Presidential Commonplace Books

On President’s Day this year, I was led to wonder about the commonplace book activity of any past or present U.S. Presidents. We know a little about the reading habits of Presidents—Obama was recently seen with a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and on another occasion clutching a copy of Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland, while Clinton was known as a voracious reader.

But do Presidents keep a record of some of the notable passages they come across in the books or periodicals they read? Perhaps they might wish to invoke them in a meeting, speech, or future writing. To my knowledge Thomas Jefferson was the only President who kept a commonplace book. In fact, as a youth, he kept two, the first devoted to matters of government and politics, the second, the earlier of the two, to literature and poetry

In addition to collecting passages, Jefferson also did a good deal of annotating at the time he wrote the passage in his commonplace book. The practice of annotating is rarely engaged in by those who keep a commonplace book and is even less likely to occur at the time the entries are made. On her commonplace book page, Lucia Knoles cites the following Jeffersonian procedure:

"He would synopsize and capture the key points of his readings and add his own reflections, recording them in a journal which he called his 'commonplace book.' One of his biographers quoted Jefferson as saying 'I was in the habit of abridging and commonplacing what I read meriting it, and of sometimes mixing my own reflections on the subject.' His tutor, James Maury, commended the practice as a means 'to reflect, and remark on, and digest what you read.”

Jefferson’s commonplace book on government also anticipates many of the ideas he later expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Stanyan says that the first kinds of Greece were elected by the free consent of the people.” “All men are, by nature, equal and free: No one has the right to any authority over another without his consent: All lawful government is founded on the consent of those, who are subject to it.”

It also includes passages that deal with policy issues we confront today. For example, here is a representative passage on gun control from Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria:

"Laws that forbid the carrying of arms ... disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes ... Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.”

The descendents of Thomas Jefferson withheld publication of his literary commonplace book until 1928. According to Douglas Wilson, who edited a 1988 edition of the work, Jefferson maintained it from the age of about fifteen to thirty and because it is the most personal of the two, provides a rare glimpse of Jefferson’s formative years and the considerable influence of literature in the development of his personality.

The collection includes about four hundred passages that Jefferson copied by hand. Many of the entries were written by Jefferson in their original Latin, Greek, or French, and appear to be selected because of their philosophical and moral content. Wilson indicates that 339 of the entries are poetry, and 35 of the 45 authors quoted are poets. Homer, Horace, Pope, Milton, Shakespeare and Euripides are among the most frequently cited.

In noting some of the similarities between Jefferson’s and Milton’s commonplace books, Ruth Mohl suggests both men selected passages not only for their literary merit but also as “sources of inspiration and practical wisdom.” Later she concludes that like Milton’s, Jefferson’s literary commonplace book is alive with:

"Themes of courage, self-reliance, freedom, equality, the necessity of wisdom combined with strength, and faith in God…along with those on the brevity of life, death and the fatal beauty of women. In them the personality of Jefferson is strikingly revealed—as if in his own words he was recording his philosophy of life.”