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"Unquestionably the Choicest Collection of Books in the US": The 1815 Sale of Thomas Jefferson's Library to the Nation

Endrina Tay

Jefferson Library, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

May 1 – October 31, 2015

U. S. Capitol After Burning by British by George Munger, 1814  Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs DivisionTwo hundred years ago this week, ten wagons carrying Thomas Jefferson’s personal library set off from his home at Monticello in the Virginia Piedmont on their 125-mile journey to Washington, D.C. Jefferson had sold his library to the nation to replace the congressional library that was destroyed when the British burned Washington and the Capitol building the year before on August 24, 1814 during the War of 1812.


Books in Monticello's Book Room on shelves built according to Jefferson's specificationsBetween May 2 to May 8, 1815, Jefferson watched as 27,000 pounds (or 12 metric tonnes) of his books and bookcases were loaded on to the wagons bound for the nation’s capital. As the last wagonload left on May 8, Jefferson remarked with pride in a letter to Samuel Harrison Smith, “. . . an interesting treasure is added to your city, now become the depository of unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the US. and I hope it will not be without some general effect on the literature of our country.” Today, Jefferson’s legacy is still celebrated as the founding collection for the Library of Congress.

In conjunction with the bicentenary, Monticello is pleased to announce the opening of a commemorative exhibition at the Jefferson Library. This exhibition retells the fascinating story of the 1815 sale and highlights lesser known insights into the elaborate preparations Jefferson undertook to ensure that his prized collection would be installed in its new home “very perfectly in the order” he had envisaged.

The Jefferson Library is open to the public on weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission to the exhibit is free.


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