4th Librarian of Congress 1829-1861
John Silva Meehan, a printer, was the fourth Librarian of Congress, serving from 1829 until 1861. A Democrat, he was appointed by President Andrew Jackson, and he served no less than nine U.S. presidents. A passive "gentleman of amiable manners," he loyally and efficiently carried out the duties expected of him by a Congress that viewed the Library primarily as its own reference library. In particular, from 1846 until he was replaced in 1861, Librarian Meehan carried out the wishes of a strong-willed chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, Senator James A. Pearce of Maryland, a man who felt that the Library of Congress had a limited role to play and who resisted all efforts to make the Library a more national institution.
John Silva Meehan was born in New York City on Feb. 6, 1790, where he was educated and became a printer. In his biographical article about Meehan, historian John McDonough points out that early records relating to Meehan are "few and unreliable." It is known, however, that in 1811 or 1812, he was in Burlington, N.J. to help with the printing of Richard S. Coxe’s New Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language. In 1815, he was back in New York City and became a midshipman in the U.S. Navy, serving abroad the brig Firefly in the War of 1812. After the war he was offered a commission in the Marine Corps, but decided to return to his career as a printer. He was married in 1814 to Margaret Jones Monington of Burlington, and after the birth of their daughter the next year, the family moved to Philadelphia. In partnership with Robert Anderson, in 1818 he began publishing a Baptist journal, the Latter Day Luminary. The firm of Anderson and Meehan moved to Washington in 1822 and, under Baptist auspices, also began publishing a weekly newspaper, The Columbia Star.
In 1826 Meehan turned to the publication of a political journal, the Washington Gazette, an anti-President John Quincy Adams newspaper supported by pro-Andrew Jackson forces, particularly Senator John Henry Eaton of Tennessee. The newspaper was soon renamed The United States’ Telegraph. Meehan, however, apparently was not aggressive enough for the Jacksonians; by the end of the year he had been replaced by a new and more dynamic editor, Duff Green, who began assailing the Adams administration.
During this difficult period, Meehan’s wife of 12 years died just after the birth of their seventh child. The child also died and Meehan remained a widower until Oct. 27, 1827, when he married Rachel T. Monington, his wife’s sister. Two children were born of this second marriage.
Meehan served as secretary of the board of trustees of Washington’s Columbian College (later The George Washington University) and continued to support Andrew Jackson, who was elected president in 1828. Meehan’s political loyalty was rewarded on May 28, 1829, when President Jackson named him as the fourth Librarian of Congress. Meehan replaced George Watterston, an outspoken Whig and friend of Henry Clay, one of Jackson’s political opponents. Watterston immediately began a long but unsuccessful campaign of threats and flattery to regain his job.
By contrast, Meehan was gentlemanly, polite, of cheerful disposition, and decidedly nonpartisan. The Library of Congress in his charge, located in the central portion of the Capitol’s west front, contained about 16,000 volumes. The new Librarian had only one assistant. He soon added a messenger and eventually two more assistants, one of whom was his son, Charles Henry Wharton Meehan.
In 1832 Congress strengthened the Library’s law department, creating in effect a separate Law Library that was controlled largely by the justices of the Supreme Court. Meehan’s son became the custodian of the Law Library and was the only survivor of the political changes made in the Library during the first days of the Lincoln administration in 1861. C.H.W. Meehan remained at his post until his death on July 5, 1872.
The chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, not the Librarian of Congress, selected the books for the Library’s collection during the entire period of Meehan’s librarianship. A precise man, Meehan kept the various committee chairmen fully informed about the Library’s affairs, deferring to their wishes at all times. In 1836 and 1844, Congress rejected the purchase of valuable private libraries that would have greatly enriched the Library of Congress and strengthened its national role. Meehan, whose major jobs were to lend the books, prepare and publish Library catalogs (which he issued in 1830, 1839, 1849, and 1861), and keep the accounts for the Joint Library Committee, played no role in the Congressional rejection of these collections.
Between 1845 and 1861, Meehan developed a close working relationship with Senator James Alfred Pearce of Maryland, who served as chairman of the Joint Library Committee during the entire period. A conservative, cultured man, Pearce had great influence over the Library. He felt it was inappropriate for a government-funded institution to become a large national library and, with fellow Congressmen such as Rufus Choate and George Perkins Marsh, in the 1840s he looked to the new Smithsonian Institution as a possible home for a national collection of books. Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, however, blocked such development and instead looked to the Library of Congress as the future home of a national library.
A disastrous fire in the Library on December 24, 1851, destroyed two-thirds of the institution’s 55,000 books, including about two-thirds of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. The cause was a faulty chimney flue and, to the relief of both Meehan and Pearce, the Architect of the Capitol reported that "no human forethought or vigilance could, under the circumstances, have prevented the catastrophe." Pearce took the lead in obtaining generous appropriations to repair and enlarge the Library and to replace the lost books. The Library’s handsome new fireproof quarters, "the largest room made of iron in the world," opened in the Capitol’s west front on August 23, 1853.
Viewed from today’s perspective, the Library of Congress lost many opportunities–as well as important functions such as copyright repository, and central agent for the international exchange of books and documents and for the distribution of public documents–during John Silva Meehan’s librarianship. However, Meehan’s view of the Library as primarily an institution that served Congress reflected the wishes of most members of Congress–and certainly echoed the opinion of chairman Pearce. Moreover the Meehan-Pearce partnership served to protect the Library as an institution during what might have been difficult times, especially after the fire of 1851.
The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in November 1860 meant the end of Meehan’s long career as Librarian. Pearce wrote Lincoln on March 8, 1861, informing him about the Library and recommending that "no change" be made in the librarianship, trusting that the Library staff would be "safe from the influence of political partisanship which has heretofore had no influence in the republic of letters." There is no record of a response to this letter, and on May 24, 1861, President Lincoln rewarded a political supporter, John G. Stephenson, a physician from Terre Haute, Indiana, with the job of Librarian of Congress.
Meehan, a gentleman to the end, took his dismissal calmly. He and Senator Pearce died within a few months of each other, Pearce on December 20, 1862, and Meehan in his home on Capitol Hill on April 24, 1863. Meehan died suddenly, of apoplexy, and an obituary in a local newspaper described his work at the Library and his characteristics: "He was remarkably punctual and assiduous in his duties, unobtrusive, moral, and domestic in his habits, and of sterling integrity as a man." (JYC)
McDonough, John. "John Silva Meehan: A Gentleman of Amiable Manners." The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 33 (January 1976): 3-28.