Throughout his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson acquired thousands of books for his own personal collection. The majority of his books, however, would not stay by his side forever. In this episode of Mountaintop History, Monticello Guide Kyle Chattleton shares the story of how Jefferson's collection helped restart the Library of Congress.
This is Mountaintop History, a podcast from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at historic Monticello. My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Throughout his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson acquired thousands of books for his own personal collection. They covered multiple subjects, were written in numerous languages, and, in keeping with his belief in the power of knowledge, became a prized source of information.
The majority of his books, however, would not stay by his side forever.
During the War of 1812, the British army invaded Washington, D.C. They set fire to a number of buildings, including the Capitol, which resulted in the destruction of the Library of Congress. Jefferson wrote to his friend Samuel Smith, “I learn from the Newspapers that the Vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington over science as well as the Arts, by the destruction of the public library.”
To help restart the collection, Jefferson offered up his own library, and allowed Congress to name the price for it. Not every Congressman appreciated the gesture. The Federalist Cyrus King gave a speech explaining that, “the library contained irreligious and immoral books. […] The bill would put $23,900 into Jefferson’s pocket for about 6,000 books, good, bad, and indifferent, old, new, and worthless, in languages which many can not read and most ought not, which is true Jeffersonian […] philosophy to bankrupt the Treasury, beggar the people, and disgrace the nation.”
In the end, Jefferson did receive nearly $24,000 for 6,487 books. And it seems that Jefferson did not waste any time restarting his own library, albeit a smaller collection. Jefferson wrote to John Adams, “I cannot live without books, but fewer will suffice.”
This has been another edition of Mountaintop History, a collaboration between the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and WTJU. To learn more, and to plan your next visit, go to Monticello.org.