Jefferson’s Library

On January 30, 1815, President James Madison approved an act of Congress appropriating $23,950 to purchase Thomas Jefferson’s library of 6,487 volumes.

“…there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, September 21, 1814. Thomas Jefferson Papers. Manuscript Division

James Madison fourth president of the United States, lithograph, Pendleton’s Lithograph (based on Gilbert Stuart painting), circa 1828. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division
Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, lithograph, Pendleton’s Lithograph (based on Gilbert Stuart painting), circa 1825-1828. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

After capturing Washington, D.C. in 1814, the British burned the U.S. Capitol, destroying the Library of Congress and its 3,000-volume collection. Thomas Jefferson, in retirement at Monticello, offered to sell his personal library to the Library Committee of Congress in order to rebuild the collection of the Congressional Library.

Letter from
Thomas Jefferson to George Watterston (1783-1854), Memory Section of American Treasures of the Library of Congress

Jefferson’s library not only included more than twice the number of volumes as had been destroyed, it expanded the scope of the library beyond its previous topics—law, economics, and history—to include a wide variety of subjects in several languages. Divided into the categories Memory, Reason, and Imagination—which Jefferson translated to “History,” “Philosophy,” and “Fine Arts”—and further divided into forty-four “chapters,” today, the books from Thomas Jefferson’s library are part of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress and are currently on public exhibit in the Thomas Jefferson Building.

Anticipating the objection that his collection might be too comprehensive, he argued, “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

Jefferson’s Library, ca. 1993. Reid Baker, photographer, preface, Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress, by John Y. Cole.

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