Mr. Jefferson’s Books Go to Washington


The British perpetrated many insults upon the American people when they burned Washington in 1814, perhaps the worst to contemporary eyes being the destruction of the Library of Congress. Over 3,000 books went up in flames. But the disaster had the unintended consequence of making the national library better than ever. At his home Monticello in Virginia former President Thomas Jefferson read an account of the loss in the newspaper and was duly horrified:

“I learn from the newspapers that the vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington over science as well as the arts, by the destruction of the public library with the noble edifice in which it was deposited.”

I first learned of Jefferson’s role in restocking the Library of Congress when I studied the history of American Libraries for my MLS. We must have glossed hastily over the subject because I was left with the impression that he donated his library to the nation out of magnanimous patriotism. In fact, as with many aspects of Jefferson’s life, he mixed noble idealism with self-interested pragmatism. He had debts to pay, so he took advantage of Britain’s brief triumph and offered to sell his personal library to Congress.

At the time Jefferson’s library was the largest in the New World, despite the fact that he lost much of it to a fire at his home Shadwell in 1770. In the intervening years he had continued his avid book collecting and could now offer 6,487 volumes to the Library of Congress. Then as now Congress had an anti-intellectual and anti-science bent for Jefferson’s offer sparked a partisan debate over the kind of books in his library. What use did Congress have for books in foreign languages or on obscure subjects? One Cyrus King argued that:

“Jefferson’s books would help disseminate his infidel philosophy and were good, bad, and indifferent … in languages which many can not read, and most ought not.”

Jefferson, ever mindful of his creditors, responded indignantly:

“There is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

Jefferson’s library was indeed an eclectic mix of books, both philosophical and practical, reflecting his varied preoccupations and interests. They were arranged according to his own classification scheme inspired by Francis Bacon’s division of knowledge into Memory, Reason, and Imagination, which Jefferson renamed History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts. They included everything from the Greek and Roman classics, Cicero was a Jefferson favorite, to bee keeping, horticulture, child rearing, chess, and hawking. Architecture was well represented; Jefferson designed Monticello himself based on drawings by Palladio. Though the subjects of history and jurisprudence unsurprisingly took up the most shelf space, Jefferson was also interested in cutting edge technology. Among his 134 Technical Arts titles was Explanation of a steam engine and the method of applying it to propel a boat by James Rumsey.

As Cyrus King and his fellows perused Jefferson’s book list they would have found plenty to tut at, notably a still controversial copy of the Koran and novels in French. Quelle horreur! Yet we might agree with these 18th century congressmen that bawdy Restoration drama was unlikely to prove useful in their deliberations. Jefferson owned quite a collection of plays under his category Comedy including The Busie Body by Susanna Centlivre, The Provok’d Husband by Sir John Vanbrugh and The Careless Husband by Colley Cibber. Once I started browsing the list it was hard to tear myself away. I was heartened to find that the slave-owning Jefferson owned a copy of The history of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave trade by the British parliament, an 1808 publication by Thomas Clarkson. But further down I found he also owned Slavery not forbidden by scripture, or a defense of the West Indian planters by Richard Nisbit, 1773. If a man can be known by his bookshelf, Jefferson’s famous ambivalence on the moral issue of his times is confirmed.

Despite their misgivings Congress eventually agreed to purchase Jefferson’s library for $23,950. They based the price on the measurement of the size of the books, rather as modern interior decorators sell books by the yard to clients wanting an instant library. Jefferson hired Joseph Milligan, a Georgetown book dealer, to oversee the packing and transportation of the books, which took over a month in the spring of 1815. The books were hauled away in their original bookcases by ten wagons. I wonder at Jefferson’s feelings as he watched the last wagon disappear down the mountain. In June of that year he wrote wistfully to John Adams:

“I cannot live without books; but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.”

Perhaps he felt as bereft as my father must have when he sold some of his books for extra cash. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother told me that when money was short my father packed a suitcase with books and took them to a book dealer who had a stall on Romford market. That explains why my search for an art book I absolutely knew I had seen before was so hopeless. It was a history of sculpture. In the prehistoric section I had seen the crude figure of a squatting woman with a baby emerging from her body. I was completely innocent of the facts of life at the time and turned hot and cold all over with shock. Later, when I wanted to confirm what I had seen, the book was nowhere to be found. I thought my father must have seen me looking at it and hidden it away. The truth was more painful. Like Jefferson my father was a lifelong collector of books on all subjects and passed this love on to his children.


In Washington on Christmas Eve 1851 another fire destroyed thousands of books, including two thirds of the Jefferson Collection. This time the British were innocent; a faulty chimney flue was blamed. What remains of the original collection can still be seen in a special room in the magnificent Italian Renaissance style Library of Congress building constructed in the late nineteenth century. For several decades now the Library has been scouring book dealers worldwide to acquire exact copies of the original books lost to the fire. On the shelves Jefferson’s books are marked with a green ribbon, replacement copies with a yellow ribbon. White boxes indicate the books that are yet to be found.

As for Jefferson, he continued to purchase books, building a new collection of several thousand by the time of his death in 1826. In 1829 they were sold at auction to pay his debts.

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