A Congressional Legacy: The Peter Force Library

1865 portrait of Peter Force / Mathew Brady, Prints and Photographs Division.

Purchased through an act of Congress in 1867, the Peter Force Library became the foundation of the Library’s Americana collections. 

As the nation sought to reconstruct the Union after the Civil War, so, too, did the Library of Congress seek to build a collection that documented fully America’s history. At the time, the nearly 100,000 volumes in the Library of Congress fell short of the task.

“It is not creditable to our national spirit to have to admit the fact … that the largest and most complete collection of books relating to America in the world is now gathered on the shelves of the British Museum,” wrote Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford in his “Special Report” to Congress’ Joint Committee on the Library, dated Jan. 25, 1867. Spofford appealed to the committee to approve the purchase of the private library of Peter Force. The report ends with an appeal “to the judgment and liberality of this committee and of Congress to secure the chance of adding to this National Library the largest and best collection of the sources of American history yet brought together in this country.”

The response was quick and unanimous. A recommendation to appropriate the sum of $100,000 would be made to the full Congress. President Andrew Johnson’s signature, five weeks later, made it law.

Born in New Jersey, Peter Force (1790- 1868) was the son of a Revolutionary War soldier. A lieutenant in the War of 1812, Force settled in the nation’s capital where he worked as a printer, newspaper editor and politician—serving as mayor of Washington, D.C., from 1836-1840.

In this letter, dated Jan. 26, 1867, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford informs Peter Force that the Joint Committee on the Library has recommended the purchase of his private library. Library of Congress Archives, Manuscript Division

But at his core, Force was a collector and editor of historical documents. His life’s work was the compilation of a “Documentary History of the American Revolution,” better known as the nine- volume “American Archives.” The manuscript materials acquired by Force to compile the work were part of his personal library. Spofford observed, “The value to the Library of Congress, which is wholly destitute of manuscripts as unpublished materials for history, would be very great.”

All told, Force’s private library comprises more than 60,000 items relating to the discovery, settlement and history of America. With the acquisition of the collection, the nation’s library, in one stroke, established its first major collections of 18th-century American newspapers, incunabula (pre-16th-century publications), American imprints, manuscripts and rare maps and atlases. The 420 manuscript items in the collection include several autograph journals of George Washington. The 245 bound volumes of pre-1800 American newspapers cover the Stamp Act controversy, the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the U.S. Constitution.

With the acquisition of Force’s library, the Library of Congress also acquired a perfect copy of Eliot’s Indian Bible (1663), the first complete Bible printed in America. Several years ago, a member of Congress requested this item for his swearing-in ceremony. This congressional request and many others underscore Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “there is no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” which was one of the justifications for the congressional purchase of Jefferson’s eclectic personal library in 1815.

This article is featured in the September-October 2013 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM, now available for download here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.

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