1815 Sale


On 24 August 1814 during the War of 1812, the invading British army entered Washington, D.C. and set fire to the United States Capitol building, destroying the 3,000-volume congressional library. This library had been established in 1800 when President John Adams approved legislation to appropriate $5,000 to purchase "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress."

When Jefferson learned of the devastating loss, he was outraged and promptly offered to sell his personal library to Congress as a replacement for whatever price Congress was willing to pay. A week prior to his offer, Jefferson received a letter sent from Philadelphia by Boston publisher, Thomas B. Wait & Sons. They were in the midst of publishing a collection of American State Papers and Publick Documents for the use of Congress and the general public, and their efforts were now in jeopardy following the destruction of these government documents in Washington. They turned to Jefferson as their last resort, hoping that he might have in his possession a complete series of State Papers that they could utilize to complete their publication. This request only served to underline Congress's dire need for a reference library in order to be able to function effectively - a need that perhaps was the impetus behind Jefferson's decision.

He wrote to his longtime friend and federal Commissioner of the Revenue, Samuel Harrison Smith, with his offer. In his letter to Smith dated 21 September 1814, Jefferson wrote,

"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 . . . I presume it will be among the early objects of Congress to recommence their collection. this will be difficult while the war continues, and intercourse with Europe is attended with so much risk. you know my collection, it's condition and extent. I have been 50. years making it, & have spared no pains, opportunity or expence to make it what it is."[1]

Along with this letter to Smith which Jefferson wished to be forwarded to the Joint Library Committee of Congress, he enclosed his "fair copy of the Catalogue of my library" which he had made in 1812[2]. He also created an Alphabetical Index of Author's Names which he sent to Smith later on 11 October to attach to the end of the catalogue[3]. At the time of the offer, Jefferson estimated his library to number between 9,000 to 10,000 volumes, though the actual number was later established to be closer to 6,500 volumes. Jefferson engaged Georgetown bookseller and bookbinder Joseph Milligan to carry out a page by page count of his manuscript catalogue to determine the number of volumes Jefferson had by format (or size) and arrive at an independent valuation of his collection for the Library Committee. Based on a formula of ten dollars for a folio, six dollars for a quarto, three dollars for an octavo, and one dollar for a duodecimo, Milligan submitted a final count of 6,487 volumes valued at $23,950.

Despite partisan wrangling and vocal Federalist opposition in the House of Representatives, Congress finally approved the purchase of Jefferson's library. On 30 January 1815, President James Madison signed into law, An Act to Authorize the Purchase of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, late President of the United States. Over a month later, A Bill to Provide a Library Room, and for Transporting the Library Lately Purchased from Thomas Jefferson Esquire, to the City of Washington, was signed into law on 3 March.

With the sale firmly concluded, the almost 72-year old Jefferson took steps to prepare his library for delivery to Washington. He wrote to friends to collect the books he had loaned them, and began a thorough review of the books on his shelves. In a letter to Smith on 27 February 1815, he wrote,

"I will set about revising and arranging the books. this can be done only by myself, and admits of no help. in doing it I must be constantly on my legs, and I must ask indulgence therefore to proceed only as my strength will admit. I count on it's taking me many days, perhaps a fortnight. as soon as all are in their places, and numbered, I will give you notice. I am now calling in all which have been lent out as far as noted, but there will doubtless be many irrecoverably lost. as these must be struck off the catalogue, and deductions accordingly be made from the amount of compensation . . ."[4]

Between mid March and mid April 1815, Jefferson worked meticulously to review and arrange his library. He created a detailed inventory collating the books on his shelves at Monticello according to their format and the chapter or subject classification they belonged to in his catalogue, along with a list of missing books and another list of added titles that he had inadvertantly omitted from his catalogue (see image 1 and image 2 of this tally sheet from the Library of Congress[5]).

He was relieved to find that the net volume count he ended up with was still larger than the number Congress had agreed to pay for. In his letter dated 18 April 1815 to Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander J. Dallas, Jefferson wrote,

"Not having revised the library for many years, I expected that books would be missing without being able to conjecture how many, and that in that case a deduction should be made for the deficient volumes. I have gone through a rigorous review of them, and find indeed some missing, which were on the Catalogue, on which the estimate and purchase were made; but that considerably more both in number and value had been omitted by oversight in copying that catalogue from that original one which was done two years ago. I have not thought it right to withdraw these from the library, so that the whole delivered exceeds on the principles of the estimate, the sum appropriated, and of course there is no ground for any deduction. the books being now all ready for delivery, . . I may with propriety now recieve the payment."[6]

After arranging his books in catalogue order according to size on the pine shelves they were originally standing in, Jefferson proceeded to have catalogue numbers pasted on individual volumes. The book cases had backs and shelves, without fronts, and Jefferson had his own workmen make additional boxes and boards to cover all the cases. Milligan was engaged to help with the packing and numbering, and to verify the books against the catalogue as the book cases were nailed up.

On 26 April 1815, newly appointed Librarian of Congress, George Watterston, wrote to Jefferson to ask advice regarding the arrangement of the books that he was to receive from Jefferson. In his reply to Watterston on 7 May 1815, Jefferson wrote,

"You will recieve my library arranged very perfectly in the order observed in the Catalogue, which I have sent with it. in placing the books on their shelves, I have generally but, not always, collocated distinctly the folios, 4tos 8vos & 12mos placing with the last all smaller sizes. on every book is a label, indicating the chapter of the catalogue to which it belongs, and the order it holds among those of the same format. so that, altho' the Nos seem confused on the catalogue, they are consecutive on the volumes as they stand on their shelves & indicate at once the place they occupy there. Mr Millegan, in packing them has preserved their arrangement so exactly, in their respective presses, that on setting the presses up on end, he will be able readily to replace them in the order corresponding to the catalogue, and thus save you the immense labor which their re-arrangement would otherwise require."[7]

Between 2 May and 8 May, Jefferson watched as his books were loaded on ten wagons bound for the nation's capital. They arrived in Washington between 8 May and 14 May, and were set up on the third floor of Blodget's Hotel at 7th and E Streets, which served as the temporary Capitol for members of Congress. Between 3 July and 24 July, Milligan unpacked the library and set the book boxes up in the order stipulated by Jefferson in his catalogue. He reported back to Jefferson in a letter dated 31 July 1815,

"I am happy to inform you that the library has not received the Slightest injury by transportation. The Room which has been appropriated for it is sufficeently [sic] large."[8]

From Jefferson's manuscript catalogue, Watterston produced a printed catalogue. This catalogue entitled, Catalogue of the Library of the United States. To which is Annexed a Copious Index, Alphabetically Arranged[9], turned out to be a disaster in Jefferson's eyes. Watterston retained Jefferson's subject classification and chapters, but alphabetized the title entries within each chapter, thereby upsetting Jefferson's carefully ordered entries. When Jefferson eventually received copies of Watterston's print catalogue in late January 1816, he complained to Joseph C. Cabell about the changes Watterston had made in his letter dated 2 February 1816,

"The form of the catalogue has been much injured in the publication: for altho they have preserved my division into chapters, they have reduced the books in each chapter to Alphabetical order, instead of the Chronological or Analytical arrangements I had given them."[10]

An entire month passed before Jefferson wrote to Watterston to acknowledge his receipt of the catalogues. He gave no hint of his displeasure, except to remark in passing, "you ask how I like the arrangement within the chapters? of course, you know, not so well as my own; yet I think it possible the alphabetical arrangement may be more convenient to readers generally, than mine ..."[11]

In December 1818, the Library of Congress was moved from Blodget's Hotel back to the north wing of the restored Capitol building. On Christmas Eve 1851, fire broke out in the Capitol and destroyed much of the Library of Congress's 55,000-volume collection, and two-thirds of Jefferson's books were lost. Today, Jefferson's library has been recreated in a permanent exhibit[12] in the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress, consisting of the over 2,400 surviving original volumes, along with replacement copies.

Summary Timeline

August 24, 1814 – British destroy the United States Capitol and the congressional library

Circa August 28, 1814 – Thomas Jefferson receives news of the destruction

September 15, 1814 – Jefferson receives letter from Thomas B. Wait and Sons

September 21, 1814 – Jefferson writes to Samuel Harrison Smith to offer to sell his library to Congress

January 30, 1815 – President James Madison signs into law Act to purchase Jefferson's library

February 3, 1815 – Jefferson receives official notice of the approval of the sale

March 18 to April 18, 1815 – Jefferson reviews and arranges his library in catalogue order

Circa April 22 to 30, 1815 – Joseph Milligan and others pack up and number the books, and Milligan verifies them against the catalogue as the book boxes are nailed up

May 2 to 8, 1815 – Ten wagonloads of books in book boxes leave Monticello for Washington, D.C.

May 8 to 14, 1815 – Books arrive in Washington, D.C. and are set up on the third floor of Blodget's Hotel which served as the temporary Capitol for Congress

July 3 to 24, 1815 – Milligan unpacks book boxes and sets them up in the order stipulated by Jefferson in his manuscript catalogue

End January 1816 – Jefferson receives print catalogue from Librarian of Congress, George Watterston

December 1818 – Library of Congress moves back to the restored Capitol building

December 24, 1851 - A Christmas Eve fire in the Capitol building destroys two-thirds of Jefferson's books


Jefferson physically arranged his books differently from how they were arranged in his manuscript catalogue. Books were arranged in pine cases, stacked one on top of another, generally in three tiers, totaling about 9 feet high. Small octavos, duodecimos and smaller formats were arranged together on the upper shelves. Below them were the mid-sized octavos, followed by quartos. The large folio volumes were stored on the bottom shelves. Extra-large volumes like great folios were kept separately.

The book listing in his manuscript catalogue, on the other hand, was arranged by subject, based upon a classification scheme he derived from Francis Bacon's Of the Advancement and Proficience of Learning; or, the Partitions of Sciences[13], which was expanded by Jean Lerond d'Alembert in the first volume of the Encyclopédie[14]. Jefferson divided human knowledge into three major groups - history, philosophy, and fine arts, in accordance with Bacon's "faculties of the human mind," namely memory, reason and imagination. These were in turn subdivided into forty-four chapters or subject areas in his 1812 catalogue. Following the sale, Jefferson's classification scheme remained largely in use at the Library of Congress for more than eighty years before it was replaced by a new system developed by Herbert Putnam in 1897. As Jefferson's 1812 Catalogue is lost, the Trist Catalogue is the closest surrogate we have to the 1812 Catalogue and the books he sold to Congress.


1815 Library of Congress printed catalog

Trist Catalogue (1823)

Sowerby Catalogue (1952-1959):
Digitized volumes from Library of Congress


1. Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, 21 September 1814, Recipient copy, Butler-Gunsaulus Collection, University of Chicago, Illinois. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 7:681-4. Transcription from Founders Online.

2. Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 10 July 1812. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 5:223-4. Transcription from Founders Online.

3. Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, 11 October 1814, Recipient copy, Charles M. Storey, Boston, 1958. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 8:22. Transcription from Founders Online.

4. Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, 27 February 1815, Recipient copy, J. Henley Smith Papers, Library of Congress. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 8:288-9. Transcription from Founders Online.

5. Notes on Thomas Jefferson's Library at the Time of Sale, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Scan from Library of Congress.

6. Thomas Jefferson to Alexander J. Dallas, 18 April 1815. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 8:426-7. Transcription from Founders Online.

7. Thomas Jefferson to George Watterston, 7 May 1815. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 8:473-5. Transcription from Founders Online.

8. Joseph Milligan to Thomas Jefferson, 31 July 1815, Recipient copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 8:826. Transcription from Founders Online.

9. Catalogue of the Library of the United States. To which is Annexed a Copious Index, Alphabetically Arranged. Washington [D.C.]: Printed by Jonathan Elliot, 1815.

10. Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 2 February 1816, Recipient copy, Thomas Jefferson Papers, University of Virginia. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 9:435-9. Transcription from Founders Online.

11. Thomas Jefferson to George Watterston, 2 March 1816, Recipient copy, Watterston Papers, Library of Congress. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS, 9:531-2. Transcription from Founders Online.

12. Thomas Jefferson's Library. Exhibition website from Library of Congress.

13. Of the Advancement and Proficiencie of Learning: or, the Partitions of Sciences. London: Printed for Thomas Williams ..., 1674.

14. Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts des Métiers. Lausanne et Berne: Chez les Sociétés Typographique, 1781.