1st Librarian of Congress 1802-1807
John Beckley was the first Librarian of Congress, albeit a part-time one. When the position of Librarian was established on January 26, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson asked his friend and political ally John Beckley—who also was serving as the Clerk of the House of Representatives—to fill the post. Beckley served concurrently in both positions until his death in 1807. (The next Clerk of the House, Patrick Magruder, also held both jobs).
Beckley was born in England on August 4, 1757, and came to Virginia at age eleven as a scribe for John Clayton, clerk of court for Gloucester County and a well-known botanist. Following Clayton’s death in 1774, he served in several increasingly important political positions, including clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates. After the seat of Virginia government was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, he became one of Richmond’s first city councilmen and then its second mayor.
When the federal government was established in New York in 1789, Beckley was elected the first clerk of the House of Representatives. He was an ardent “Democratic-Republican,” and closely associated with Thomas Jefferson. In 1791, just before Congress moved from New York to Philadelphia, he married Maria Prince, and they moved to Philadelphia., where Beckley was active in city, state, and national politics. Sadly, he and Maria also lost several children. Only Alfred, who was born in 1802, the year after the Beckleys moved to Washington, survived.
In Philadelphia, John Beckley campaigned vigorously for Jefferson and other Republican candidates, attacking the Federalists (and particularly Alexander Hamilton) in the press and through writings published under pseudonyms such as “Americanus.” The Federalists removed him from office when they were elected in 1787, but with the election of Jefferson as President in 1801, he was re-elected Clerk of the House of Representatives. Beckley and Maria moved to the new capital city of Washington, where he became involved in local as well as national politics.
On the day that John Beckley was reappointed Clerk of the House of Representatives, December 7, 1801, Congress also formed a committee, headed by John Randolph of Virginia, to decide what to do with its library. The result would be the law of January 26, 1802 that defined the role and functions of the new institution and established the post of Librarian of Congress. Beckley decided that as Clerk of the House of Representatives he also could perform the duties of Librarian. He had some experience in this type of work, having been responsible for books and documents when he was clerk of the Virginia Senate. He applied to Secretary of State James Madison and obtained the appointment from President Jefferson on January 29, 1802.
The major decisions in the Library were made by the Joint Committee on the Library, not by the Librarian. Beckley and his assistants, however, carried out the wishes of the Joint Committee and particularly of President Jefferson, who took a keen interest in the Library and frequently provided advice regarding purchases. Jefferson also became involved in the ordering and shipping of the books themselves, on at least one occasion having to straighten out confusion resulting from the mixing of his personal book orders from Europe with those of the Library.
Beckley prepared the Library’s first printed catalog, which was printed by William Duane in April 1802. The Catalogue of the Books, Maps, and Charts Belonging to the Library of the Two Houses of Congress lists the collection of 964 volumes according to their size and appends a list of nine maps and charts.
With his many duties, it is remarkable that Beckley found much time to deal with Library matters as he did, using help from clerks assigned to him in his House of Representatives position. Significantly, he also began soliciting donations to the Library from personal friends, including Benjamin Rush. Another friend, Samuel H. Smith, editor of the National Intelligencer, took note of this trend and encouraged it in his newspaper in articles on February 13, 1803, and again on April 11, 1806: “Gentlemen desirous of having the publications exhibited in this public and conspicuous place may forward them, to Mr. Beckley the librarian, who will thankfully receive, and carefully preserve them, for the use of the Representative Bodies of the American nation.”
Beckley also personally escorted distinguished visitors through the Capitol and showed off the Library’s quarters. In June 1804, Charles Willson Peale, who was accompanying the famous German naturalist Baron Alexander von Humboldt, recorded in his diary: “We went first to the Library where Mr. Beckley received us with politeness… The Library is a spacious and handsome Room, and although lately organized, already contained a a number of valuable books in the best taste of binding.”
The Library lost this impressive room in December 1805 when the House of Representatives took it back and assigned the Library to a former committee room. In the same month, Beckley fired one of his clerks, Josias Wilson King, a Federalist who three years earlier had sought the job of Librarian for himself. King quickly prepared a memorial to the House that accused Beckley of failing to live up to an earlier promise to share the Librarian’s salary with him or to provide additional compensation in accordance with an 1804 authorization by the House of Representatives. Beckley was exonerated, but King’s accusations—preserved in the Library’s early record books—have become part of Beckley’s story as Librarian.
During the last years of Beckley’s involvement with the Library, the dominant force was Senator Samuel Latham Mitchill, who proposed and obtained the first annual appropriation for the purchase of books and personally ordered many of them.
John Beckley died on April 8, 1807. His son Alfred inherited a large tract of unsettled land in what today is West Virginia and built the first house in a village that became the city of Beckley, named so by Alfred to honor his father.
John Beckley’s biographers Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley stress that despite his many other activities, Beckley took his duties as Librarian of Congress seriously. They also emphasize that by assisting Congress in the development of its library and by helping the institution obtain public approval, the first Librarian of Congress created a firm foundation on which others have been able to build. (JYC)
Berkeley, Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, “John Beckley: The First Librarian of Congress,” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 32 (April 1975): 83-117.
Berkeley, Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley. John Beckley: Zealous Partisan in a Nation Divided (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1973).