Biographies George Watterston (1783-1854)

3rd Librarian of Congress 1815-1829

George Watterston

George Watterston served as Librarian of Congress from March 21, 1815 until May 28, 1829.  Appointed by President James Madison, he was the first Librarian who did not also serve simultaneously as Clerk of the House of Representatives; thus, even though he followed John Beckley and Patrick Magruder in the position, he is sometimes called the first Librarian of Congress.

Like his predecessors, Watterston was a political partisan.  He was also controversial, thin-skinned, and outspoken, never passing up an opportunity to lambast one of his many enemies. A lawyer turned literary man, he wrote novels, a play, and poetry, and was Washington’s first full-time man of letters.  An oft-repeated but unconfirmed story attributes his appointment as Librarian of Congress  by President Madison to Watterston’s flattering dedication of his 1810 poem "The Wanderer in Jamaica" to Dolley Madison.  He was the Librarian of Congress who received and organized Jefferson’s library and published its catalog.  He also raised for the first time serious arguments on behalf of the Library of Congress as a national library.

Watterston’s colorful life began on Oct. 23, 1783, on a ship in New York harbor.  He was the son of David Watterston, a master builder who had left Scotland with his family to start a new life in New York City.  Attracted by the construction opportunities in the new federal capital, David Watterston brought his family to Washington in 1791. All of his life, George Watterston retained a strong interest in the city of Washington and its history, promoting the city through his activities, particularly the building of the Washington Monument.  He was secretary of the Washington Monument Society from its creation in the 1830s until his death.

Young George was sent to school at Charlotte Hall School, in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where he received a classical education.  Next he studied law, and began practicing in Hagerstown, Maryland.  He soon developed a distaste for law and began the literary career that continued for the rest of his life.  His unhappiness with law and lawyers, which also lasted throughout his lifetime, was at the root of his first novel, The Lawyer, or Man as He Ought Not to Be, published anonymously in 1808. An inheritance from a wealthy uncle enabled him to travel to Jamaica, where he wrote the poem dedicated to Mrs. Madison.  On his return he married Maria Shanley, and established a residence on Capitol Hill, where he and his wife eventually raised eight children. He soon published another novel, Glencarn; or, The Disappointments of Youth (1810); a play, The Child of Feeling (1809); and another poem, "The Scenes of Youth" (1813).

In this period, Watterston began his long involvement in Washington’s civic affairs.  In 1813 he unsuccessfully petitioned President Madison for the position of "collector of the District of Columbia."  The same year he became editor of the Washington Civic Gazette, a Republican paper.  This was one of four newspaper editorships he was to hold throughout his life.  When the British attacked Washington in 1814, he marched with a local military company to meet the enemy at nearby Bladensburg.  He returned to find his own Capitol Hill house pillaged and, of course, the Capitol itself and the nascent Library of Congress destroyed.

Prior to his appointment of Patrick Magruder as Clerk of the House of Representatives and Librarian of Congress in 1807, President Thomas Jefferson considered separating the positions of Clerk and Librarian.  In March 1815 the pending arrival of Jefferson’s 6,000-volume library, purchased by Congress to "reconstitute" the Library after its destruction by the British, made the appointment of a new Librarian an urgent piece of business, and this time the position was separated from the Clerkship. Watterston was appointed on March 21, 1815 and immediately made preparations to receive Jefferson’s books in the "temporary" Capitol building: Blodget’s Hotel and 7th and E Streets NW.  The new Librarian, who was to operate without an assistant until 1828, began correspondence with Jefferson regarding the transport and eventual arrangement of his books, which arrived in May.  Watterston decided to keep Jefferson’s arrangement, based n Sir Francis Bacon’s classification of knowledge, intact and it served as the basis of the Library’s arrangement until the move into the Library’s separate building in 1897.

Without informing the Joint Committee on the Library, to whom he reported, in late 1815 Watterston published a catalog of the Jefferson purchase.  Its title, Catalogue of the Library of United States, accurately described the Librarian’s ambition for the institution.  The committee immediately criticized Watterston, particularly with regard to the catalog’s cost, and Watterston haughtily informed Jefferson: "The Library Committee are dissatisfied with me for having the catalogue printed without having consulted their superior judgement, but the members generally speak very highly of your arrangement and the disposition of the books."

In spite of its unhappiness with Watterston himself, in 1816 Congress increased the Librarian’s salary and appropriated additional sums for the purchase of books and maps.  Moreover, during the first two years of his librarianship, Watterston planted seeds for the expansion of the Library into a national institution.  While he never succeeded in furthering his ideas, their public presentation was a first step towards their fulfillment decades later.

On July 31, 1815, in a statement influenced if not written by Watterston, the daily National Intelligencer of Washington proclaimed the need for the Congressional (or "National Library of the United States")  to become "the great repository of the literature of the world." In the same newspaper on September 15, 1815, Watterston signed his name to a notice asking that "American authors, engravers, and painters" transmit copies of their works to the Library to serve "not only as a literary history of this now interesting country, but [also] to exhibit the progress and improvement of the arts."  On Jan. 9, 1817, the Senate approved a bill authorizing the selection of copyright deposits sent to the Department of State for the Library’s collections, but the House did not take it up.  On Feb. 18, Library Committee chairman, Senator Eligius Fromentin of Louisiana, introduced a bill advocating a separate building for the Library.  Four days later, the resolution was "determined in the negative," an action deplored in a March 25 letter to the National Intelligencer from Librarian Watterston, who noted that "in all other countries" such a structure would be "an object of national pride."

In December 1818 the Library moved, not into a separate building, but back into the reconstructed Capitol building.  Its quarters, however, were in an attic in the Capitol’s north wing, where it remained for the next six years.  Watterston continued his literary career in the 1820s, and was one of the first novelists to use Washington as a setting.  The Library of Congress itself formed part of the background for his The L…Family at Washington (1822).  It was followed by his final novel, The Wanderer in Washington (1827), in which Watterston’s commentator speaks very favorably about Henry Clay, the author’s favorite politician.

Watterston’s combative personality and obvious Whig leanings continued to make his librarianship somewhat rocky, and there are indications that his hold on the job of Librarian at times was threatened.  Yet substantial milestones occurred; the $2,000 approved by Congress for the purchase of books in 1820 was the first separate annual appropriation for this purpose. In 1824,  the princely sum of $5,000 was appropriated for the purchase of books.  And in August 1824, the Library moved into spacious and elegant new quarters in the center of the Capitol. The National Journal even described the Library’s room as "decidedly the most beautiful, and in the best taste of any in this country."  The new Library room became a popular social center, but its glory received a setback when a fire on December 22, 1825, damaged the gallery.  It was started by a candle left burning in the gallery and controlled before serious damage occurred.  A Congressional inquiry was unable to fix blame, but the mishap opened the door to Watterston’s political enemies.  In July 1826, the Librarian complained to a friend about the "greedy & hungry expectants of office" who were hounding him, particularly one unnamed man "who was laboring to undermine me."

The scholarly Edward Everett became chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library in late 1825.  The committee, not the Librarian, selected books for the Library, and Watterston’s correspondence with Everett is polite and even at times deferential.  Moreover, in 1828—retroactive to March 1827, the Librarian of Congress was authorized to employ an assistant.  Watterston named Edward B. Stelle to the new position of Assistant Librarian.

In 1827, Watterston had started writing regularly for the National Journal, openly advocating the Whig cause—and continuing his praise of Henry Clay.  It therefore is hard to believe that he was surprised on May 28, 1829, when newly elected President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, replaced him as Librarian with a fellow Democrat, John Silva Meehan, a local printer and publisher.  But Watterston was furious, and when he left the office he took with him the Library’s record books and the manuscript catalog of Jefferson’s library.  Using the pages of the National Journal, which he began editing in 1830, Watterston launched a 20-year campaign to regain his position as Librarian, but even new Whig Presidents in 1841 and 1849 ignored him.  As a result, according to his daughter, Watterston himself left the Whig party in 1850.

While battling for his former position, Watterston continued a productive literary and journalistic life.  In addition to his work with the Washington Monument Society, he was the long-time secretary of the Washington Botanical Society and wrote about landscape gardening, tobacco, and varied horticultural topics.  He also began producing guidebooks about Washington, statistical compendiums, and biographical sketches relating to the Nation’s Capitol.  The Southern Literary Messenger, to which he had contributed many articles, even dubbed him the "Metropolitan Author" after the appearance of the second of his Washington guidebooks (A New Guide to Washington) in 1842.

In addition to serving as the first full-time Librarian of Congress, George Watterston was important because he was the first Librarian to advocate a national role for the institution.  He took the Library of Congress—still a fledgling institution—seriously and, because of his own personality, forced others to take it seriously as well. (JYC)


Matheson, William.  “George Watterston.”  The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 32 (October 1975): 370-388.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress