SORRY… I’m posting this on “WordPress” a little late…..
“If Adams found any relief or pleasure to his duties, it was approving, on April 24, legislation that appropriated $5,900 to ‘purchase such books as may be necessary’ for a new Library of Congress. It was one of the few measures upon which he and the Vice President could have heartily agreed.”
In this excerpt from his biography of John Adams, author David McCullough notes the strained circumstances both of the Adams presidency, and of our second president’s relationship with out soon-to-be third president. But in this one area they found agreement. And although this library would go through many misfortunes in its life, this would prove to be an area on which all of the citizens of the new republic could agree. For the Library of Congress (pictured above, circa 1900) has grown to be a repository of knowledge that is unique in the world. But it all burned waaaay back near the beginning…..
The Origins of the Library of Congress
When the seat of our new national government was moved from Philadelphia to the Washington D.C., in 1800, a specialized collection of books for use by members of Congress was deemed a necessity. So on April 24 John Adams did indeed approve legislation which provided for “such books as may necessary for the use of Congress — and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein.” As noted, the price tag for this in those days came to $5,900, and some three thousand books were purchased over the next several years. The
Library was at this time kept as a reference Library which was intended for the use of members of Congress only. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson became President, and, as a man who possessed a large library himself, he naturally took an active interest in the Library of Congress, often recommending books that should be purchased. An Act of Congress in 1802 gave the president the authority to name a Librarian of Congress. John J. Beckley was so named and earned a salary of two dollars per day and in addition was to serve as Clerk of the House of Representatives. By 1814, the Library was housed in a timber framed room in the North wing of the Capitol building (above, circa 1800) with a double row of windows.
The Brits Burn the Library of Congress in 1814
The United States got wrapped up into the War of 1812 with Great Britain, and in 1814 the Brits swept into Maryland, and after quickly blowing away the disorganized defenses, marched into Washington on August 24. And they decided to sack the town and burnt it and all of our public buildings, including the White House, and the Capitol
Building including the Library of Congress which was housed therein. In fact, legend says that the marauders used the books in the library to light the Capitol building ablaze. While one American watched helplessly and expressed despair as the “elegant library” was being torched, the British commander, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn spoke regretfully, commenting “I do not make war against Letters nor Ladies.” But burn it he did. Almost everything was lost… one of the few book to survive was a Government Account Book for 1810, which Cockburn took with him as a souvenir (his family returned it in 1940).
Jefferson Comes to the Rescue
Into this breech stepped Thomas Jefferson. Living in retirement (below, circa 1821) he offered to sell his entire Library to the U.S. government to replace all of what was lost in the fire. Besides, he needed the money to pay debts. He wanted a library of broader appeal
than just law: “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” he remarked. There was some opposition among Federalist lawmakers. Many of Jefferson’s volumes were considered radical; the works of Rousseau and Voltaire in particular. A writer to one Boston newspaper summed up some of this feeling: “The grand library of Mr. Jefferson will undoubtedly be purchased with all its finery and philosophical nonsense.” Eventually a price of $23,950 was settled on and the library of Jefferson was packed up in ten wagons and became the Library of Congress. Jefferson’s friend John Adams (for they had patched up their quarrel) remarked “…I envy you this immortal honour; but I cannot enter into competition with you for my books are not half the number of yours…” The addition of Jefferson’s volume became the nucleus for the new library.
The Library of Congress Since Then
The Library of Congress (pictured below as it looks today) since those early days has grown into the foremost collection of knowledge in the world. In the words of the website, “Jefferson’s Legacy”:
“The diversity of the Library of Congress is startling. Simultaneously it serves as: a legislative library and the major research arm of the U.S. Congress; the copyright agency of the United States; a center for scholarship that collects research materials in many media and in… (more than) 450 languages; a public institution that is open to everyone over high school age and serves readers in twenty-two reading rooms; a government library that is heavily used by the executive branch and the judiciary; a national library for the blind and physically handicapped; an outstanding law library; one of the world’s largest providers of bibliographic data and products; a center for the commissioning and performance of chamber music; the home of the nation’s poet laureate; the sponsor of exhibitions and of musical, literary, and cultural programs that reach across the nation and the world; a research center for the preservation and conservation of library materials; and the world’s largest repository of maps, atlases, printed and recorded music, motion pictures and television programs.”
“The Library, An Illustrated History” by Stuart P. Murray, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2009.
“John Adams” by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001
“The Sage of Monticello” by Dumas Malone, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1981
“The Adams – Jefferson Letters” ed. by Lee Cappon, Univ. of N.C. Press, Chapel Hill, 1988
“A Picture History of the U.S. Navy” by Theodore Roscoe and Fred Freeman, Bonanza Books,
New York, 1956