Thomas Jefferson Papers

Enclosure: Memorial of Learned Institutions to Congress, [before 1 December 1821]


Memorial of Learned Institutions to Congress

[before 1 Dec. 1821]

to the


The Memorial of divers Colleges, Academies, and literary and scientific Societies within the United States humbly shows,

That the several Institutions, who, by their respective presiding officers, have subscribed this Memorial, are deeply interested in the progress of good knowledge; and regret to find from continual observation and experience, that it is impeded by the operation of some portion of the revenue laws regulating the importation of foreign books. They therefore respectfully ask leave to submit to Congress the expediency of modifying those laws and of repealing the duties on imported books for the following reasons.

The duties on imported books are not less than 17 per cent. These duties, however, are not needed or felt as protecting duties, that are to favor domestic printing and publishing; for the printing establishments of the United States are already so extensive and well settled, that they can furnish the English books of which an edition is wanted for less on an average than half the cost of the same books, when imported, so that the competition has long since ceased to be felt between the English and American booksellers, while a competition between the different booksellers in this country, publishing the same work, has taken its place.

As a portion of the revenue of the country, this duty is comparatively unimportant. The exact amount accruing to the public treasury from this source cannot be ascertained, as the duty on books being ad valorem, is not returned separately to the treasury department nor kept separately in the books of the respective custom houses. From diligent inquiry, however, it is estimated that less than the sum of thirty thousand dollars is the full amount of books annually imported into the United States, and that this amount has been for several years constantly diminishing; so that the government now receives from this branch of revenue less than five thousand dollars a year; and will hereafter not receive so much as at present.

But while this duty is of little consequence to the revenue of the country and of none at all as a protection to a domestic manufacture, its effects on the progress of knowledge among us are extensive and mischievous. In the first place it falls almost exclusively on books, which are very much wanted among us, and which we can hope to get by importation only, for it falls on books in the dead languages, very few of which, especially of the best editions, are printed in this country, or would, if reprinted, repay the cost of publication;—on books in foreign living languages, which it is not desirable we should reprint;—on books, so expensive in their very nature, that we cannot hope or wish to republish them; and on books, one edition of which, in whatever country it may be published, is expected and intended to supply the demand of the whole literary world. Our want of books of each of these descriptions is very great; they are many of them of the first importance to the progress and diffusion of knowledge among us; but we can obtain them by importation only, and when it is considered that they are generally of the most expensive class, and that the necessary charges of bringing them into the country are heavy, it will, as your memorialists believe, be at once admitted, that the duty now exacted makes such a serious addition to the price, as to operate as a great discouragement to their introduction, and often, as a prohibition.

Your memorialists would in the next place urge that this duty falls almost exclusively on a class of persons, who can rarely afford to incur any expenses, except those of first necessity to their literary and professional vocations. In order to be of the highest use to the community in their spheres of employment, to furnish themselves with knowledge and to aid its progress in the land, they want constantly books, which they can get only from foreign countries; yet they are compelled by the measures of their own government to pursue their studies in an irksome and inefficient manner, with only a part of the requisite means in their respective departments.

In the last place this duty is annually diminishing the amount of books imported at the very time we most want them, so that the booksellers’ shops among us are gradually becoming more and more empty of foreign publications; and that branch of trade, which is to connect us in our youth with the intellectual advantages of the old world and to furnish American scholars with the means of becoming what they desire and strive to be, is gradually disappearing, while other branches of speculation and profit are gradually reviving and growing stronger.

Under these circumstances your memorialists apply to the government for relief; and they do it with more confidence, as they ask nothing for themselves. The liberality of the government has already exempted the Institutions they represent from all duties, and of course the interest they feel is merely an interest in the advancement and dissemination of that knowledge, which is the only sure foundation of our national liberty and republican institutions.

Your memorialists therefore pray, that all printed books may hereafter be exempted from duties.

Printed circular (ViU: TJP); undated. Also enclosed in George Ticknor to TJ, 8 Dec. 1821, where Ticknor claims authorship.

For the failure of this effort in Congress, see editorial note on the Campaign to Abolish Tariffs on Books, printed above at 30 Nov. 1821.

Index Entries

  • books; tariffs on search
  • Congress, U.S.; and tariffs search
  • Congress, U.S.; Memorial of Learned Institutions to Congress search
  • Harvard University; and tariffs on books search
  • Harvard University; G. Ticknor’s professorship at search
  • House of Representatives, U.S.; and taxes search
  • schools and colleges; and tariffs on books search
  • schools and colleges; Harvard University search
  • Senate, U.S.; and tariffs search
  • taxes; on books search
  • Ticknor, George; and tariffs on books search
  • Ticknor, George; as Harvard professor search