When Thomas Jefferson Replaced the Books in the Library of Congress

May 4, 2022

Library of Congress where Thomas Jefferson donated his books.
The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

During the War of 1812, the British burned the U.S. Capitol, and with it, the collection of books and manuscripts held in the Library of Congress. All of the 3,000 volumes of the Library of Congress, which was housed in the Capitol building, were lost.

Thomas Jefferson, who at the time had the largest private collection of books in the nation, wrote a letter to newspaper publisher and friend Samuel H. Smith offering his personal collection to Congress as a replacement for what was lost. Jefferson said in his letter that he would accept any price set by Congress for his nine to ten thousand volume collection of books.

Jefferson was an avid collector of books, and he had lost books by fire before. His family home in Shadwell, Virginia, had been destroyed by fire in 1770, along with his many books. Jefferson began to reestablish his collection while in France in the 1780s, and he later deposited them in his library at Monticello.

Congress approved Jefferson’s offer and purchased his library for $23,950 (around $338,000 in today’s dollars). After Jefferson heard the news, he employed the help of a Georgetown book dealer named Joseph Milligan to transport 6,487 volumes, a majority of his library, to their new home.

Jefferson’s collection had doubled the previous size of the Library of Congress, but it was not without controversy. His library had books that covered almost every subject, and many were in a multitude of different languages. There was a debate in Congress, however, over why the government needed such a comprehensive set of books on a number of subjects in many different languages. Jefferson anticipated this view and argued that there was no subject in his collection that Congress might not need to refer to and that having a varied resource was needed to govern a democracy.

Unfortunately, the fire from 1814 wouldn’t be the only fire to besiege the Library of Congress. In 1851, another fire ravaged the Library of Congress and destroyed two-thirds of its then 55,000 volumes. Two-thirds of Jefferson’s collection was among those books destroyed in the fire.

Since 1998, officials at the Library of Congress have been looking for the exact books Jefferson sold to the library after 1814 that had been lost in the fire of 1851. To date, the Library of Congress has located over 4,000 exact replacements that have the same publisher, date, and edition for the 4,324 volumes that belonged to Jefferson that had been destroyed in 1851.

Sources: Library of Congress (1), Library of Congress (2), PBS, Senate.gov, Smithsonian

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Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites (you can find out how to join below). I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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