Jefferson's Legacy: A National Library

Jefferson's Legacy: A National Library
Martha Jefferson: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Three class periods


An important  effort undertaken by the founding generation of Americans was the development of major cultural institutions; one of these was (and is) the Library of Congress, which was established by Congress in 1800 as a reference library for Congress only.  The first appropriations for the purchase of books were approved by President John Adams, and the first law defining the role and functions of the new Library were approved by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802, who also gave nearly his entire personal library to the Library of Congress after it was burned by the British in 1814.


After participating in this activity, students will know more about the Library of Congress, something more about the War of 1812, and be introduced to the official Annals of the Congress of the United States.  They will also gain research and interpretation skills in the use of primary documents.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.  Library books or other materials on the Library of Congress.


1.  Students should read the first part of “A Brief History of the Library of Congress” to the point where the document begins to discuss the Library’s woes in the 1850s (16 paragraphs). 
2.  Next, students should read the materials (access listed below) from the Annals of Congress, in which the rules of the new Library of Congress is discussed, as well as the motion to purchase Jefferson’s personal library for the Library of Congress.
3.  Students should write a short paper describing the discussion in the House of Representatives regarding the creation of a national library:
  • What was its purpose?
  • How was it to be funded?
  • Where there any objections to it? 
  • Why do you think that members of Congress (and other members of the government) might be interested in being able to borrow books from such a library?
4.  After his two terms in the Presidency, Thomas Jefferson “retired” to Monticello, where his later years were beset by financial problems.  In part because of these difficulties, and in part because believed it was the duty of citizens to take care to preserve the past, he offered to sell his extensive personal library to the Library of Congress, which had lost much of its collection when the British burned Washington in 1814. 
Students should read accounts of the burning of Washington, DC, including the Library (see access to web site, below).
In September of that year, he wrote the following letter to James Madison, then President, asking for his willingness to assert the value of Jefferson’s library should anyone in the Congress ask:
Learning by the papers the loss of the library of Congress, I have sent my catalogue to S. H. Smith, to make to their library committee the offer of my collection, now of about 9. or 10,000 vols. Which may be delivered to them instantly, on a valuation by persons of their own naming, and be paid for in any way, and at any term they please, in stock, for example, of any loan they have, unissued, or of any one they may institute at this session; or in such annual installments as are at the disposal of the committee.  You are acquainted with the condition of the books, should they wish to be ascertained of this.  I have long been sensible that my library would be an interesting possession for the public, and the loss Congress has recently sustained, and the difficulty of replacing it, while our intercourse with Europe is so obstructed, renders this the proper moment for placing it in their service.  Accept assurances of my constant and affectionate friendship and respect.
                                                            Thomas Jefferson
In September of 1814, the House of Representatives considered the matter (see access to Annals of Congress, October, 1814, below).  In January of 1815, Congress finally approved the sale and in February, S. H. Smith wrote to Jefferson with the terms of the sale (see access to Timeline of Jefferson’s Catalog of Books, below).
5.  Using all these materials, students should write a series of  newspaper accounts of the sale of Jefferson’s library to the Library of Congress, including, as background, the history of the Library itself, the burning of the Library of Congress, and the terms of the sale itself. 

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson could be extended by further research on the history of the Library of Congress after 1850; or by taking a virtual tour of the Library of Congress; or by extending research in the American Memory Collection of the Library of Congress on Thomas Jefferson.

Sources & Resources:


       Timeline of Jefferson’s Catalog of Books    

       A Brief History of the Library of Congress

       Annals of Congress, December, 1801

            Number 171

            Number 172           

            Number 173

      Annals of Congress, October, 1814

            Number 189           

            Number 196           

            Number 197

            Number 202           

            Number 203

     Annals of Congress, January, 1815

            Number 550


This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.