Rebuilding a Library

In many large and small ways, the War of 1812 was a disaster for the United States. Despite being at war with France, the British invaded the U.S. and burned our Capitol building and the White House.

There’s the famous story of Dolly Madison saving paintings from being burned. Still, there was another loss, particularly for those who love to research history by delving into old books. When the British officers were stacking material to ensure the Capitol building would be destroyed, they came across a room that housed the Congress’ records and its library.

Roughly 3,000 books and countless other records were fed into the fire. Many of the books were donated by members of Congress and were housed in the room known as the Library of Congress. When this library was created, the Founding Fathers intended it for research. Its existence is not constitutionally mandated.

When the smoke cleared and the British Army gone, James Madison still had a war to fight. Congress had taken up residence about 10 blocks away, and one of the items being considered was how to rebuild the library’s contents.

Now out of office, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his extensive collection of books to the U.S. Government. In his library at Monticello, Jefferson had approximately 6,500 books valued at $24,950 in 1914 ($410,737 in 2023). It was, at the time, the most extensive collection of books in the U.S. and included many rare volumes of which only few copies existed.

Jefferson’s collection included all of Voltaire’s work, all in French, John Locke, and other philosophers and the works of many English and French novelists. Some of whose works were considered too risqué for the public and therefore should not be in a “public” collection.

So why did Jefferson want to sell, not donate? Simple reason was that he was deeply in debt. He had not managed Monticello well and was already considering selling off pieces of land so his heirs would not have to pay off his debts.

Some in Congress argued they had more important topics to debate than whether to acquire Jefferson’s library. Others believed Jefferson’s collection was an ideal beginning to restart the Congressional library. Still, others objected to the purchase since the books were not all in English and would not, therefore, be accessible to the majority of the U.S. population. Another argument against buying the collection was that the topics were not appropriate for a legislative body since many books did not cover government-related topics.

None other than New Hampshire’s Representative Daniel Webster went on record against the purchase, stating that “all books of an atheistical, irreligious, and immoral tendency” should be removed. Others wanted to not purchase books to which “gentlemen would take exception.”

Many opponents required amendments to be added to prevent its passing that would guarantee it wouldn’t pass. All failed when the bill passed on October 10th, 1814 by a margin of 10 votes. The bill’s supporters said Jefferson’s books were an “admirable base on which to base a national library.”

One condition attached to the authorization to purchase Jefferson’s library and any subsequent additions to the collection was the requirement that the books would be housed in a separate building, not in the Capitol. Jefferson’s collection of books was taken in toto and became the foundation of what we now know as the Library of Congress.

Image of the Capitol Building shortly after it was burned in 1814, Library of Congress.

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