“ … it’s essential to read what they read. You then begin to understand not just their vocabulary, but how they thought … ”
UMW Centennial Founders Day Convocation, 14 March 2008
As author David McCullough reminds us, the contents of a library serve as an unparalleled window into the minds of those we seek to understand. It is nearly impossible to look at James Monroe, a consummate public servant, and not consider what motivated, informed and guided him during his five decades of service to his country. Historians and bibliophiles alike naturally turn his bookshelves for answers to these and other questions.
By 1823, Monroe had assembled a significant library of approximately 3,000 books. This number likely did not include his substantial collection of pamphlets, a hugely popular medium for making shorter, often political, publications available at a more affordable cost as compared to books. He acquired books throughout his lifetime, from his earliest days as a junior congressman in the 1780s to his final retirement years after the presidency. His titles drew from a wide range of topics – including definitive works on political philosophy and science, ancient and modern history, economy, religion, the arts, and works of popular fiction – and represent the library of a well-read, well-informed republican gentleman of the early Founding Era.
We invite you to begin to discover Monroe, his career, and his world through his bookshelves with our newly created catalogue. Staff at the Papers of James Monroe used Monroe’s handwritten lists of his books, titles mentioned in his correspondence, and extant copies of books that bear his bookplate or signature to begin to reconstruct his extensive personal library. In addition to browsing by author, title, topic and sources, users are able to link to digital copies of the publications, or compare Monroe’s library to that of other prominent Americans such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. An exhibition further exploring the contents and significance of Monroe’s library and featuring his personal copies of books is currently on display at the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
James Monroe’s distinctive bookplate