Sale of Books to the Library of Congress (1815)

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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View into the Bookroom from Jefferson's Cabinet (Study)
View into the Bookroom from Jefferson's Cabinet (Study)

Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in rebuilding the Library of Congress with his Library of Congress sale.

During the War of 1812, the British entered Washington D.C. and began to burn buildings by August 24, 1814. British forces burned the Capitol and the Library of Congress with its approximately 3,000 volumes. Upon hearing this, Jefferson wrote in a letter dated September 21, "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."[1]

Jefferson wrote in that letter and to President Madison on September 24, that he would offer his own collection to replace what was lost.[2]

Congress moved into action to make the sale. The bills for the purchase of Jefferson's books passed in the Senate on December 3, 1814 and in the House on January 30, 1815. The sale price was $23,950 for 6,700 books.

Jefferson learned about the sale in February 1815. The books were shipped in mid-April in the bookcases which they already occupied. They were covered with packing paper, more paper was wedged between every two volumes to reduce movement, and then boards were nailed over the front of the bookcases. Ten wagons transported them to Washington, where they arrived in midsummer.

Documentation of the Books Sold

Although Jefferson sent a packing list along with the books sent to the Library of Congress, it was lost almost immediately. In 1823, Jefferson delegated his grandson-in-law, Nicholas Philip Trist, to go to the Library of Congress and reconstruct the packing list. Unfortunately this document, too, was lost over the years, as were many of the books themselves through fire and other mishaps.

E. Millicent Sowerby was commissioned to recreate the list of books Jefferson sold to the Library of Congress to commemorate his 200th birthday. Although she had to reconstruct the list based primarily on Jefferson's Great Library list and the 1839 Library of Congress Catalog, her work resulted in a monumental Sowerby Catalogue a 5-volume extensively annotated catalog which has been invaluable to Jefferson scholars.

In the late 1980's, the list that Trist had compiled in 1823 (known as the Trist List) was rediscovered and published by James Gilreath and Douglas Wilson.[3] Although this list is not annotated, it is considered more authoritative than Sowerby's catalog.


  1. Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith. September 21, 1814. L&B, 14:190. full text of letter
  2. See Jefferson to Madison, September 24, 1814. Ibid, 14:196.
  3. Gilreath, James, and Douglas L. Wilson, eds. Thomas Jefferson's Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989.

Further Sources