From the Library of Thomas Jefferson

April 20, 1812 – June 11, 1812

Recreated library of Thomas Jefferson, a must-see exhibit at the Library of Congress.

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “In one of your letters you mentioned the confused traditions of Indian Antiquities. Is there any Book that pretends to give any account of these Traditions, or how can one acquire any idea of them? Have they any order of Priesthood among them, like the Druids, Bards or Minstrells of the Celtic nations etc.?”

So JA wants to know about Native American culture. It’s an easy, nonpolitical topic to help push along a newly revived yet tenuous correspondence. From a geographic standpoint, it seems ironic that JA is more familiar with ancient European cultural history than with the Native American cultures in his own country. From a cultural standpoint, of course, Native American and American (English) cultures are two different planets.

TJ, the expert, obliges with a bit of American Indian historiography (from European perspectives). One historian, James Adair, “believed all the Indians of America to be descended from the Jews: the same laws, usages; rites and ceremonies, the same sacrifices, priests, prophets, fasts and festivals, almost the same religion, and that they all spoke Hebrew.” I’m curious about the origins of this theory. Adair’s The History of the American Indians was published in London in 1775 and thus predates Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon (1830) by 55 years.

Here’s TJ’s full critique of Adair: “For although he writes particularly of the Southern Indians only, the Catawbas, Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws and Choctaws, with whom alone he was personally acquainted, yet he generalises whatever he found among them, and brings himself to believe that the hundred languages of America, differing fundamentally every one from every other, as much as Greek from Gothic, have yet all one common prototype. He was a trader, a man of learning, a self-taught Hebraist, a strong religionist, and of as sound a mind as Don Quixot in whatever did not touch his religious chivalry. His book contains a great deal of real instruction on it’s subject, only requiring the reader to be constantly on his guard against the wonderful obliquities of his theory.”

That is essentially a compliment, no? I’m still scratching my head about the Quixote line. Hypothetically, are you a genius for insulting someone without them realizing it? Or are you a thicko for not knowing you’ve been insulted?

Adair gets a similar assessment from Chickasaw tribal historian Richard Green, who calls his book “an indispensable source of information for those wanting to learn about the tribe’s culture in the turbulent 18th century,” despite the generalizing and the Hebraic history. (“James Adair and the Chickasaws, Part II,” Chickasaw Times, 2004)

TJ also mentions a history by Latin of De Bry, another mash-up of “fact and fable.” “This is a work of great curiosity, extremely rare, so as never to be bought in Europe, but on the breaking up, and selling some antient library. On one of these occasions a bookseller procured me a copy, which, unless you have one, is probably the only one in America.” I love this. Do we need any more proof that these are the two most brilliant men of their time? It’s almost like comparing baseball cards. OK, not really, but come on. How many times have you had that conversation?

Yeah, this here is probably the only DiMaggio rookie card in existence. You got one? Yeah? Cool.

I obviously know nothing about baseball.

Remember, when the British burned the Library of Congress to the ground during the War of 1812, Jefferson is the guy who replaced it with his own personal library. How does your bookshelf match up?

Since I brought it up, the war begins in one week.


2 thoughts on “From the Library of Thomas Jefferson

  1. Now that’s a conversation I can relate to. “Have you read this? Do you have that? This book is amazing. That book is a farce.” And on and on and on – no end to a conversation (and yes, a good way to start a conversation)

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