Jefferson and the Book-burners


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.…

The motion was next attacked by an honourable gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. Hulbert) who, after advocating the bill on general principles, with his usual ability and perspicuity, observed, as it respects this motion, and the reasons assigned by the mover in favour of it, that these reasons were inconsistent with the motion, as the section provided for the preservation of these books, alleged to be irreligious, by sending them back to Mr. Jefferson, whereas the motive of his colleague was to prevent the contagion which might spread from them; that if he was sincerely desirous of preventing this evil, he ought to amend the section by introducing a provision for the burning of such books. Mr. King informed the honourable speaker, that he would accept with pleasure of the modification proposed by his colleague: that indeed he had at first drawn his amendment with a provision that these books should be burnt by the library committee, but that it afterwards appeared to him, to comport better with the dignity of the house, to send them back, especially as said committee might be unwilling to perform a task usually allotted to the common hangman. That as the motion now stood, the fears of his colleague as to the ill effects of these books upon the pure minds of Mr. Jefferson and his friends, were certainly groundless, as they were happily secured therefrom by their own depravity.…

The amendment was accordingly withdrawn, and the bill passed, putting into the pocket of Thomas Jefferson 23,900 dollars, for about six thousand volumes of books, good, bad and indifferent, old and new, useful and worthless, in all tongues and languages, about one quarter French, and another quarter in languages, dead and living, other than English; many which cannot be read by a single member in either house of Congress, and more which never will nor ever ought to be read by a member—while the library is destitute of other books, absolutely necessary, in doing the public business. This is true Jeffersonian, Madisonian, democratic economy, which has bankrupt the treasury, beggared the people, and disgraced the nation.

(Niles’ Weekly Register, 1814–15, Vol. VII, Supp., pp. 63–65)

We must not, however, let Niles have the last word, but rather his rival, Robert Walsh, of the short-lived American Register . “The next generation,” wrote Walsh, “will, we confidently predict, blush at the objections made in Congress to the purchase of Mr. Jefferson’s library. Party-spirit, darkling and chafing, spoke the language of an auctioneer or a chapman, and erred egregiously even in its huckstering calculations.”