Rare book by Thomas Jefferson found in Virginia library donation box

'It was his way of documenting history'
Posted at 10:58 AM, Aug 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-01 10:58:14-04

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Bob Gilson looks forward to Friday mornings when he and a group of volunteers sort through boxes of donated books at the Meyera E. Oberndorf Central Library in Virginia Beach.

Occasionally, Gilson and other members of Friends of the Virginia Beach Public Library nonprofit organization find unusual books signed by an author or that have some other historical significance and can be sold online.

“It’s a treasure hunt on Friday mornings when we do this,” said Gilson, 75, a retiree who’s in charge of assessing the interesting ones.

At the end of a sorting session in May, Gilson picked up the last book in his cart, not realizing at first how special it was.

“The spine was broken,” he said. “It was just old and dusty.”

First, he saw the publication date: 1829.

Even the oldest books they see are usually dated years later.

Then he read the author’s name: Thomas Jefferson.

“It got my attention,” Gilson said.

The book, “Reports of Cases: Determined in the General Court of Virginia, from 1730, to 1740; and 1768, to 1772” is Jefferson’s compilation of Colonial-era court cases. It was published three years after his death.

Jefferson was the third president of the United States, from 1801 to 1809.

Gilson immediately went online and found a copy for sale with a hefty price tag.

“We’ve had some other valuable books come in over the years, but $9,800 is a gem,” Gilson said.

Gilson mentioned the book to a friend who contacted the Jefferson Library at Monticello in Charlottesville. The library provides access to and preserves research and archival resources related to Thomas Jefferson’s life and legacy.

Endrina Tay, director and researcher at Jefferson Library, was aware the book existed and had access to a reprint.

“We’ve never had an opportunity to acquire an 1829 edition,” Tay said. “This publication is essentially a first edition of one of Thomas Jefferson’s little known works.”

She was able to determine that 82 copies exist in law and academic libraries in the world, which makes the book “relatively rare,” she said.

Jefferson was known to be a meticulous record keeper. He kept detailed notes of the temperature outside, food in the farm markets and plantings in his garden, Tay said.

He wrote the court case book when he was a young lawyer, extracting details from decisions made in Colonial Virginia courts that would be used as legal precedence in the future.

“It was his way of documenting history,” Tay said.

After Jefferson’s death in 1826, his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, published the 145-page board book at F. Carr, and Co. print shop in Charlottesville. It was printed and bound by hand, before electronic typesetting was invented.

“This was a lot of work,” Gilson said as he carefully turned its yellow pages.

In the preface, Jefferson explained why he chose the court cases, which took place before the American colonies declared independence from British rule. He acknowledged that the judges were handpicked by the King of England, but their decisions represent “those peculiar to our own country.”

Jefferson also wrote that, whether the rulings were justified or not, they shaped the law.

“These decisions, therefore, were worthy of preservation,” he wrote.

Many of the cases focus on property disputes including ownership of slaves. Jefferson also included an appendix that fleshes out the relationship between church and state.

“It’s a window into Virginia legal history and Jefferson’s part in it,” said Tay, who asked the Friends of the Virginia Beach Public Library to consider donating the book to the Jefferson Library. The organization normally sells books at city libraries and donates the proceeds to children’s reading programs and projects.

The nonprofit’s board of directors agreed.

“It’s a book that is better served to go into the public’s hand,” said Gilson.