Jefferson’s Literary Gift

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During his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson had one of the finest libraries in America, and he intended that his collection should benefit the nation. All through his years of public service including positions as the US Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President, he used every opportunity to add to his collection of documents about America and its past, as well as volumes in many languages about philosophy and history, science and technology, agriculture and horticulture, architecture and painting, and poetry and rhetoric. He shared the vision of the nation’s Founders that liberty and learning are inseparable and that a free democratic people must have free access to information in order to carry out their civic responsibilities.

After the War of 1812, during which the British burned the US Capitol and with it all the volumes of the Library of Congress, Jefferson offered his own collection to Congress, which they purchased in 1815 at a price of $23,950 ($363,360 today) for nearly 6,500 books, almost twice the number lost in the fire. Thus, the Library of Congress has grown from the seed of Jefferson’s own library, universal in subject matter and format, into a library that serves as Congress’s working research collection, as the nation’s library, and as a symbol of the central role that free access to information plays in our knowledge-based democracy.

Today, you can visit the Jefferson Building Treasures Gallery in Washington, DC, where the American Treasures exhibition presents more than 250 items arranged in the manner of Thomas Jefferson’s own library that include the following subjects: Memory  (History); Reason (Philosophy, including Law, Science and Geography); and Imagination (Fine Arts, including Architecture, Music, Literature and Sports).