library and reflects his life-long engagement with Greek and Roman writers which started when he was only nine years old. It was from the likes of Aeschylus, Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Tacitus, Thucydides, Seneca, and Horace, that Jefferson “obtained the basis of an ethical and philosophical system as well as the means of satisfying his esthetic longings,” that proved useful in his public and private life. (Wright, p. 225) Jefferson viewed classical works as the backbone of a proper and well-rounded education, believing they were the “ultimate source of both delight and instruction,” (Wright, p. 225). Writing to Dr. Joseph Priestly, Jefferson described their importance, stating that the “Greeks and Romans have left us the present models which exist of fine composition, whether we examine them as works of reason, or of style and fancy; and to them we probably owe these characteristics of modern composition. I know of no composition of any other people, which merits the least regard as a model for its matter or style. To all this I add, that to read the Latin and Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury as in architecture, painting, gardening, or other arts…I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, and have not since acquired.” (January 27, 1800). 

Following the sale of his personal library to Congress in 1815, Jefferson immediately began to assemble another collection for his library at Monticello. Deemed his “Retirement Library,” he described it as “a collection for my self of such as may amuse my hours of reading,” (Jefferson to David Bailie Warden, February 27, 1815), it was comprised of works and editions that Jefferson held in the highest regard. Jefferson utilized numerous booksellers along and across the Atlantic to replenish his empty shelves, acquiring new texts, as well as replacing those he had sold to Congress.

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, his books were sold by his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph at the Washington, D.C. auction house of Nathaniel P. Poor on March 3, 1829 (the auction ran from Feb. 27 to March 11). The purchaser, New York politician and attorney Gulian C. Verplanck (1786-1870), added his ownership inscription on verso of front free endpaper in first volume:“Bought at the sale of the Library of Thomas Jefferson. Washington March 3d-1829. The volumes were compiled by himself and bound by his direction. This mode of binding together translations commentaries &c being a favorite with him. Many of the classics in the Library of Congress are examples of it. G.C.V.” It then descended in his family over the next 183 years, before being acquired by C. Barry Buckley, thence by descent in the family, 2012-2024> Freeman’s/Hindman, Feb. 6, 2024, lot 127.

The original French, Greek, English, and Latin editions combined to make this set
François Jean Gabriel de La Porte du Theil’s Aeschyli Tragoediarum Reliquiae…/Théatre d’Æschyl, in French and in Greek (in two volumes; Paris, 1794-95); Robert Potter’s English translation, The Tragedies of Æschylus (one volume, Oxford, 1812); and the first three volumes of Christian Gottfried Schütz’s Greek and Latin translation, Aeschyli Tragoediae Quae Supersunt ac Deperditarum Fragmenta (Halle an der Saale, 1808–09).

Jefferson’s annotations in this set
Vol. I: Signature I in Aeschyli Tragoediae Quae Supersunt ac Deperditarum Fragmenta (p. 129, at rear); Vol. II: Sig. T in Aeschyli Tragoediae Quae Supersunt ac Deperditarum Fragmenta (p. 289, at rear); Vol. III: Lower title crossed out, Sig. T in The Tragedies of Æschylus (p. 137, at center), Sig. T in Aeschyli Tragoediae Quae Supersunt ac Deperditarum Fragmenta (p. 289, at rear); Vol. IV: Lower title crossed out; Sig. 2I in Aeschyli Tragoediarum Reliquiae (p. 65, at center), Sig. T inAeschyli Tragoediae Quae Supersunt ac Deperditarum Fragmenta (p. 289, at rear); Vol. V: Lower title crossed out, Sig. I in Aeschyli Tragoediae Quae Supersunt ac Deperditarum Fragmenta (p. 129); Vol. VI: Lower title crossed out, with Vol. number corrected, “T.I.” at p. (271) at front; Vol. VII: Sig. T in The Tragedies of Æschylus (p. 321, at front), Sig. I in Aeschyli Tragoediae Quae Supersunt ac Deperditarum Fragmenta (p. 129, at rear)

The volumes in this set comprise these works
Vol. I: Prometheus; Vol. II: The Supplicants; Vol. III: Thebes; Vol. IV: Agamemnon; Vol. V: Choephora; Vol. VI: Eumenides; Vol. VII: The Persians

Condition: Scattered very minor spotting to text; some leaves from the English Potter edition toned.