Today In History – January 30

On January 30, 1815, the Library of Congress was reestablished with Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection of six thousand five hundred volumes.

On August 24, 1814, the Capitol building was burned down by British troops who had entered the city during the War of 1812. Leaving destruction in their path, the books that were housed within the Capitol building, the original home of the Library of Congress, were all destroyed.

Thomas Jefferson, the man who once declared, “I cannot live without books,” was devastated when he discovered that the books had been destroyed. In response, he wrote a letter to his friend, a newspaper publisher, Samuel H. Smith, asking him to offer his personal collection of nine to ten thousand volumes to Congress so the Library could be reestablished.

Jefferson wrote that he would take any price that Congress felt the want to set, being a figure that believed that books were more important than money. He also wrote: “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from this collection . . . there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”[1] Records indicate the total of volumes received by the Library of Congress was 6,487. This more than doubled the holdings that were lost in the fire of 1814.

Congress took Jefferson up on his offer. They paid him $23,950 for six thousand four hundred and eighty-seven volumes. Unfortunately, a fire on Christmas Eve 1851 burned the Library of Congress and destroyed about two-thirds of Jefferson’s collection. The surviving books are on display today in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

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[1] Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith. September 21, 1814. Manuscript letter. Page 2. Manuscript Division (219).

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