- Historic Sites
Jefferson and the Book-burners
When he offered Congress his library, his foes charged that it was full of books which “never ought to be read” and probably ought to be burned
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
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.
Meantime a committee had counted the actual number of volumes in Jefferson’s library—6,487—and placed a modest price of $23,950—a sum, be it noted, less than the maximum which the parsimonious Reed was prepared to pay. A bill to buy the library at this price passed the Senate without a division and on December 3, 1814, went to the House. Here, on its final reading the next month, the Federalists took their last stand.
Oakley of New York, Reed and Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, King of Maine, and a freshman representative, Daniel Webster of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, led the forces of righteousness in the assault on Jeffersonian subversion. “The debate,” says Joseph Gales of the Annals , “although it afforded much amusement to the auditors, would not interest the feelings or judgment of any reader.” The Washington correspondent of the New York Evening Post thought differently and happily preserved for us some of the arguments advanced by the opposition. These were in part financial, in part literary, in part moral. Twenty-three thousand, nine hundred and fifty dollars, it was observed, would pay for the enlistment of 210 men for the Regular Army or the purchase of 2,000 stands of arms—an argument that must have sounded less than convincing to Federalist delegates from the Hartford Convention even then on their way to Washington. And coming from that party which had long claimed a monopoly on culture and philosophy, the literary arguments were no less startling. It was urged—so the New York Post observed— — that the library was not such as Congress wanted, being almost entirely literary, containing comparatively little of law or history, that it abounded with productions of an atheistical, irreligious and immoral character,—a fourth of the books were in foreign languages, and many in the dead languages, such as romances, tracts on architecture, farriery, cookery and the like. Upon the later subject, it was mentioned — there were no less than ten different works, nine being in foreign languages.—
Perhaps the spectacle of nine books of cookery, most of them doubtless in fearsome French, was itself enough to determine New England opposition!
It remained for Cyrus King, however, to argue the case most vehemently on moral grounds. Half brother to the redoubtable Rufus King, a graduate of Phillips Andover and of Columbia College, he made here his one, brief, claim to fame. Though Gales did not think his remarks worth preserving (perhaps his political sentiments colored his judgment), Editor Hezekiah Niles did, and it is to the pages of Niles’ Register that we must turn for a report of King’s motions and speeches: Besides opposing the bill on the general ground of the inexpediency of appropriating so large a sum as twenty-three thousand dollars, for this object, at a time of such national embarrassment, and when we had no place of safety for a library when purchased, Mr. King observed, that it appeared from the catalogue, there were many books unnecessary, improper and useless for congress, and that on the contrary, this library was destitute of others, indispensable in the ordinary transactions of our business; with a view to remedy these inconveniences, he moved that the bill be committed to a select committee, with instructions to report a new section, as follows: Sec. 2 And be it further enacted . That as soon as said library shall be received at Washington, the joint library committee be, and they are hereby authorized and directed to select therefrom, all books not useful and necessary for congress, and to cause the same to be sold, and the proceeds thereof invested in other books for the use of congress.