Jefferson And The Book-burners

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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.

This motion being negatived, Mr. King observed, that it appeared from the same catalogue, and from the information of intelligent gentlemen, who had seen this library, and it might be inferred from the character of the man who selected it , and from the country (France) where he says he made the principal collection, and from the time when he made it, that there were in this library many books of an irreligious and immoral tendency, embracing many of the works of the French infidel philosophers, who had caused and inflamed the volcano of the French revolution, which in its progress, had desolated the fairest portions of Europe, and had extended its fatal—its destructive effects, to our once happy country; to prevent a general dissemination of this infidel philosophy, and of the principles of a man, who had inflicted greater and deeper injuries upon our country , than any other person, except Mr. Madison, ever did upon any country. Mr. King again moved to recommit the bill to a select committee.…