In August, 1814, British forces burned Washington D.C., the capital of the young United States of America. Capital Hill was damaged by the flames, and the Library of Congress was lost. Luckily for the fledgling country, one of the founding fathers of the United States had an obsessive addiction to collecting books. Furthermore, he was plagued by debts and was more than willing to sell his possessions.
In 1815, Thomas Jefferson sold an enormous collection of 6,487 books to the government for an estimated total of $23,950. The collection contained both ancient classics and modern works—Jefferson’s favorite ancient author was Cicero, by whom he owned at least forty texts. The wide variety of genres and topics in the collection caused a stir among the members (and observers) of the Congress, who thought that the U.S. government should not have paid for some of the odd volumes that Jefferson stumbled across during his studies.
Despite Jefferson’s still existent debts, he continued to buy an endless supply of books, even after selling thousands to the Library of Congress. When he died in 1826, he had still been burdened by a debt of $107,000—a sum that equates to more than 2 million modern U.S. dollars. Shortly after his death, Jefferson’s second massive collection of books (numbering in the thousands) was auctioned off, along with most of his other possessions.
Sadly, on the Christmas Eve of 1851, around 2/3 of Jefferson’s original contribution to the Library of Congress was lost in another fire. Interestingly, the Library of Congress is trying to procure copies of the texts that were destroyed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, by Mather Brown (1761–1831), in front of a library painted by Rudolf von Alt (1812–1905), both images are [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).