The Books That Made America

Jefferson's "book room," where he kept his personal library at Monticello.

On this day in 1815, President James Madison signed a bill appropriating $23,950 — about $282,000 in today’s dollars — to purchase Thomas Jefferson’s library. The collection of 6,500 books became the nucleus of The Library of Congress, one of the premier research libraries in the world. Although established in 1800, Jefferson’s books rebuilt the collection which had been burned to ashes by invading British troops in 1814 during one of the more ignominious events of the War of 1812.  The hostilities were part of this nation’s first declared war and it is often called “the Second War of American Nationalism” by historians who study the event.

The sale was painful one. Jefferson, always in deep financial trouble because of poor personal spending habits and inescapable debt, needed the money. The fact that his dear friend Madison was the president almost certainly helped seal the deal. But Jefferson, a confirmed bibliophile, once said “I cannot live without books.”

The story of Jefferson’s collection, his cataloging system, and the sale of the books to the LOC can found at the on-line exhibit “Treasures of the Library of Congress.” Of course, one of the most valued treasures is Jefferson’s own hand-written draft of the Declaration of Independence.

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