Sale of Books to the Library of Congress (1815)

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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View into the Book Room from Jefferson's Cabinet (Study)
View into the Book Room from Jefferson's Cabinet (Study)

Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in rebuilding the Library of Congress when he sold the bulk of his book collection to them in 1815.

During the War of 1812, British forces entered Washington, D.C., burning the Capitol building and 3,000-volume library inside it. Jefferson expressed his particular distress at this loss to his friend Samuel Smith: "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 James Madison on September 24, that he would offer his own collection to replace what was lost.[2]

Congress moved quickly to facilitate the acquisition of the new library. 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 6,487 books.

Jefferson received news of the finalized sale in February 1815. The books were shipped in mid-April in the bookcases which they already occupied. 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 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 in 1943. 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 5-volume extensivelyannotated catalog, known as the Sowerby Catalogue, which has been invaluable to Jefferson scholars.

In the late 1980s, 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 a more accurate listing of the books originally sold to the Library of Congress 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