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Jefferson and the Book-burners

July 2024
8min read

When he offered Congress his library, his foes charged that it was full of books which “never ought to be read” and probably ought to be burned

When, on the night of August 24–25, 1814, General Robert Ross burned Washington, most though not all, of the infant congressional library went up in flames. Patrick Magruder, who doubled as clerk of the House and librarian, had betaken himself to Virginia Springs, and the convulsive efforts of his assistants to save the library foundered on the lack of wagons. A subsequent congressional investigation concluded somewhat illogically that the hapless Magruder should have foreseen this embarrassment and provided for it, and accepted his resignation.

When, on the night of August 24–25, 1814, General Robert Ross burned Washington, most though not all, of the infant congressional library went up in flames. Patrick Magruder, who doubled as clerk of the House and librarian, had betaken himself to Virginia Springs, and the convulsive efforts of his assistants to save the library foundered on the lack of wagons. A subsequent congressional investigation concluded somewhat illogically that the hapless Magruder should have foreseen this embarrassment and provided for it, and accepted his resignation.

The news of the destruction of the library shocked Thomas Jefferson, then in retirement at Monticello. He might with some justice regard the library as his special concern: it had been organized under his auspices, and he had found time, while President, to prepare for it a catalogue of desirable books—carefully leaving out those “for entertainment only”—which fixed for the present its acquisition policy. For some years he had been accumulating at Monticello a comprehensive and scholarly library; he himself called it “the choicest collection of books in the United States,” and it probably was. He had thought to leave it to his darling University of Virginia, but that institution was still on his ardent drawing board, and the need of the nation was pressing. So on September 21 Jefferson wrote his old friend Samuel Harrison Smith (better known as Silky-Milky Smith or as the husband of the vivacious Margaret Bayard whose letters, later collected in The First Forty Years of Washington Society , were to tell all), offering his library to Congress on whatever terms the Congress might think proper. I learn from the newspapers [he wrote] 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 presume it will be among the early objects of Congress to recommence their collection. This will be difficult while the war continues, and intercourse with Europe is attended with so much risk. You know my collection, its condition and extent.… It is long since I have been sensible it ought not to continue private property, and had provided that at my death, Congress should have the refusal of it at their own price. The loss they have now incurred, makes the present the proper moment for their accommodation, without regard to the small remnant of time and the barren use of my enjoying it. I ask of your friendship, therefore, to make for me the tender of it to the Library Committee of Congress.…

This handsome offer excited both enthusiasm and consternation. To some it transformed British vandalism into a benefaction; the congressional library, after all, numbered only some three thousand volumes, while Jefferson estimated his own collection (too generously, as it proved) at between nine and ten thousand. Not only this, but while the congressional library had been assembled almost fortuitously Jefferson’s collection was admirably designed for the needs of scholars and statesmen. I have been fifty years making it [wrote Jefferson].… While residing in Paris, I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two, in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America.… Besides this, I had standing orders during the whole time I was in Europe, on its principal book-marts, particularly Amsterdam, Frankfort, Madrid, and London, for such works relating to America as could not be found in Paris. So that, in that department particularly, such a collection was made as probably can never again be effected, because it is hardly probable that the same opportunities, the same time, industry, perseverance and expense, with the same knowledge of the bibliography of the subject, would again happen to be in concurrence.

Smith replied at once that he could see “no obstacle in the acceptance” of this offer. From the former editor of the Republican National Intelligencer this was excessively naïve. Die-hard Federalists—they were still another decade a-dying—would doubtless have fought anything bearing Jefferson’s name, but this proposal seemed to them peculiarly offensive, for it combined in a single package a collection of iniquitous ingredients: a library of belles-lettres and classics which no self-respecting congressmen would read; an arsenal of Jacobinism, infidelity, and immorality; and a lavish financial subsidy to ex-President Jefferson himself.


But the Republicans controlled both branches of Congress, and the Federalists were forced to resort to obstructive tactics. Thus after the Senate had acted favorably on Jefferson’s proposal and returned the bill to the House, Thomas Jackson Oakley of New York (he was later to be chief justice of that state, in which role “he was noted for his impartiality”) moved to authorize the committee to buy not Jefferson’s library, but any library; this crude evasion of the issue was summarily rejected. Cyrus King of Maine (then still a district of Massachusetts) moved the purchase of such books only as the Congress should deem suitable; John Reed of Massachusetts supported this, and added to it an amendment fixing the maximum price of $25,000. With these and other amendments before the House, “the debate,” observed the editor of the Annals of Congress , “became rather too animated.” In the end the Republicans swept aside all objections, and sent the bill on to the Senate for action.

Meantime a committee had counted the actual number of volumes in Jefferson’s library—6,487—and placed a modest price of $23,950—a sum, be it noted, less than the maximum which the parsimonious Reed was prepared to pay. A bill to buy the library at this price passed the Senate without a division and on December 3, 1814, went to the House. Here, on its final reading the next month, the Federalists took their last stand.

Oakley of New York, Reed and Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, King of Maine, and a freshman representative, Daniel Webster of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, led the forces of righteousness in the assault on Jeffersonian subversion. “The debate,” says Joseph Gales of the Annals , “although it afforded much amusement to the auditors, would not interest the feelings or judgment of any reader.” The Washington correspondent of the New York Evening Post thought differently and happily preserved for us some of the arguments advanced by the opposition. These were in part financial, in part literary, in part moral. Twenty-three thousand, nine hundred and fifty dollars, it was observed, would pay for the enlistment of 210 men for the Regular Army or the purchase of 2,000 stands of arms—an argument that must have sounded less than convincing to Federalist delegates from the Hartford Convention even then on their way to Washington. And coming from that party which had long claimed a monopoly on culture and philosophy, the literary arguments were no less startling. It was urged—so the New York Post observed— — that the library was not such as Congress wanted, being almost entirely literary, containing comparatively little of law or history, that it abounded with productions of an atheistical, irreligious and immoral character,—a fourth of the books were in foreign languages, and many in the dead languages, such as romances, tracts on architecture, farriery, cookery and the like. Upon the later subject, it was mentioned — there were no less than ten different works, nine being in foreign languages.—

Perhaps the spectacle of nine books of cookery, most of them doubtless in fearsome French, was itself enough to determine New England opposition!

It remained for Cyrus King, however, to argue the case most vehemently on moral grounds. Half brother to the redoubtable Rufus King, a graduate of Phillips Andover and of Columbia College, he made here his one, brief, claim to fame. Though Gales did not think his remarks worth preserving (perhaps his political sentiments colored his judgment), Editor Hezekiah Niles did, and it is to the pages of Niles’ Register that we must turn for a report of King’s motions and speeches: Besides opposing the bill on the general ground of the inexpediency of appropriating so large a sum as twenty-three thousand dollars, for this object, at a time of such national embarrassment, and when we had no place of safety for a library when purchased, Mr. King observed, that it appeared from the catalogue, there were many books unnecessary, improper and useless for congress, and that on the contrary, this library was destitute of others, indispensable in the ordinary transactions of our business; with a view to remedy these inconveniences, he moved that the bill be committed to a select committee, with instructions to report a new section, as follows: Sec. 2 And be it further enacted . That as soon as said library shall be received at Washington, the joint library committee be, and they are hereby authorized and directed to select therefrom, all books not useful and necessary for congress, and to cause the same to be sold, and the proceeds thereof invested in other books for the use of congress.


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.”

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