Two Founders, One Book

This copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost is the only book known to bear the signatures of both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Since its publication in 1667, John Milton’s poem had been endowed by readers with quasi-biblical status. Americans read it both as the great English-language epic of man’s Fall and, later, as a republican political tract. Thomas Paine quoted Milton’s Satan in Common Sense (1776): “For never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.”

Why did both Jefferson and Madison sign this book? In a friendship and political collaboration that spanned fifty years, the two men exchanged hundreds of books and letters. This particular book must have formed part of that rich intellectual conversation, though we are not sure exactly how or when. Jefferson’s signature on the title page suggests that he acquired the book as a young man, before 1770. Until around that time, Jefferson inscribed his books on the title page with some form of his whole signature. As time went on, he began writing only his initials in his books, burying them deep in the text in his own playful and idiosyncratic system. Perhaps the young Jefferson acquired this two-volume set from his teacher James Maury, whose school he attended from 1758 to 1760, and whose own signature may be the one in volume 2. Jefferson’s literary commonplace book (a scrapbook in which Jefferson wrote favorite literary quotations to remember and reuse later), begun during his years at Maury’s school, contains numerous quotations from Paradise Lost, and in his lifetime he owned at least three editions of the work.

Madison’s five signatures are frankly baffling. One—which seems to be partially erased—appears on the title page under the word Paradise. Madison signed the book another four times on the reverse side, although parts of these signatures are barely visible.