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America's Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000
     

America's Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000

by James Conaway
 

The Library of Congress, considered by many to be the greatest library on earth, holds over 110 million items—books in 450 languages, irreplaceable national documents, priceless art works, and objects of cultural fascination. From a modest collection of 740 books purchased by the Congress in 1800, the Library has grown to house hundreds of miles of bookshelves

Overview

The Library of Congress, considered by many to be the greatest library on earth, holds over 110 million items—books in 450 languages, irreplaceable national documents, priceless art works, and objects of cultural fascination. From a modest collection of 740 books purchased by the Congress in 1800, the Library has grown to house hundreds of miles of bookshelves. Laid end to end, they would stretch from Washington, D.C., to Chicago. This book tells the continuously interesting story of the first two hundred years of the Library of Congress. It is a vast history, filled with an immense cast of characters ranging from presidents, poets, journalists, and congressmen to collectors, artists, curators, and eccentrics.

James Conaway centers this history around the thirteen men who have been appointed by presidents to lead the Library of Congress. The author investigates how the Librarians’ experiences and contributions, as well as the Library’s collections, have reflected political and intellectual developments in the United States. Each Librarian confronted great challenges: the entire Library collection was lost when the British burned the Capitol in 1814; in the 1940s, a backlog of one and a half million objects waited to be catalogued; the gigantic task of replacing the card catalogue with a computerized system was undertaken in the 1980s. Yet each Librarian also enjoyed the excitement of acquiring unique treasures—from Walt Whitman’s walking stick to the papers of the Wright brothers, from the Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady to the archives of Leonard Bernstein. This lively account of the Library of Congress and those who guided its progress over two centuries is the history of an American institution that today is truly a library to the world, serving readers and researchers everywhere.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Founded in 1800 as a resource for lawmakers, the Library of Congress is one of the greatest libraries in existence, with more than 110 million items in holding, including books in 450 different languages, national documents and art works. Conaway (The Smithsonian) investigates the Library's history from the vantage point of the 13 Librarians of Congress, to illustrate how their experiences and contributions have reflected political and intellectual developments in the U.S. Several Librarians of Congress stayed on for decades, dedicating their lives to the institution. The first, John J. Beckley, appointed in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson, was confronted with an enormous challenge when the original collection was engulfed in flames during the British's burning of the Capitol by the British in 1812. Aimsworth Rand Spofford, appointed by Abraham Lincoln, succeeded in securing copyright deposit at the Library, thus ensuring its place as the national repository. Appointed by William McKinley, Herbert Putnam made the cataloging system available to U.S. libraries, while Archibald MacLeish, appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, established the Library as an important cultural center through his acquisitions and literature programs. The current Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, appointed by Ronald Reagan, has made a good portion of the collection available electronically. This is an engrossing and comprehensive read, as much a history of the people who made the Library of Congress what it is today--a library to the world--as it is a rich chronicle of the magnificent institution. 100 b&w and 12 color illus. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Commemorating the bicentennial of the Library of Congress (LC), this beautifully printed book provides a broad overview of the major collections, buildings, programs, personalities (it focuses on the 13 men appointed Librarian of Congress), and controversies in the development of our national library. Conaway, the former Washington editor of Harper's and author of The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder (LJ 12/95), relies on the work of such earlier historians as David C. Mearns and John Y. Cole but appears to have neglected Jane A. Rosenberg's important study of the Putnam era. Numerous illustrations are interspersed throughout the engagingly written text, along with 15 four-page sidebar articles on such topics as "Jefferson and Monticello," "Sight and Sound," "The Rare and the Special," and "Maps and Atlases." There is also a delightful introductory essay on the joys of historical research at LC by Edmund Morris. This book deserves to be widely held by all types of libraries. Thomas F. O'Connor, Manhattan Coll. Libs., Bronx, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Internet Bookwatch
The American Library of Congress holds over 110 million items - many of them unique and priceless - and this charts the history of the Library and its holdings, from its initial 740-book collection begun in 1800 to its miles of bookshelves today. Vintage photos and illustrations pack a presentation which is a 'must' for any who would understand American book history.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780300083088
Publisher:
Yale University Press
Publication date:
05/28/2000
Pages:
240
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x (d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

Such Books As May Be Necessary

(1800-1814)


In the full tide of successful experiment.
Thomas Jefferson


The coach trundling south from Washington to Richmond in the spring of 1800 carried a Supreme Court justice named Samuel Chase, the self-appointed Federalist interrogator of all who opposed the regime of President John Adams. As he traveled, Chase read The Prospect before Us, a political tract whose publication had been timed to coincide with the opening of the current presidential campaign, said to be the dirtiest in American history and possibly the most important.

    Vice President Thomas Jefferson was opposing Adams, and Jefferson's newly conceived Democratic-Republicans had been prevented by the Sedition Act from speaking out against the president and his policies. The Alien and the Sedition Acts were, in Jefferson's opinion, repressive, and he had encouraged the author of the book in Chase's hands, James Thomson Callender, a propagandist, to put forth arguments against Federalist policies that Jefferson and his supporters could not lawfully oppose in public. These included pro-British sentiments as well as the encouragement of commerce conducted at the expense of agrarian interests and the common man.

    Already the justice, Chase had brought about the imprisonment of Republicans in Delaware and Philadelphia, and shortly after arriving in Richmond he sentenced Callender to nine months in jail and fined him $400, an enormous sum. While in jail, Callender was visitedby prominent Republicans, among them the governor of Virginia, James Monroe, the chancellor, George Wythe, and Jefferson himself. The vice president believed in free discourse and considered the Federalists the antithesis of intellectual freedom and a threat to the liberty of all Americans.

    During the eighteen months the Sedition Act was in force, twenty-five writers, editors, and printers were tried and ten imprisoned. Meanwhile Jefferson's enemies attacked him directly for his religious views, his scholarship, and his devotion to unalloyed democracy; they seized on his writing as evidence of subversion and apostasy. Jefferson became a social outcast of sorts. "Happily for truth and for us" wrote a Reverend John M. Mason, a Federalist who had found evidence that Jefferson doubted the reality of the biblical Flood, "Mr. Jefferson has written; he has printed."

    Ideas and free expression—and by implication, books—stood at the center of what has been referred to as the second American revolution, the outcome of which was only months away and utterly unpredictable.


The year before, Jefferson had written to a student at the College of William and Mary, his alma mater: "I join you therefore in branding as cowardly the idea that the human mind is incapable of further advances. This is precisely the doctrine which the present despots of the earth are inculcating & their friends here re-echoing; & applying especially to religion & politics. While the art of printing is left to us, science can never be retrograde. As long as we may think as we will, & speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement."

    Jefferson's regard for books was passionate and long-standing. The son of a civil engineer who had married into a prominent Virginia family, he was raised in privilege and instilled with an almost messianic belief in the value of knowledge, freedom, and the agrarian ideal. His authorship of the Declaration of Independence—no secret to Americans in 1800—emerged from a lifetime of scholarship going back to his own student days in Williamsburg.

    He later described it as "the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America." His mentors and companions there—George Wythe, lawyer, William Small, professor of law, and Francis Fauquier, the royal governor of Virginia—were all products of the Enlightenment. Jefferson's subsequent service as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses exposed him to the indignities of monarchical rule, and as a delegate to Congress from Virginia he put forward a constitution proposing complete political freedom, backed by a knowledge of classical law and literature.

    In Virginia, Jefferson sought land reform and to overturn laws prohibiting the freeing of slaves. His tenure as governor of Virginia during the American Revolution exposed him to the harshness of Tory military forays and further hardened him against British colonialism; in Congress after the Revolution, Jefferson became the voice of the common man against various mercantile and planter schemes.

    Jefferson continued pursuit of his wide-ranging scholarship—in architecture, classical history, horticulture—during his sojourn in France as America's representative. He agreed to be secretary of state in Washington's administration, then himself ran for president in the election of 1796, losing to Adams and assuming the post of vice president with little influence on the Federalist policies he abhorred.

    Throughout his lifetime he spent hours of every day reading, and had amassed one of the most impressive private libraries in America, at Monticello. He would say unequivocally, "I cannot live without books."

    Those books ordered by Congress from England in early 1800 had been approved in principle during the U.S. Congress's first session in 1789, held in New York. The impulse went back several years, to 1774, when the directors of the Library Company of Philadelphia offered the use of its books to the prospective Congress. In 1782, Theodorick Bland, Jr., a delegate from Virginia, suggested that Congress import books from Europe, and the following year a committee chaired by James Madison approved Bland's motion.

    The first U.S. Congress met in New York's Federal Hall in 1789 and had access to the New York Society Library in the same building. The representative from Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, proposed "that a committee be appointed to report a catalogue of books necessary for the use of Congress, with an estimate of the expense, and the best mode of procuring them."

    During the second session, in 1790, the motion was adopted and Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, headed the committee. He was joined on it by Aedanus Burke of South Carolina and Alexander White of Virginia. The following year, Gerry reported to the House that the committee was confining itself "to books necessary for the use of the legislative and executive departments, and not often found in private or circulating libraries."

    Such libraries were still rare in America. Benjamin Franklin had started the first lending library in 1731, in Philadelphia, with fifty subscribers, an example emulated elsewhere in the colonies. Subscription libraries with fewer than a hundred volumes were scattered around the country by the late eighteenth century, but the total of their holdings and those of society libraries and private collections was probably fewer than fifty thousand volumes, a third of those theological in nature.

    Gerry's report had continued: "The committee are therefore of the opinion that a sum, not exceeding 1,000 dollars, be appropriated in the present session, and that the sum of 500 dollars be hereafter annually appropriated to the purchase of books for a public library, and be applied to the purpose by the Vice-President, Chief Justice, and Secretary of State of the United States, without confining them to the catalogue reported, until, in the opinion of Congress, the books provided shall be adequate to the purpose."

    The first formal proposal for a library for Congress clearly stipulated a permanent collection not limited by local needs, one that would be national in character and would serve all branches of government; its initial purchase suggested its international character.

    Far-sighted, profound, the idea of the library still had its detractors, like the reader of the Independent Chronicle of Boston, who asked in May 1790, "What connection has a Library with the public? With our Commerce; or with any other national concern?—How absurd to squander away money for a parcel of Books, when every shilling of the Revenue is wanted for supporting our government and paying our debts?"

    The First Congress moved to Philadelphia and was granted library privileges by the Library Company In 1794, Washington's secretary, Tobias Lear, was instructed by the Senate to purchase its own copies of Blackstone's Commentaries and Vattel's Law of Nations. Other volumes had accumulated, among them one of poems by Robert Burns, Dr. Benjamin Rush's Yellow Fever, a history of England by Hume, Morse's American Geography, and some periodicals. As the eighteenth century drew to a close Congress owned all of 243 volumes.


On April 24, 1800, President Adams signed a bill for outfitting the Executive Mansion and Congress in the District of Columbia. Congress had realized that no library existed there, and the bill included a section providing "for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress at the said city of Washington, and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them, and for placing them therein the sum of five thousand dollars shall be, and hereby is, appropriated." The catalog was to be furnished "by a joint committee of both Houses of Congress to be appointed for that purpose."

    In the fall, the presidential campaign in full swing, Congress moved front Philadelphia to Washington, from the country's most sophisticated city to the least so. There had been two possible sites for the new capital, the more generally favored on the Delaware River near Philadelphia, the other along this miasmal shore of the Potomac. The latter was chosen by Congress as a concession to the southerners whose votes were needed for the federal government to assume the debts incurred by the states during the Revolution.

    Instrumental in the decision was Jefferson, then secretary of state, and his fellow Virginian, George Washington, who had set a cornerstone at Jones Point, in Alexandria, on April 15, 1791, a few miles from his home at Mount Vernon. This formally initiated the rise of an audacious, much dreamed-of federal city.

    The District of Columbia was to embody the ideals and governance of a new nation still in the process, like its capital, of inventing itself, and Washington had encouraged a young French engineer, Pierre L'Enfant, to design it. L'Enfant set upon its uncertain terrain a plan more suitable to his continent, as large as Paris, with broad avenues and grand roundabouts all trending toward what was known as Jenkins Hill, eighty-eight feet above the height of the river, calling it "the Capitoline."

    In keeping with democracy, an open competition had been launched for a Capitol building, and Jefferson, an ardent amateur architect, entered his own plan anonymously. The one chosen was that of another amateur, from Philadelphia, Dr. William Thornton, and Washington praised the proposed building for its "grandeur, simplicity and convenience." Washington ceremoniously placed that cornerstone in 1793, but Dr. Thornton's classical vision had a painfully slow realization.

    The arriving congressmen saw only two wings, with nothing in between, and only the north wing ready for use. But even the unfinished Capitol made its point. "The conception proved that the United States understood the vastness of their task," Henry Adams later wrote in his history of the period, "and were willing to stake something on their faith in it."

    The city itself was a collection of rough byways and low, rudimentary houses of brick and clapboard scattered in the shadow of "the Hill" as remote from L'Enfant's vision as a frontier outpost from the palaces of imperial Europe. Pennsylvania Avenue, leading from the Capitol to the President's House, was boggy for almost its entire length, and that house, too, still under construction: just six rooms had been completed when Adams and his wife, Abigail, arrived.

    Jefferson, a widower by then, lodged at a boardinghouse within walking distance of the Capitol, as did many congressmen—"like a convent of monks," as Henry Adams surmised, although some boardinghouses provided free alcohol—"with no other amusement or occupation than that of going from their lodgings to the Chambers and back again." There was a paucity of shops and markets. Some congressmen lived in the somewhat more agreeable environs of Alexandria or Georgetown and journeyed to the Capitol each day over roads plagued with dust, or mud. A visitor from abroad, Thomas Moore, would write of Washington just a few years later:


This fam'd metropolis, where fancy sees
Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees;
Which second sighted seers e'en now adorn
With shrines unbuilt and heroes yet unborn.


    With Congress in session, the city had only thirty-six hundred inhabitants, but the population of the entire country was then only about 5.3 million. This was a third of Great Britain's and less than a fifth of France's total populace. Twenty percent of the people living in America were slaves. In many ways Washington, not Philadelphia or even Baltimore, more accurately reflected the country as a whole, which was developing and dauntingly rural.

    Two-thirds of Americans lived within fifty miles of the Atlantic coast. Roughly half the houses further inland were made of logs, many without windows. Clothing, working materials, and methods of agriculture were decidedly those of the previous century; currency used to pay debts or to purchase supplies was usually European—shillings or pistareens—the American copper cent being the only commonly used indigenous coin. Disease and illiteracy proliferated. Salt pork was common daily fare, whiskey the common dram.

    There was one general mail route in 1800, from Portland, Maine, to Louisville, Georgia, a trip requiring weeks; branch routes extended to Canandaigua, New York; Lexington, Kentucky; and Nashville, Tennessee; but revenue from the entire national postal system was negligible. Three rough wagon roads may have penetrated the western wilderness, but they provided struggling settlements beyond the Alleghenies with little real contact with the outside world.

    The best road ran from Boston to New York, and a stagecoach with passengers required three days to make the trip. New York to Philadelphia required two days. No stagecoach ran to the new capital city. Travel anywhere in America usually involved horses, or flat-bottomed boats, and great stamina; arduous river crossings were common (of the eight rivers between the District of Columbia and Monticello, Jefferson's home in Albemarle County, Virginia, five had neither bridges nor ferries).

    Way stations on the roads leading to Washington were dirty and crowded, some with as many as eight beds to a room, and they were expensive. Arriving Congressmen had been allowed six dollars reimbursement for every twenty miles they covered, an amount insufficient to meet expenses.


The congressmen who came to reside in the new capital in 1800 had an election on their minds. The previous spring in New York, Republican Aaron Burr had packed the state legislature with presidential electors committed to Jefferson. Alexander Hamilton, the former treasury secretary, attempted to undercut the process by asking the governor, John Jay, to call a special session, change the rules by which electors were chosen, and thus frustrate the Republicans.

    Jay, a Federalist, was the architect of the controversial 1794 treaty with Great Britain that failed to address Republican concerns, among them impressment of American seamen. Hamilton had reason to think Jay might comply with his request, but Jay refused. Jefferson won the vote in the New York assembly, and Aaron Burr was chosen as the Republicans' candidate for vice president.

    In Congress, the Federalists voted to support Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina equally, an indication that the incumbent president faced trouble within his own party. Pinckney was a former delegate to the Constitutional Convention and a member of the disastrous diplomatic mission to France, known as the XYZ Affair. It, like the Jay Treaty, had fueled the national debate over demands of foreign governments and America's proper place in the world.

    Three American envoys to France charged with peace-making—Pinckney, Elbridge Gerry, and John Marshall—had been opportuned by their three French counterparts, referred to as X, Y, and Z, who demanded that the United States assume claims in America against France, finance a loan at double the usual rate, and pay a bribe of 50,000 pounds. Despite the resulting outcry, Pinckney remained the choice of most Federalist leaders, including Hamilton.

    President Adams addressed the first joint session of Congress in November 1800, and spoke of "the prospect of a residence not to be changed," meaning that the federal government was forever fixed in Washington, D.C. The 134 elected officials were committed to an unfinished Capitol in an unfinished city and faced with the prospect of a new chief executive who just might be a Republican.

    The president and the Federalists had not done well in other state assemblies, with Adams carrying only his home region of New England, New Jersey, and Delaware. Jefferson and Aaron Burr emerged from the overall voting with seventy-three electoral votes apiece, and the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. In February 1801, after weeks of political maneuvering, the deciding vote went to Jefferson on the thirty-sixth ballot; power shifted from the party of Washington and the Founding Fathers, and a bitter Adams left the city before his rival's inauguration.

    The Federalists would not recover from their defeat, but the two-party principle had been established through what Jefferson called "as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 ... by the rational and peaceful instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people."


On April 1, 1801, Congress's books ordered from England and sitting in the Baltimore harbor were placed on a packet and shipped to Georgetown. A month later the secretary of the Senate, Samuel A. Otis, wrote to President Jefferson that the packages had arrived "perfectly dry. "The books were sent up to the office of the clerk of the Senate.

    The following January, Jefferson signed a bill entitled "An Act Concerning the Library for the Use of Both Houses of Congress." All books belonging to the Senate and the House were combined in a room on the west side of the north wing of the Capitol. The room was eighty-six feet long and thirty-five feet wide and had thirty-six-foot ceilings, galleries, and two ranges of windows for natural lighting—a proper setting for statesmen perusing the works of scholars and scientists with bearing on future acts of Congress.

    This act gave the president of the Senate and the Speaker of the House the power to regulate the Library. Borrowers of books and maps were limited to the president, the vice president, and members of Congress; appropriations for new books were to be handled by a joint committee of three senators and three representatives. The act stipulated that a librarian be "appointed by the President of the United States solely," a job that was to pay "a sum not exceeding two dollars per diem."

    Jefferson appointed his friend and fellow Virginian John James Beckley, a colorful, highly partisan political operative who had played an important role in Jefferson's election but so far had not fared well in Jefferson's parsimonious use of patronage. Beckley, an Englishman by birth, had served over the years in various administrative positions: secretary to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at the College of William and Mary, clerk of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Clerk of the House of Representatives during the first Congress, friend of the powerful, and himself an influential if outspoken Republican.

    Beckley had aided James Madison in his opposition to the policies of Alexander Hamilton and written often and effectively, if pseudonymously, to discredit the Federalists. Well-read, gregarious, sickly, he had a talent for speechmaking and enunciation and a natural bent for behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

    He had turned against Washington when he signed the Jay Treaty. While Congress was in Philadelphia, Beckley served as unofficial chairman of the Republican party, and his cajoling was crucial in delivering Pennsylvania for Jefferson during the presidential campaign of 1800. He encouraged the propagandist Callender to publish a report about Hamilton's affair with the wife of James Reynolds that thoroughly discredited Hamilton, and he defended Jefferson against attacks from the clergy.

    Beckley lost his clerkship of the House, and only loans from friends—among them Jefferson and Dr. Benjamin Rush—saved him from debtors' prison. After the move to Washington, however, he won back the clerkship of the House (he would have preferred clerk of the Senate, which was less demanding and more prestigious), a job that made considerable demands on a man in poor health. He hoped in vain for an early political plum from President Jefferson and was finally made Librarian.

    Now Beckley the political strategist had to attend lengthy meetings of congressional committees and comply with requests from members of Congress, including the determination of how much of the original appropriation for books remained. He discovered that there was no statement of account rendered for those first books ordered from England, and so he had to piece the record together.


Early in 1802 the head of the Joint Committee on the Library, Abraham Baldwin, senator from Georgia and former chaplain in the Revolutionary Army, appealed to President Jefferson for guidance in the new, vaguely defined Library of Congress. Jefferson replied to Baldwin on April 14, "I have prepared a catalogue for the Library of Congress in conformity with your ideas that books of entertainment are not within the scope of it, and that books in other languages, where there are not translations of them, are to be admitted freely."

    "I have confined the catalogue to those branches of science which belong to the deliberations of the members as statesmen," Jefferson continued, "and in these have omitted those desirable books, ancient and modern, which gentlemen generally have in their private libraries, but which cannot properly claim a place in a collection made merely for the purposes of reference."

    In the realm of "law of nature and nations," Jefferson "put down everything" he thought worthy because "this is a branch of science often under the discussion of Congress." Likewise were included books on parliamentary procedures, to protect against "caprice and despotism from the chair." He recommended two encyclopedias and "a set of dictionaries in the different languages, which may be often wanting."

    History was represented, and some philosophy, but no theology, pedagogy, technology, art, or music—a library, "in other words," David C. Mearns remarked in his history of the Library, The Story Up to Now, "very practical and very dull."

    Beckley saw to it that Jefferson's catalog was printed. It included a number assigned to each book, the title, the number of volumes, and the estimated value of the 212 folios, 164 quartos, 581 octavos and 7 duodecimos. There were 964 volumes in all, plus 9 maps and charts.

    Jefferson instructed the U.S. consul in London to look for more books from a different supplier, thinking that the original supplier, Cadell & Davies, had charged too much for the first shipment. In practical fashion, Jefferson further instructed that the consul look for books with "neat bindings, not splendid ones," and small "good editions, not pompous ones."

    This was not to be Jefferson's ultimate contribution to the Library which, like his vision of the American landscape, would prove to be both daring and inspirational.

    In July 1802, Beckley put together a statement of remaining funds—$2,480.83—and sent it to Congress and to the president, with a suggestion of his own for books by the naturalists Georges Buffon and Mark Catesby. Beckley spent two months in the fall at Berkeley Springs, in Virginia, recovering his health, still in debt and responsible for a large extended family, and returned to his duties in the Capitol.

    There he asked Benjamin Rush to send copies of all his publications to the Library and was soon encouraging other authors to make such donations. His friend and editor of the National Intelligencer, Samuel Harrison Smith, wrote approvingly in 1803 that the Library "already embraces near fifteen hundred volumes of the most rare and valuable works in different languages. We observe with pleasure that authors and editors of books, maps, and charts begin to find that, by placing a copy of their works on the shelves of this institution, they do more to diffuse a knowledge of them than is generally accomplished by catalogues and advertisements."

    Beckley acted as willing host for the new Library and Congress, providing informal tours to dignitaries and other visitors increasingly attracted to the Capitol in 1804. The famous German naturalist Baron Alexander von Humboldt arrived accompanied by the noted American artist Charles Willson Peale. "Mr. Beckley received us with politeness," Peale wrote in his diary, "... the Library is a spacious and handsome Room, and although lately organized, already contained a number of valuable books in the best taste of binding."

    The internal politics of Congress and the Library were anything but ceremonious for Beckley. He had given a Federalist clerk, Josias King, a position in the Library despite the fact that King had wanted the job of Librarian himself and harbored resentment. Beckley fired him in 1805, and King charged Beckley with failing to divide the Librarian's pay with him and preventing King from obtaining extra compensation for services rendered.

    The House investigated the charges and found that King had no claim, but the incident exacerbated Beckley's already stressful life and introduced the element of controversy to the Librarian's post.

    Congress took back the quarters occupied by the Library at the beginning of Jefferson's second term and provided a less impressive committee room in a wing of the Capitol. The room was too small for the ever-increasing collection of books, the roof leaked, and the floor shook.

    Congress still expected the Library to serve its needs, though all the Library's funds had been spent. The Senate appointed a committee "to inquire into the expediency of purchasing maps and books for the library," chaired by Samuel Latham Mitchill of New York, known to colleagues as the "Stalking Library" and the "Chaos of Knowledge" because of his erudition. Mitchill conducted a study and in early 1806 judged the Library lacking in works of literature, science, geography, history, and politics.

    Mitchill asked for a new appropriation, as the 1806 report stated, "to furnish the library with such materials as will enable statesmen to be correct in their investigations, and by becoming a display of erudition and research, give a higher dignity and a brighter lustre to truth." A symbolic role for the Library, in addition to its practical one, was envisioned.

    Three members of the committee—John Quincy Adams, Joseph Clay, and Mitchill—were each authorized to draw as much as $494 from the Library's financial agent for buying books in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, for the first time bestowing congressional favor on the American book trade.

    Beckley feuded with another political adversary, Federalist senator William Plumer of New Hampshire, over the availability and choice of books in the Library. He involved himself in the city government of the District of Columbia, as he had earlier in Richmond and Philadelphia. In addition to these distractions, he fought legal battles related to tracts of valuable but largely unsalable lands he had earlier obtained in western Virginia.

    Short of cash and in increasingly poor health, Beckley died on April 8, 1807, bringing to a close a highly varied career of a learned man whose impulses were primarily political and whose fondness was for Republican goals. He left the Library well organized and—fittingly—well defended against the encroachments both of politics and anti-intellectualism that remained an undercurrent in American public life.


President Jefferson had more important considerations in mind than the succession at the Library of Congress. Among them were the trial in Richmond of Aaron Burr, charged with treason, and continuing problems with the British. That country's sea captains continued to impress American seamen, and the British warship H.M.S. Leopard had launched an unprovoked attack on the U.S. frigate Chesapeake. There was talk of another war.

    There were many applicants for the job of Librarian, and even more for the clerkship of the House. One of the latter, Patrick Magruder, the son of a Montgomery County, Maryland, justice, had attended Princeton University, had served as an associate judge in the circuit county court, and had been elected a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the Ninth Congress. He had lately lost his seat to the uncle of Francis Scott Key after a bitter campaign in which he painted his opponent as a Tory and a local Federalist newspaper opined that "rudeness and insolence will always meet with their proper reward, contempt and defeat."

    There were no fewer than eight candidates for the clerkship. Magruder was elected after several ballots, with the fortuitous support of Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke, and three congressmen then recommended Magruder to Jefferson for the additional post of Librarian, seen as a customary adjunct to the clerkship. The president had doubts about automatically putting the clerk of the House in charge of the Library, and there was the question of other petitioners, some loyal Republicans like Beckley's chief clerk in the Library, Nicholas Van Zandt, who also wanted the job.

    Never comfortable with decisions involving patronage, Jefferson put off the decision for half a year, fortunately for Magruder, who did not formally apply until Congress reconvened in October. Finally, on November 6, Jefferson wrote him a brief note, affirming that Magruder had been selected. "Mr. Van Zandt having been charged pro tem with the care of the books since the death of Mr. Beckley, you will be pleased to receive that charge from him."

    In 1807 the Library committee placed Representative Samuel W. Dana in charge of "the making and printing of a new list of books." The new forty-page catalog that appeared tripled the size of the previous one. It set forth a new set of rules for routine operations and for circulating, labeling, shelving, and cataloging the books. Expenses were carefully recorded, as now required by law. Complete sets of laws and various journals were deposited at the Library as the House and Senate required, and the practice of fining members for overdue books was instituted.

    Beckley had left the day-to-day operation of the Library to his assistants, a practice Magruder willingly continued. The second Librarian did find time to petition the president on behalf of friends from Montgomery County and Georgetown seeking political appointments. Magruder, again like his predecessor, Beckley, suffered from poor health and yet found time to participate in local politics, but he played no decisive role in Library affairs beyond the duties required by Congress. The laxness of his record-keeping would come back to haunt him.


Jefferson left office in 1809 and was replaced by his old friend and supporter James Madison, former secretary of state and a fellow founder of the Republicans.

    Madison was more schooled in political science than his predecessor but lacked Jefferson's imagination and his imposing bearing. Slight, a bit dour, perpetually dressed in black, Madison provided a sharp contrast to Jefferson's disheveled enthusiasm and intellectual fervor. But Madison had been a persistent and effective force in Congress, battling the Federalists' money-making schemes and championing farmers and patriots against what he saw as British encroachment and "monocrats" at home; Jefferson valued and respected Madison, describing him as "the greatest man in the world."

    Madison's wife, Dolley, was a lively, sympathetic figure. She had served occasionally as the unofficial hostess for the widower president, Jefferson. Now, for the first time in eight years, the Executive Mansion had an official First Lady in residence.

    Her husband's early negotiations with the British over nonintervention in American trade were successful, but the agreement soon broke down. Impressment of American seamen continued. In the western reaches of the continent, frontiersmen pushed to acquire land that belonged either to the Indians or to the British. The so-called "war hawk" Congress led by Henry Clay and John Calhoun clamored for expansion.

    Madison signed an act of Congress in 1811 renewing the Library's annual $1,000 appropriation for five years. Magruder had been retained as Librarian. He was married in May to Martha Goodwyn, the daughter of a Democrat in the House, and that November won reelection as clerk of the House without opposition. He remained active in local Masonic affairs, and he and his wife participated in modest social functions relating to the Library.

    In 1812, the Library issued its first classified catalog, but Magruder's role in its preparation is not clear. It listed 3,076 volumes and 53 maps, charts, and plans. The same year, members of Congress, who had never been happy with the penalties for overdue books, exempted themselves from such fines and authorized Supreme Court justices to use the Library.

    Meanwhile, Madison's presidency was dominated by the prospect of open conflict with England. For years he had opposed its incursions and discriminatory trade policies, and on June 12, 1812, he sent a message to Congress recommending the use of force. On June 18 war was declared by a narrow vote; so uncertain was the mood of the country that a fourth of the Republicans in Congress abstained from voting. Federalists labeled it "Mr. Madison's War," criticizing his dealings with Britain, and managed to double their numbers in the congressional elections of 1812, but Madison was elected to a second term.

    He became preoccupied with the fighting, which was limited to the coast and the border with Canada and did not go well for the country. An American force invaded Canada and captured York (now Toronto) in 1813; the Americans burned the Parliament buildings, including the library of the legislature—a bad precedent.


Magruder became ill in December 1813, and had to be replaced as clerk by his brother, George. The following July he took sick leave from all duties and traveled to Virginia to recuperate. The British naval blockade of American ports had proved highly effective, but there seemed to be no imminent danger to the capital city.

    Then in August 1814 an expeditionary British force came ashore from the Chesapeake Bay. The local militia was called up to oppose it, draining the Capitol and other public buildings of protective forces. The only person on duty in the Library was an over-age clerk named J. T. Frost, left in charge by George Magruder, who was serving as a colonel. Frost was later joined by a furloughed clerk, Samuel Burch.

    On August 22, Frost began to pack the Library files after sending Burch in search of transportation. Most wagons in Washington had been commandeered as other government workers fled; Burch returned with only a cart and four oxen. The two men managed to evacuate most, but not all, of the Library records.

    The British troops had advanced to within ten miles of Washington. On the morning of August 24, President Madison met with his cabinet at the Navy Yard to devise a plan of defense. The American force was more numerous than the British one, but poorly trained; some seventeen hundred British soldiers assembled at Bladensburg, in nearby Maryland, routed several thousand Americans, and prepared to march on Washington.

    Madison returned to the Executive Mansion to discover that Dolley had already left with the presidential plate and other valuables. He and his Cabinet fled west out of the city. The British advanced virtually unopposed and that night and the following morning set fire to the most symbolic structures in the city: the War Office, the Treasury, the Executive Mansion, the offices of the National Intelligencer, a bridge over the Potomac, and the Capitol.

    The glow of the flames could be seen as far away as Baltimore. Included in the general conflagration was the Library of Congress. Books were used to kindle the fire, burned in retaliation for the earlier burning of the legislative library in York by American troops. The invaders were charged with barbarity by witnesses and by commentators all over America, their action compared to the burning of the great Alexandrine library in classical times.

    The records of Congress pertaining to the Library were lost, as were those of expenditures made during Patrick Magruder's term. This was to have unhappy consequences for the sickly second Librarian.

    The British went on to Baltimore, where they unsuccessfully bombarded Fort McHenry, a dubious victory for the Americans that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner." The war would grind on without an apparent winner, and, finally, Congress voted to end the hostilities in early 1815. Two weeks before that, in New Orleans, General Andrew Jackson had resoundingly defeated the British force there, his victory essentially ending two centuries of European involvement in America.

    The Library of Congress, unlike the temporarily dispersed but still extant government of the United States, had ceased to exist. Gone were all the books originally ordered from England, as well as the valuable acquisitions made since the Library's founding fourteen years before, precious volumes all, envisioned by learned men as beacons to the new nation. Gone also was much of the resolve for a great national library as a weakened citizenry and a contentious Congress sought order after chaos.

(Continues...)

Meet the Author

James Conaway is the author of eight books. He is the former Washington editor of Harper’s and has written for many publications including Civilization, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and Preservation.

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