Languages Jefferson Spoke or Read

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Jefferson himself said in his Notes of a Tour through Holland and the Rhine Valley, "...there was not a person to be found in Duysberg who could understand either English, French, Italian or Latin. So I could make no enquiry."[1]

And later in his Hints to Americans Travelling in Europe, "I could find no body in the village however who could speak any language I spoke, and could not make them understand what I wished to see."[2]


Jefferson said in an April 12, 1817 letter to Joseph Delaplaine, "I was educated at William and Mary college in Williamsburg. I read Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and English of course, with something of it’s radix the Anglo-Saxon." In addition to the languages he lists, there is some evidence that Jefferson was attempting German.[3]

Jefferson had dictionaries, vocabularies, and grammars in a number of other languages in his library. These included Arabic, Gaelic, and Welsh, amongst others. However, without confirmation from Jefferson himself, the most we can assume is that he was "dabbling" in these languages, and never acheived a notable degree of fluency.

Spanish Language

In advising his future son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. on his education, Jefferson wrote, "With respect to modern languages, French, as I have before observed, is indispensible. Next to this the Spanish is most important to an American. Our connection with Spain is already important and will become daily more so. Besides this the ancient part of American history is written chiefly in Spanish.[4]

Jefferson supposedly learned the Spanish language on his transatlantic passage to France in 1784 with a borrowed copy of Don Quixote and a Spanish grammar. Following dinner with Jefferson in November 1804 John Quincy Adams made the following note in his journal: "As to Spanish, it was so easy that he had learned it, with the helpf of a Don Quixote lent him by Mr. Cabot, and a grammar, in the course of a passage to Europe, on which he was but ninteen days at sea. But Mr. Jefferson tells large stories..."[5]

Certainly Jefferson proposed Don Quixote as a tool for his daughters in their study of Spanish. In 1783, he provided his older dauther Martha a French tutor and for Spanish study a copy of Don Quixote. Later he included Don Quixote as a part of the education of his younger daughter Mary as well. He wrote her aunt, Elizabeth Eppes, with whom Mary was staying, "I have insisted on her reading tne pages a day in her Spanish Don Quixote, and getting a lesson in her Spanish grammar..."[6] In subsequent letters to Mary he frequently inquired as to her progress in her Spanish reading. Even though Jefferson may have borrowed the copy of Don Quixote which he read on his way to France, a personal copy of Cervantes' novel was in his library at his death. --Original author of this section: Gaye Wilson, September, 1998.


  1. PTJ, 13:13.
  2. Ibid, 13:264.
  3. Kimball, Marie. Jefferson: The Road to Glory, 1743 to 1776. (New York: Coward-McCann, 1943), 106-109.
  4. Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, July 6, 1787
  5. John Quincy Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippencott & Co., 1874), 1:317.
  6. Jefferson to Elizabeth Eppes, March 7, 1790.

Further Sources