“…there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
Throughout his life, books were vital to Thomas Jefferson’s education and wellbeing. When his family home Shadwell burned in 1770 Jefferson most lamented the loss of his books. In the midst of the American Revolution and while United States minister to France in the 1780s, Jefferson acquired thousands of books for his library at Monticello. Jefferson’s library went through several stages, but it was always critically important to him. Books provided the little traveled Jefferson with a broader knowledge of the contemporary and ancient worlds than most contemporaries of broader personal experience. By 1814 when the British burned the nation’s Capitol and the Library of Congress, Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States. On learning of the burning of the Capitol during the War of 1812, and the loss of the 3,000-volume Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, newspaper publisher, Samuel H. Smith (1772-1845) asking him to offer Congress his personal library of between “9 and 10,000 volumes” as a replacement. Jefferson promised to accept any price set by Congress, commenting that “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from this collection . . . there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Congress purchased Jefferson’s library for $23,950 in 1815. A second fire on Christmas Eve of 1851 destroyed nearly two thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson.
Through a generous grant from Jerry and Gene Jones, the Library of Congress is attempting to reassemble Jefferson’s library as it was sold to Congress. Although the broad scope of Jefferson’s library was a cause for criticism of the purchase, Jefferson extolled the virtue of its broad sweep and established the principle of acquisition for the Library of Congress. Proclaiming, “I cannot live without books,” Jefferson began a second collection of several thousand books, which was sold at auction in 1829 to help satisfy his creditors.