The politics of Thomas Jefferson’s donation to the Library of Congress

In 1800, the seat of the U.S. government relocated to the District of Columbia. Among final preparations for the move, in April 1800, Congress appropriated funds for what would become the Library of Congress. With the U.S. Capitol as its home, the library’s first books arrived the following year. But in August 1814, the library was destroyed when the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812.

Thomas Jefferson, a noted bibliophile, took a keen interest in the Library of Congress. During his presidency (1801-1809), he appointed the first two Librarians of Congress and personally recommended books for it. So, upon hearing of its destruction, the retired Jefferson stepped up. Knowing the financial difficulties of the nation (and facing his own), in a September 21, 1814, letter he offered to help “recommence” the library by selling his extensive personal library at whatever valuation set by appraisers selected by Congress on such payment terms Congress decided.

“I have been fifty years making it, and have spared no pains, opportunity or expense, to make it what it now is,” Jefferson wrote of his library. Its range and breadth were vast, he said. “There is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” There was one condition, however. Jefferson said his library must be purchased in its entirety or not at all.

On October 10, the U.S. Senate approved, without debate, a resolution authorizing the Joint Library Committee to enter into negotiations to buy Jefferson’s library. However, politics began to crop up when the House of Representatives took up the resolution on October 17. Three members of the Federalist Party objected to the cost and nature of the books. Too many, they said, were in foreign languages, of “too philosophical a character, and some otherwise objectionable.”

Thomas Jefferson lithograph, circa 1825

At the time, the Federalists were in the minority in both houses. The Democratic-Republican party, co-founded by Jefferson, outnumbered its opposition 25-10 in the Senate and 115-67 in the House. Unsurprisingly, the resolution was approved on October 19, although with an amendment requiring Congressional approval of the final contract.

After the Senate agreed to the amendment, a Georgetown bookseller appraised them. He valued the 6,487 books at $23,950, around $370,000 today. Jefferson agreed to the valuation, even though he’d spent far more than that. Jefferson later received a letter from William Thornton, the Superintendent of Patents, saying he’d advised Congress to offer $50,000. Thornton said the selection of books was such that they “were not to be obtained but at very great trouble, great expense, great risk, & many of them not to be had at all.”

A bill to buy the library for $23,950 was introduced in the Senate on November 28 and approved on December 3. The House didn’t take up the bill until January 26, 1815, and, once again, partisan politics flared. Cyrus King, a Federalist elected out of Massachusetts, led the attack on the bill.

The Hartford Courant, considered a Federalist newspaper, reported that King objected because Jefferson’s library contained “many books of an irreligious and immoral tendency,” as well as works by “French infidel philosophers” who’d “caused” the French revolution. Moreover, King argued, the House must

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 [President James] Madison, ever did upon any country.

He then proposed an amendment requiring the Library Committee to remove “all books of an atheistical, irreligious, and immoral tendency” and return them to Jefferson.

Adam Seybert, a Democratic-Republican from Pennsylvania and a member of the Joint Library Committee, said he was not willing or able to make such choices and proposed King be made “sole inquisitor,” according to the Courant. King “immediately intimated” that he would do so “with great pleasure.”

Federalist John Hulbert of Massachusetts not only supported the bill but, tongue-in-cheek or not, suggested burning rather than returning the books. He said that would better “prevent the contagion that which might spread from them,” the Courant reported. King said he’d initially intended to do so but decided returning the books wouldn’t cause harm because Jefferson and his friends were protected “by their own depravity.”

The Annals of Congress, the era’s version of the Congressional Record but compiled years later “from authentic materials,” went into little detail. It said that while the debate was lengthy and “afforded much amusement to the auditors, [it] would not interest the feelings or judgment of any reader.” King, in fact, withdrew the motion, saying he did so in deference to his friends in the House and the time the debate was taking. The House then passed the bill, albeit on an 81-71 vote, meaning 30 percent of the Democratic-Republicans defected. President Madison signed it into law on January 30

Beginning in the middle of April, the books were packaged, protected, and sealed in the pine bookcases they inhabited at Monticello. Ten wagons made the week-long journey, with the last one departing May 8. When finally unpacked, there were more than 6,500 books, more than doubling what the Library of Congress held in 1814.

Jefferson insisted he not be paid until the books were delivered and didn’t request payment for the additional books. He received Treasury notes totaling $23,950. Jefferson was struggling with sizable debt at the time. He used more than $15,000 of the proceeds to pay off two large loans. He reportedly spent some of the balance on books. On June 15, 1815, he wrote John Adams that he was “reprocuring [sic] some part of the literary treasures” sold to Congress.” The reason? “I cannot live without books.”

Unfortunately, a fire in the Capitol building on Christmas Eve 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of the books Congress bought from Jefferson. While 2,465 volumes remained, in 1998 the Library of Congress began reconstructing the original Jefferson library. Less than 300 books still need to be replaced.

I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county, to consist of a few well-chosen books, to be lent to the people of the country under regulations as would secure their safe return in due time.

Thomas Jefferson letter to John Wyche, May 19, 1809

(Originally posted at History of Yesterday)

Comments are closed.