Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Hutchins G. Burton, Thomas Cooper, and Samuel Brown, 28 September 1821

To Hutchins G. Burton, Thomas Cooper, and Samuel Brown

Monticello. Sep. 28. 1821.


The government of the U.S. at a very early period, when establishing it’s tariff on foreign importations, were very much guided in their selection of objects, by a desire to encourage manufactures within ourselves. Among other articles then selected were books, on the importation of which a duty of 15. per cent was imposed, which, by ordinary custom-house charges, amount to about 18 per cent,1 and adding the importing bookseller’s profit on this, becomes about 27 per cent. This was useful at first perhaps towards exciting our printers to make a beginning in that business here. but it is found in experience that the home demand is not sufficient to justify the re-printing any but the most popular English works, and cheap editions of a few of the classics for schools. for the editions of value, enriched by notes, commentaries &c and for books in foreign living languages the demand here is too small and sparse to reimburse the expense of re-printing them. none of these therefore are printed here and the duty on them becomes consequently not a protecting, but really a prohibitory one. it makes a very serious addition to the price of the book, and falls chiefly on a description of persons little able to meet it. Students who are destined for professional callings, as most of our scholars are, are barely able for the most part to meet the expenses of tuition. The addition of 18. or 272 per cent on the books necessary for their instruction amounts often to a prohibition, as to them. For want of these aids, which are open to the students of all other nations but our own, they enter on their course on a very unequal footing with those of the same professions in foreign countries: and our citizens at large too, who employ them, do not derive from that employment all the benefit which higher qualifications would give them. it is true that no duty is required on books imported for seminaries of learning. but these,3 locked up in libraries, can be of no avail to the practical man when he wishes a recurrence to them for the uses of life. of many important books of reference there is not perhaps a single copy in the United States. of others but a few, and these too distant often to be accessible to scholars generally. it is believed therefore that if the attention of Congress could be drawn to this article, they would, in their wisdom, see it’s impolicy. Science is more important in a republican than in any other government, and in an infant country like ours we must much depend for improvement on the science of other countries, longer established, possessing better means, and more advanced than we are. To prohibit us from the benefit of foreign light, is to consign us to long darkness.

The Northern seminaries, following with parental solicitude, the interests of their elèves in the course for which they have prepared them,4 propose to petition Congress on this subject, and wish for the co-operation of those of the South and West, and I have been requested5 as more convenient in position than they are, to sollicit that cooperation. having no personal acquaintance with those who are charged with the direction of the college of Chapel Hill—6 I do not know how more effectually to communicate these views to them than by availing myself of the knolege I have of your zeal for the happiness and improvement of our country. I take the liberty therefore of requesting you to place the subject before the proper authorities of that institution, and, if they approve the measure, to sollicit a concurrent proceeding on their part to carry it into effect. besides petitioning Congress, I would propose that they address, in their corporate capacity, a letter to their delegates and Senators in Congress, solliciting their best endeavors to obtain the repeal of the duty on imported7 books. I cannot but suppose that such an application will be respected by them, and will engage their votes and endeavors to effect an object so reasonable. A conviction that Science is important8 to the preservation of our republican government, and that it is also essential9 to it’s protection against foreign power, induces me on this occasion to step beyond the limits of that retirement to which age and inclination equally dispose me: and I am without a doubt that the same considerations will induce you to excuse the trouble I propose to you, and that you will kindly accept the assurance of my high respect & esteem.

Th: Jefferson

RC (NcU: University of North Carolina Papers); in the hand of Ellen W. Randolph (Coolidge) except where noted below, signed by TJ; addressed by TJ: “Hutchins G. Burton esquire Halifax N.C.”; franked; postmarked; docketed in an unidentified hand as “Referd to Messrs Yancy. Murphey & Devoreux,” and in another unidentified hand as “Honbl Thos Jefferson’s Communication upon the Subject of Duties on Foreign Books &c. Dated 28th Sept. 1821.” RC (Meredith Worthington, Gaithersburg, Md., 1990); in the hand of Nicholas P. Trist except where noted below, signed by TJ; addressed by TJ: “Doctr Samuel Brown Professor of the theory & practice of Physic in the Transylvania University Lexington Kentucky”; franked; postmarked. Dft (DLC); entirely in TJ’s hand. Recorded separately in SJL as letters to Burton, Cooper, and Brown. Enclosed in TJ to George Ticknor, 28 Sept. 1821, and TJ to John Clark, 12 Oct. 1821.

When it became law on 4 July 1789, the earliest United States tariff, “An Act for laying a Duty on Goods, Wares, and Merchandises imported into the United States,” set the import duty on unenumerated items, including printed books, at 5 percent (U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States … 1789 to March 3, 1845, 1845–67, 8 vols. description ends , 1:26). The duty on printed books had been 15. per cent since the 27 Apr. 1816 enactment of treasury secretary Alexander J. Dallas’s tariff, “An Act to regulate the duties on imports and tonnage” (U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States … 1789 to March 3, 1845, 1845–67, 8 vols. description ends , 3:310).

elèves: “students.”

1Remainder of sentence interlined in Dft.

2Preceding two words interlined in Dft.

3Omitted comma supplied from Dft.

4Sentence from “following” to this point interlined in Dft.

5Reworked in Dft from “and they have requested us.”

6Preceding two words and dash added by TJ to fill a blank. In RC to Brown, TJ filled in the blank with “Transylvania—.” Blank retained in Dft.

7Word interlined in Dft.

8Word reworked by Ellen Randolph from an illegible deletion. In RC to Brown, TJ interlined this word in place of what appears to be “necessary.”

9Word reworked by Ellen Randolph from an illegible deletion. In RC to Brown, TJ interlined this word in place of what appears to be “necessary.”

Index Entries

  • books; tariffs on search
  • Brown, Samuel; and tariffs on books search
  • Brown, Samuel; letters to search
  • Burton, Hutchins Gordon; and tariffs on books search
  • Burton, Hutchins Gordon; letters to search
  • Congress, U.S.; and tariffs search
  • Congress, U.S.; petitions to search
  • Coolidge, Ellen Wayles Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); as TJ’s amanuensis search
  • Cooper, Thomas (1759–1839); and tariffs on books search
  • Cooper, Thomas (1759–1839); letters to search
  • Dallas, Alexander James; as secretary of the treasury search
  • Devereux, Thomas Pollock; as University of North Carolina trustee search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; books search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; promotion of arts and sciences search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; taxes search
  • Murphey, Archibald DeBow; as University of North Carolina trustee search
  • North Carolina, University of; and tariffs on books search
  • schools and colleges; and tariffs on books search
  • schools and colleges; Transylvania University (Lexington, Ky.) search
  • schools and colleges; University of North Carolina search
  • South Carolina College (later University of South Carolina); and tariffs on books search
  • taxes; on books search
  • Transylvania University (Lexington, Ky.); and tariffs on books search
  • Trist, Nicholas Philip; as TJ’s amanuensis search
  • Yancey, Bartlett; as University of North Carolina trustee search