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The Home of George Watterston, the Third Librarian of Congress – Pic of the Week

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I have walked by this building many times, but did not realize until recently that it has a special connection to the Library of Congress. This was the home of the third Librarian of Congress, George Watterston. Watterston presided over the Library during a significant period in its history. Appointed by President Madison in 1815 as Librarian after the British burned the Capitol (which then housed the Library of Congress), Watterston became the first Librarian who did not also have the duty of serving as Clerk of the House of Representatives. It was after the destruction of the Library during the War of 1812 that Congress purchased the Library owned by President Thomas Jefferson, and it fell to Watterson to receive and create a catalog for it.

The front of the George Watterston House from the street.
The George Watterston House in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Photo by Robert Brammer.

Watterston’s father brought him to Washington, D.C. as a child, and he was steeped in the history of the city. In later life, he recounted watching George Washington lay the cornerstone for the new Capitol Building. Watterston also had an interesting connection to the law. Before becoming Librarian, he was a lawyer in Hagerstown, MD, and his lack of satisfaction with his profession was reflected in several books that he wrote which depicted lawyers in an unflattering light, including “The Lawyer: or Man as He Ought Not to Be.” His writing style is dark and brooding, but he occasionally reveals a sense of humor.

A newspaper excerpt from "Wanderer in Washington," Watterston describes revelers at a party in President Madison's drawing room repeatedly toasting to the president's good health as an excuse to drink more punch.
In this excerpt from “Wanderer in Washington,” Watterston describes revelers at a party repeatedly toasting to President Madison’s good health as an excuse to drink free punch.

Watterson proved to be a staunch advocate of the Library of Congress as a national library, but as a prominent supporter of the Whigs, his tenure came to an end in 1829 with the election of President Andrew Jackson. In later life, Watterson served as the secretary of the Washington Monument Society. He died in 1854, and was interred in the Congressional Cemetery.

A portrait of George Watterson, in profile facing to the right.
George Watterston, head-and-shoulders profile portrait; Librarian of Congress 1815-1829. Watercolor. 1811. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Please note that the Watterston home is privately owned and is not open for tours, but you can walk by it on 2nd Street SE on the east side of the Library’s Madison Building.

Source consulted: The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Vol. 32, No. 4 (October 1975), pp. 370-388 (19 pages)

Comments (2)

  1. I think you mean the “east” side of the Madison building. (The “west” side would be First Street.)

    • Thanks for the correction.

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