Thomas Jefferson Papers

Petition of University of Virginia Board of Visitors to United States Congress, 30 November 1821

I. Petition of University of Virginia Board of Visitors to
United States Congress

To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled.

The Petition of the1 Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia on behalf of those for whom they are in the office of preparing the means of instruction, as well as of others seeking it elsewhere,

Respectfully representeth

That the Commonwealth of Virginia has thought proper lately to establish an University for instruction generally in all the useful branches of science, of which your Petitioners are appointed Rector and Visitors, and as such are charged with attention to the interests of those who shall be committed to their care:

That they observe in the Tariff of duties imposed by the laws of Congress, on importations into the United States, an article peculiarly inauspicious to the objects of their own, and of all other literary institutions throughout the US.

That at an early period of the present government, when our country was burthened with a heavy debt contracted in the war of Independance, and it’s resources for revenue were untried and uncertain, the National legislature thought it as yet inexpedient to indulge in scruples as to the subjects of taxation, and, among others, imposed a duty on books imported from abroad, which has been continued, and now is, of 15. per cent on their prime cost, raised by ordinary Custom-house charges to 18. per cent, & by the importers profits to perhaps 25. per cent and2 more:

That after many years experience it is certainly found that the reprinting of books in the US. is confined chiefly to those in our native language, and of popular characters, and to cheap editions of a few of the Classics for the use of schools; while the valuable editions of the Classical authors, even learned works in the English language, and books in all foreign living languages (vehicles of the important discoveries and improvements in science and the arts which are daily advancing the interests and happiness of other nations)3 are unprinted here, and unobtainable from abroad, but under the burthen of a heavy duty:

That of many important books, in different branches of science, it is believed that there is not a single copy in the US. of others but a few, and these too distant & difficult of access for students and writers generally:

That the difficulty resulting from this4 of procuring books of the first order in the sciences, and in foreign languages antient & modern, is an unfair impediment to the American student, who, for want of these aids, already possessed, or easily procurable in all countries, except our own, enters on his course with very unequal means, with wants unknown to his foreign competitors, and often with that imperfect result which subjects us to reproaches not unfelt by minds alive to the honor and mortified sensibilities of their country:

That to obstruct the acquisition of books from abroad as an encoragement of the progress of literature at home, is burying the fountain to increase the flow of it’s waters:5

That books, and especially those of the rare and valuable character thus burthened, are not articles of consumption, but of permanent preservation and value, lasting often as many centuries as the houses we live in, of which examples are to be found in every library of note:

That books therefore are Capital, often the only capital of professional men on their outset in life, and of Students destined for professions, as most of our scholars are, and barely able too, for the most part, to meet the expences of tuition, and less so to pay an extra tax on the books necessary for their instruction: that they are consequently less instructed than they would be, and that our citizens at large do not derive from their employment all the benefits which higher qualifications would procure them:

That this is the only form of capital on which a tax of from 18 to 25. per cent is first levied on the gross, and the proprietor then subject to all other taxes in detail as those holding capitals in other forms, on which no such extra tax has been previously levied:

That it is true that no duty is required on books imported for seminaries of learning; but these, 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:

That6 more than 30. years experience of the resources of our country prove them equal to all it’s debts and wants, and permit it’s legislature now to favor such objects as the public interests recommend to favor:

That the value of science to a republican people, the security it gives to liberty, by enlightening the minds of it’s citizens, the protection it affords against foreign power, the virtues it inculcates, the just emulation of the distinction it confers on nations foremost in it, in short it’s identification with power, morals, order and happiness (which merits to it premiums of encoragement rather than repressive7 taxes)8 are topics which your Petitioners do not permit themselves to urge on the wisdom of Congress, before whose minds these considerations are always present, and bearing with their just9 weight.

And they conclude therefore with praying that Congress will be pleased to bestow on this important subject the attention it merits, and give the proper10 relief to the candidates of science among ourselves11 devoting themselves to the laudable object of qualifying themselves to become the instructers and benefactors of their fellow-citizens:

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, shall ever pray Etc.12

Th: Jefferson Rector
of the University of Virginia.
 Nov. 30. 1821.

MS (DNA: RG 233, PMWMC, 17th Cong., 1st sess.); in TJ’s hand; docketed on verso of final sheet by House of Representatives clerk John T. Frost: “Virginia Rector & Visitors of the University of– Decr 10–1821 Refd to the Committee of Ways & Means”; with additional notation in an unidentified hand (one number illegible): “600 Nelson Va [  ] W & M”; with additional docket sheet in the hand of and initialed by Frost (one word editorially corrected): “No 2. Virginia Memorial of the Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia Decr 10–1821 Refd to the Committee of Ways & Means Take no notic[e] of the endorsement on the petition These will be bound with Executive papers and numbered accordingly J.T.F.” Dft (ViU: TJP); entirely in TJ’s hand, with his endorsement: “Petition to Congress. Nov. 30. 1821.” Printed as Memorial of the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Washington, 1821). Also printed in Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 12 Dec. 1821 (with an introduction reading “The memorial from the University of Virginia, published in the preceding page, derives great interest from the circumstance of the original, as presented to the House of Representatives, being an autograph of the Sage of Monticello, and the composition of it the fruit of his distinguished mind. It is impossible to contemplate without veneration the man, who has spent his life in the discharge of great public duties, employing his old age in assiduous endeavors to prepare the youth of America fitly to discharge the high duties to which they may be called, when they arrive at maturity, as citizens of the American states. The illustrious Madison, it will be borne in mind, like his predecessor, has also devoted much of his time, since his retirement from office, to the interests of this rising institution”), in Baltimore Niles’ Weekly Register, 15 Dec. 1821, and elsewhere. Enclosed in following document and in TJ to James Madison, 30 Oct. 1821, Madison to TJ, 10 Nov. 1821, TJ to Hugh Nelson, 5 Dec. 1821, and TJ to John T. Kirkland, 26 Dec. 1821.

1Word interlined in Dft in place of “Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Chapman Johnson, Joseph C. Cabell, James Breckenridge, John Hartwell Cocke, and Robert Taylor.”

2In Dft TJ here canceled “sometimes even.”

3Parentheses added to Dft in a different ink.

4Printed texts here add “mode.”

5Sentence interlined in Dft in place of “That it seems as irregular to tax science with a view to encourage it’s fruits in the production of books as to lay mounds on a fountain to increase the flow of it’s waters.”

6TJ here canceled what appears to be “45 years.” He added the following three words to Dft in place of “45.”

7Word interlined in Dft in place of “prohibitory.”

8Parentheses added to Dft in a different ink.

9Word interlined in Dft in place of “full.”

10Preceding three words interlined in Dft in place of “that true impact of the duty they give.”

11Preceding two words interlined in Dft.

12Remainder added to Dft in a different ink.

Index Entries

  • books; tariffs on search
  • Congress, U.S.; and tariffs search
  • Congress, U.S.; Petition of University of Virginia Board of Visitors to United States Congress search
  • Frost, John T.; clerk of U.S. House of Representatives search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; books search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Petition of University of Virginia Board of Visitors to United States Congress search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); as member of University of Virginia Board of Visitors search
  • Memorial of the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson) search
  • National Intelligencer (Washington newspaper); prints Petition of University of Virginia Board of Visitors to United States Congress search
  • Nelson, Hugh; as U.S. representative from Va. search
  • taxes; on books search
  • Virginia, University of; Board of Visitors; petition of, to U.S. Congress search
  • Virginia, University of; Books and Library; and tariffs on books search