Sunday, August 24, 2014

The British "Light Up" the Library of Congress

Two hundred years ago today, on August 24, 1814, British troops burned the U.S. Capitol, which then housed the books of the Library of Congress. Rear Admiral George Cockburn is said to have asked his men, "Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned? All for it shall say 'Aye'". The resulting fire destroyed the Library's entire collection of some 3,000 volumes, but Thomas Jefferson soon thereafter offered his own substantial library for sale to Congress, writing:
"I have been fifty years in making it, and have spared no pains, opportunity or expense, to make it what it now is. While residing in Paris I devoted every afternoon . . . in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hands, and putting by everything which related to America . . . ." 
Jefferson's 6,487 volumes, which constituted the largest personal library in the country at the time, were appraised at $23,950, and on October 10, 1814, the Senate unanimously approved its purchase. Some in the House of Representatives expressed strong opposition, however, noting that the library contained many titles in foreign languages, as well as philosophical works by such authors as Voltaire, Locke, and Rousseau. Daniel Webster suggested buying the whole collection, but then returning to Jefferson "all books of an atheistical, irreligious, and immoral tendency." The measure eventually passed by a 10-vote margin, and the library was purchased intact, thus seeding the rebirth of the Library of Congress.

A catalog of Jefferson's library arranged alphabetically by title was issued by the Library of Congress in 1815. At Jefferson's request, Nicholas Trist in 1823 restored the intellectual classification scheme that Jefferson had used to arrange his collection at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson's Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order, edited by James Gilreath and Douglas L. Wilson, can be viewed online. Although unaffiliated with the Library of Congress, LibraryThing also offers an online "Legacy Library" devoted to Jefferson's various collections

The history of Jefferson's library is further complicated by another fire in the U.S. Capitol in 1851, which destroyed two-thirds of his former books. In 1998, Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, commenced an effort to restore the lost books through the purchase or donation of identical editions. Today the Library of Congress ranks as the world's largest, and owes much to the breadth and depth of Jefferson's intellectual pursuits.

Note: The image above is from "The Library of Congress," an article by Ben Perley Poore in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. XLVI, no. CCLXXI, December 1872, pp. 41-50, at p. 44.

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