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

II. Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith

Monticello Sep. 21. 14.

Dear Sir

I learn from the Newspapers that the Vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington over science as well as the Arts, by the destruction of the public library with the noble edifice in which it was deposited. of this transaction, as of that of Copenhagen, the world will entertain but one sentiment. they will see a nation suddenly withdrawn from a great war, full armed and full handed, taking advantage of another whom they had recently forced into it, unarmed, and unprepared,1 to indulge themselves in acts of barbarism which do not belong to a civilised age. when Van Ghent destroyed their shipping at Chatham, and De Ruyter rode triumphantly up the Thames, he might in like manner, by the acknolegement of their own historians, have forced all their ships up to London bridge, and there have burnt them, the tower, & city, had these examples been then set. London, when thus menaced, was near a thousand years old, Washington is but in it’s teens. I presume it will be among the early objects of Congress to recommence their collection. this will be difficult while the war continues, and intercourse with Europe is attended with so much risk. you know my collection, it’s condition and extent. I have been 50. years making it, & have spared no pains, opportunity or expence to make it what it2 is. while residing in Paris I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two, in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hands, and putting by every thing which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare & valuable in every science. besides this, I had standing orders, during the whole time I was in Europe, in it’s principal book-marts, particularly Amsterdam, Frankfort, Madrid and London, for such works relating to America as could not be found in Paris. so that, in that department, particularly, such a collection was made as probably can never again be effected; because it is hardly probable that the same opportunities, the same time, industry, perseverance, and expence, with some knolege of the bibliography of the subject would again happen to be in concurrence. during the same period, and after my return to America, I was led to procure also whatever related to the duties of those in the high concerns of the nation. so that the collection, which I suppose is of between 9. and 10,000. volumes, while it includes what is chiefly valuable in science and literature generally, extends more particularly to whatever belongs to the American statesman. in the diplomatic and Parliamentary branches, it is particularly full. it is long since I have been sensible it ought not to continue private property, and had provided that, at my death, Congress should have the refusal of it, at their own price. but the loss they have now incurred makes the present, the proper moment for their accomodation, without regard to the small remnant of time, and the barren use of my enjoying it. I ask of your friendship therefore to make for me the tender of it to the library committee of Congress, not knowing myself of whom the committee consists. I inclose you the catalogue, which will enable them to judge of it’s contents. nearly the whole are well bound, abundance of them elegantly, and of the choicest editions existing.3 they may be valued by persons named by themselves, and the payment made convenient to the public. it may be, for instance in such annual instalments as the law of Congress has left at their disposal, or in stock of any4 of their late loans, or of any loan they may institute at this session, so as to spare the present calls of our country, and await it’s days of peace and prosperity. they may enter nevertheless into immediate use of it, as 18. or 20. waggons would place it in Washington in a single trip of a fortnight.—I should be willing indeed to retain a few of the books to amuse the time I have yet to pass, which might be valued with the rest, but not included in the sum of valuation until they should be restored at my death, which I would carefully provide for, so that the whole library, as it stands in the catalogue at this moment should be theirs, without any5 garbling. those I should like to retain would be chiefly classical and Mathematical, some few in other branches, & particularly one of the five encyclopedias in the catalogue. but this, if not acceptable, would not be urged. I must add that I have not revised the library since I came home to live, so that it is probable some of the books may be missing, except in the chapters of Law and divinity, which have been revised, and stand exactly as in the catalogue. the return of the Catalogue6 will of course be needed, whether the tender be accepted or not. 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. but such a wish would not correspond with my views of preventing it’s dismemberment. my desire is either to place it in their hands entire, or to preserve it so here. I am engaged in making an Alphabetical Index of the authors’ names, to be annexed to the catalogue in order to facilitate the finding their works in the catalogue, which I will forward to you as soon as compleated. any agreement you shall be so good as to take the trouble of entering into with the committee, I hereby confirm. Accept the assurance of my great esteem and respect.

Th: Jefferson

RC (ICU: Butler-Gunsaulus Collection); penciled notation at foot of text in an unidentified hand: “Nov 28. Congress agreed to purchase the library for 23,950 Dollars.” PoC (DLC); at foot of first page: “Samuel H. Smith esq.” Enclosed in preceding document. Printed in Georgetown Federal Republican, 18 Oct., and Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 27 Oct. 1814.

In 1807 the British navy bombarded copenhagen and captured the Danish fleet in order to insure that Napoleon would gain no naval strength if the Danes abandoned their neutrality in his favor. During the 1667 Battle of chatham, or Medway, Dutch commanders Willem Joseph van Ghent and Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter executed a successful raid on British naval vessels that helped the Netherlands to negotiate a victorious end to the second Anglo-Dutch war (Gijs Rommelse, The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667): Raison d’état, mercantilism and maritime strife [2006], 180–2).

The catalogue of TJ’s library here enclosed was most likely the fair copy of 1812 with which he replaced an extant manuscript catalogue that he had probably begun early in the 1780s (MS in MHi). The new catalogue also evolved as TJ’s library continued to grow, and it was later passed on to the librarian of Congress, George Watterston, for use in creating a print edition. Watterston retained the catalogue after publication, and its subsequent history is unknown (PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 34 vols. description ends , 6:216; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends 1:ix–x; TJ to Thomas Cooper, 10 July 1812). A reconstruction of this catalogue completed by Nicholas P. Trist in 1823 at TJ’s request is now at DLC: Rare Book and Special Collections (Trist to TJ, 18 Oct. 1823; TJ to Trist, 13 Apr. 1824; James Gilreath and Douglas L. Wilson, eds., Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order [1989]).

1Federal Republican here adds, in brackets, “after two years offensive war.”

2Daily National Intelligencer here adds “now.”

3Word not in Federal Republican or Daily National Intelligencer.

4TJ here canceled “kind.”

5Federal Republican: “my.”

6Daily National Intelligencer substitutes “which” for preceding five words.

Index Entries

  • books; encyclopedias search
  • books; on law search
  • books; on mathematics search
  • books; on politics search
  • books; on religion search
  • Chatham, Battle of (Battle of Medway) search
  • Copenhagen; British attack on search
  • Great Britain; attacks Copenhagen search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; TJ’s personal search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; British destruction in Washington search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as minister to France search
  • law; books on search
  • Library of Congress; and library committees of Congress search
  • Library of Congress; TJ sells personal library to search
  • Library of Congress; TJ sends catalogue to Congress for consideration search
  • Library of Congress; TJ’s catalogue of books sold to search
  • London; and second Anglo-Dutch war search
  • London; compared to Washington search
  • mathematics; books on search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; mentioned search
  • Paris; TJ’s book purchases in search
  • politics; books on search
  • religion; works on search
  • Ruyter, Michiel Adriaanszoon de; Dutch admiral search
  • Smith, Samuel Harrison; and sale of TJ’s library to Congress search
  • Smith, Samuel Harrison; as commissioner of the revenue search
  • Smith, Samuel Harrison; letters to search
  • Trist, Nicholas Philip; reconstructs catalogue of TJ’s library search
  • van Ghent, Willem Joseph; Dutch commander search
  • War of1812; British destruction in Washington search
  • War of1812; TJ on search
  • Washington (D.C.); British destruction in search
  • Watterston, George; and catalogue of TJ’s library search
  • Watterston, George; librarian of Congress search