Jefferson And The Book-burners


When, on the night of August 24–25, 1814, General Robert Ross burned Washington, most though not all, of the infant congressional library went up in flames. Patrick Magruder, who doubled as clerk of the House and librarian, had betaken himself to Virginia Springs, and the convulsive efforts of his assistants to save the library foundered on the lack of wagons. A subsequent congressional investigation concluded somewhat illogically that the hapless Magruder should have foreseen this embarrassment and provided for it, and accepted his resignation.

The news of the destruction of the library shocked Thomas Jefferson, then in retirement at Monticello. He might with some justice regard the library as his special concern: it had been organized under his auspices, and he had found time, while President, to prepare for it a catalogue of desirable books—carefully leaving out those “for entertainment only”—which fixed for the present its acquisition policy. For some years he had been accumulating at Monticello a comprehensive and scholarly library; he himself called it “the choicest collection of books in the United States,” and it probably was. He had thought to leave it to his darling University of Virginia, but that institution was still on his ardent drawing board, and the need of the nation was pressing. So on September 21 Jefferson wrote his old friend Samuel Harrison Smith (better known as Silky-Milky Smith or as the husband of the vivacious Margaret Bayard whose letters, later collected in The First Forty Years of Washington Society , were to tell all), offering his library to Congress on whatever terms the Congress might think proper. I learn from the newspapers [he wrote] that the vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington over science as well as the arts by the destruction of the public library with the noble edifice in which it was deposited.… I presume it will be among the early objects of Congress to recommence their collection. This will be difficult while the war continues, and intercourse with Europe is attended with so much risk. You know my collection, its condition and extent.… It is long since I have been sensible it ought not to continue private property, and had provided that at my death, Congress should have the refusal of it at their own price. The loss they have now incurred, makes the present the proper moment for their accommodation, without regard to the small remnant of time and the barren use of my enjoying it. I ask of your friendship, therefore, to make for me the tender of it to the Library Committee of Congress.…

This handsome offer excited both enthusiasm and consternation. To some it transformed British vandalism into a benefaction; the congressional library, after all, numbered only some three thousand volumes, while Jefferson estimated his own collection (too generously, as it proved) at between nine and ten thousand. Not only this, but while the congressional library had been assembled almost fortuitously Jefferson’s collection was admirably designed for the needs of scholars and statesmen. I have been fifty years making it [wrote Jefferson].… While residing in Paris, I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two, in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America.… Besides this, I had standing orders during the whole time I was in Europe, on its principal book-marts, particularly Amsterdam, Frankfort, Madrid, and London, for such works relating to America as could not be found in Paris. So that, in that department particularly, such a collection was made as probably can never again be effected, because it is hardly probable that the same opportunities, the same time, industry, perseverance and expense, with the same knowledge of the bibliography of the subject, would again happen to be in concurrence.

Smith replied at once that he could see “no obstacle in the acceptance” of this offer. From the former editor of the Republican National Intelligencer this was excessively naïve. Die-hard Federalists—they were still another decade a-dying—would doubtless have fought anything bearing Jefferson’s name, but this proposal seemed to them peculiarly offensive, for it combined in a single package a collection of iniquitous ingredients: a library of belles-lettres and classics which no self-respecting congressmen would read; an arsenal of Jacobinism, infidelity, and immorality; and a lavish financial subsidy to ex-President Jefferson himself.

But the Republicans controlled both branches of Congress, and the Federalists were forced to resort to obstructive tactics. Thus after the Senate had acted favorably on Jefferson’s proposal and returned the bill to the House, Thomas Jackson Oakley of New York (he was later to be chief justice of that state, in which role “he was noted for his impartiality”) moved to authorize the committee to buy not Jefferson’s library, but any library; this crude evasion of the issue was summarily rejected. Cyrus King of Maine (then still a district of Massachusetts) moved the purchase of such books only as the Congress should deem suitable; John Reed of Massachusetts supported this, and added to it an amendment fixing the maximum price of $25,000. With these and other amendments before the House, “the debate,” observed the editor of the Annals of Congress , “became rather too animated.” In the end the Republicans swept aside all objections, and sent the bill on to the Senate for action.