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Thomas Jefferson’s legal reading list going on line

The almost four hundred legal books that Thomas Jefferson recommended all lawyers should read are about to go on line for everyone to read.

The book list goes back to the creation of the University of Virginia, a project Jefferson took on after he finished serving two terms as America’s third president. A voracious reader himself, Jefferson believed the school’s library would be the heart of the new university, which opened in 1825. So he drew up a list of about 7,000 books ranging in topic from agriculture to zoology that he believed the school should have in its collections. At the time, books were pricey, and Jefferson thought part of the duty of the university was to make great works available for study. “Great standard works of established reputation, too voluminous and too expensive for private libraries, should have a place in every public library, for the free resort of individuals,” Jefferson wrote of the list of works he drew up.

The books were the starting point for the university’s collection, but they didn’t last. Most were destroyed in an 1895 fire that gutted a historic campus building called the Rotunda, the same building that was the endpoint of an August torch-light rally by white nationalists whose demonstration in the city the following day over the removal of a Confederate statue descended into chaos.

It was a law librarian at the university who, 40 years ago, got the idea of re-creating the collection of law books Jefferson recommended. Since then, the university has collected 336 of the 375 legal works listed by Jefferson, a lawyer himself. It’s those works that are now being put online.

I guarantee that a reading of these books would also teach any lawyer about the philosophical foundations of western and British culture, based on individual rights, freedom, and the rule of law.

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