Buying a Library

James Madison, fourth president of the United States. Between 1836 and 1842. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

James Madison, fourth president of the United States. Between 1836 and 1842. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Two hundred years ago today, President James Madison approved an act of Congress appropriating $23,590 for the purchase of a large collection of books belonging to Thomas Jefferson in order to reestablish the Library of Congress.

Under Madison’s leadership, the United States went to war with Great Britain in 1812. After capturing Washington, D.C. in 1814, the British burned the U.S. Capitol, destroying the Library of Congress and its 3,000-volume collection. Jefferson offered to sell his personal library to the Library Committee of Congress in order to rebuild the collection of the Congressional Library.

In a letter to his friend Samuel Smith, Jefferson wrote, “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from this collection . . . there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

Jefferson’s collection contained more than twice the number of books Congress lost in the fire and included a much wider range of subjects. The previous library covered only law, economics and history.

The purchase of Jefferson’s library wasn’t without some controversy. According to the Office of the Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congress took more than three months to deliberate.

According to the “Annals of Congress,” “The objections to the purchase were generally its extent, the cost of the purchase, the nature of the selection, embracing too many works in foreign languages, some of too philosophical a character, and some otherwise objectionable. Of the first description, exception was taken to Voltaire’s works, &, co., and of the other to Callender’s ‘Prospect Before Us.'” (pg. 398)

The taking of the city of Washington in America. Published by G. Thompson, Oct. 14, 1814. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The taking of the city of Washington in America. Published by G. Thompson, Oct. 14, 1814. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

“Those who opposed the bill, did so on account of the scarcity of money and the necessity of appropriating it to purposes more indispensable than the purchase of a library; the probablE insecurity of such a library placed here; the high price to be give for this collection; its miscellaneous and almost exclusively literary (instead of legal and historical) character, &c.

“To those arguments, enforced with zeal and vehemence, the friends of the bill replied with fact, wit, and argument, to show that the purchase, to be made on terms of long credit, could not affect the present resources of the United States; that the price was moderate, the library more valuable from the scarcity of many of its books, and altogether a most admirable substratum for a National Library.” (pg. 1105)

Approved by the Senate on Dec. 3, 1814, the bill passed in the House of U.S. Representatives on Jan. 26, 1815.

Madison’s connection to the Library of Congress actually existed long before 1815. He first proposed the idea of a congressional library in 1783. That year, a committee chaired by Madison submitted a list of approximately 1,300 books to the Confederation Congress that were “proper for the use of Congress.” Madison urged that “it was indispensable that congress should have at all times at command” authorities on public law whose expertise “would render . . . their proceedings conformable to propriety; and it was observed that the want of this information was manifest in several important acts of Congress.” His proposal was defeated because of “the inconveniency of advancing even a few hundred pounds at this crisis.”

However, it was under the authority of President John Adams that the Library of Congress was established through an act of Congress on April 24, 1800.

Madison’s contributions to the establishment of the Library are memorialized in one of the main buildings on the institution’s Capitol Hill campus: not only is the James Madison Memorial Building named after the fourth president but there is also a statue of him inside.

3 Comments

  1. Margaret Clifton
    January 30, 2015 at 10:27 am

    Great post Erin! The backstory of the controversy around the purchase is so interesting and so little discussed. (more fodder for the docent tours!). Thank you.

  2. CW
    January 30, 2015 at 11:22 am

    Thank you for this “bicentennial minute.” This is very interesting information, and I appreciate the links to more in depth follow-up.

    One small suggestion: you might want to verify the dates mentioned in the caption under the Madison print (James Madison, fourth president of the United States. Between 1836 and 1842.).

  3. Rosemary
    April 15, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    Thank you.

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