Happy Birthday, Library of Congress

As the daughter of a librarian, I had to write a post in tribute. This post is for my dad.

On this day, in 1800, President John Adams approved legislation that appropriated $5,900 to purchase the books that would create the Library of Congress. The bill also approved the moving of the capitol from Philadelphia to Washington, and to create a “reference library” with “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress — and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein …”

The Library of Congress, 1902.

Books were acquired from all over the world for this reference library. When Thomas Jefferson became President, he created the position of “librarian of Congress.” Jefferson took a huge interest in the Library (no surprise: the guy went into massive lifelong debt because of his book-buying addiction, actually more like a compulsion. I relate.). His own personal library at Monticello was known as the greatest in the country.

During the War of 1812 – which actually should be called the War of 1812-1815, the British invaded Washington and burned the joint to the ground, and it was such a surprise attack coming with no warning that First Lady Dolly Madison had to literally flee the White House at the very last minute, the flames licking at her heels – but picture her having the presence of mind in such a situation to cut the famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart out of its frame, taking it with her, saving it from destruction. Thank you, Dolly.

(Side note: I grew up a 10-minute drive away from Gilbert Stuart’s birthplace. If you’re ever in the area, it’s a well worth while museum, set in a beautiful spot.)

In 1814, the British burned the 3,000 volumes that then made up the Library of Congress. It’s really devastating to think of that loss … one thinks of the Library of Alexandria. Only one book survived, and that’s because a British officer pocketed it as a souvenir of his totally awesome act of arson. The book – an account book of government spending at the time – sat in this dude’s house for over a century until his family returned it to the United States, right before WWII started. I love history.

Back to the War of 1812-15: Jefferson was no longer President at the time: he was living in retirement at Monticello. Jefferson offered to sell Congress his private library (almost 6,500 books) as a starting point to building up the Library of Congress collection again. The original Library of Congress had a narrow focus: law, economics, and history. With the new books from Jefferson, the national collection gained breadth and depth: architecture, botany, geography, classical literature, science. To show that nothing ever really changes, there were some objections to Jefferson’s collection which was not quite as Christian as the Christians would have liked. Oh, Christians, never change with your anti-science ignorance and your busybody desire for the rest of us to love ignorance as much as you do. Christians who might be offended by my words? Too bad. Here’s a suggestion: Call out your fellow Christians on that bullshit, publicly. And don’t blame ME for talking about what actually happened.

The objections overruled, Jefferson’s collection sat in a reading room in Congress for most of the 19th century, until 1871 when plans were approved to build a separate building for the Library of Congress. The project was approved by Congress in 1886, and construction began. At the time, it was the largest (and costliest) library building in the world.

Construction of the Thomas Jefferson Building from July 8, 1888 to May 15, 1894 – from Wikipedia

All of this makes me think of three things:

Every year, my middle-school-teacher sister Jean does a big “monument project” with her students, and I love to hear her talk about it.

Recently, as in April 3rd, as in post-sheltering-in-place, Manohla Dargis wrote a wonderful piece for The New York Times about all of the film treasures held at the Library of Congress, with an accompanying list of all of the streaming options – the FREE streaming options – the Library of Congress has made available. If John Adams only knew what he had wrought. It would blow his mind.

And finally, this story makes me think of one of my favorite letters Thomas Jefferson wrote. In 1771, a friend, Robert Skip, asked Jefferson to write up a catalog of books that every “gentleman” should have in his library. Methinks Mr. Skip may have gotten more than he bargained for in Jefferson’s reply, but thankfully we still have the letter, printed in full below. (One ELOQUENT observation: please note the category under which Jefferson placed the Bible.)

Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skip with a List of Books, Aug. 3, 1771

I sat down with a design of executing your request to form a catalogue of books to the amount of about 50 lib. sterl. But could by no means satisfy myself with any partial choice I could make. Thinking therefore it might be as agreeable to you I have framed such a general collection as I think you would wish and might in time find convenient to procure. Out of this you will chuse for yourself to the amount you mentioned for the present year and may hereafter as shall be convenient proceed in completing the whole. A view of the second column in this catalogue would I suppose extort a smile from the face of gravity. Peace to its wisdom! Let me not awaken it. A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written every person feels who reads. But wherein is its utility asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored?

I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with it’s deformity, and conceive an abhorence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously. We never reflect whether the story we read be truth or fiction. If the painting be lively, and a tolerable picture of nature, we are thrown into a reverie, from which if we awaken it is the fault of the writer. I appeal to every reader of feeling and sentiment whether the fictitious murther of Duncan by Macbeth in Shakespeare does not excite in him as great a horror of villany, as the real one of Henry IV. by Ravaillac as related by Davila? And whether the fidelity of Nelson and generosity of Blandford in Marmontel do not dilate his breast and elevate his sentiments as much as any similar incident which real history can furnish? Does he not in fact feel himself a better man while reading them, and privately covenant to copy the fair example? We neither know nor care whether Lawrence Sterne really went to France, whether he was there accosted by the Franciscan, at first rebuked him unkindly, and then gave him a peace offering: or whether the whole be not fiction. In either case we equally are sorrowful at the rebuke, and secretly resolve we will never do so: we are pleased with the subsequent atonement, and view with emulation a soul candidly acknowleging it’s fault and making a just reparation. Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of those recorded by historians few incidents have been attended with such circumstances as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue. We are therefore wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that ever were written. This is my idea of well written Romance, of Tragedy, Comedy and Epic poetry. — If you are fond of speculation the books under the head of Criticism will afford you much pleasure. Of Politics and Trade I have given you a few only of the best books, as you would probably chuse to be not unacquainted with those commercial principles which bring wealth into our country, and the constitutional security we have for the enjoiment ofthat wealth. In Law I mention a few systematical books, as a knowledge of the minutiae of that science is not neces-sary for a private gentleman. In Religion, History, Natural philosophy, I have followed the same plan in general, — But whence the necessity of this collection? Come to the new Rowanty, from which you may reach your hand to a library formed on a more extensive plan. Separated from each other but a few paces the possessions of each would be open to the other. A spring centrically situated might be the scene of every evening’s joy. There we should talk over the lessons of the day, or lose them in music, chess or the merriments of our family companions. The heart thus lightened our pillows would be soft, and health and long life would attend the happy scene. Come then and bring our dear Tibby with you, the first in your affections, and second in mine. Offer prayers for me too at that shrine to which tho’ absent I pray continual devotions. In every scheme of happiness she is placed in the foreground of the picture, as the princi-pal figure. Take that away, and it is no picture for me. Bear my affections to Wintipock clothed in the warmest expressions of sincerity; and to yourself be every human felicity.



Observations on gardening. Payne. 5/
Webb’s essay on painting. 12mo 3/
Pope’s Iliad. 18/
——- Odyssey. 15/
Dryden’s Virgil. 12mo. 12/
Milton’s works. 2 v. 8vo. Donaldson. Edinburgh 1762. 10/
Hoole’s Tasso. 12mo. 5/
Ossian with Blair’s criticisms. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Telemachus by Dodsley. 6/
Capell’s Shakespear. 12mo. 30/
Dryden’s plays. 6v. 12mo. 18/
Addison’s plays. 12mo. 3/
Otway’s plays. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Rowe’s works. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Thompson’s works. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Young’s works. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Home’s plays. 12mo. 3/
Mallet’s works. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Mason’s poetical works. 5/
Terence. Eng. 3/
Moliere. Eng. 15/
Farquhar’s plays. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Vanbrugh’s plays. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Steele’s plays. 3/
Congreve’s works. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Garric’s dramatic works. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Foote’s dramatic works. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Rousseau’s Eloisa. Eng. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
—– Emilius and Sophia. Eng. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Marmontel’s moral tales. Eng. 2 v. 12mo. 12/
Gil Blas. by Smollett. 6/
Don Quixot. by Smollett 4 v. 12mo. 12/
David Simple. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Roderic Random. 2 v. 12mo. 6/ these are written by Smollett
Peregrine Pickle. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Launcelot Graves. 6/
Adventures of a guinea. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Pamela. 4 v. 12mo. 12/ these are by Richardson.
Clarissa. 8 v. 12mo. 24/
Grandison. 7 v. 12mo. 9/
Fool of quality. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Feilding’s works. 12 v. 12mo. pound 1.16
Constantia. 2 v. 12mo. 6/ by Langhorne.
Solyman and Almena. 12mo. 3/
Belle assemblee. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Vicar of Wakefeild. 2 v. 12mo. 6/. by Dr. Goldsmith
Sidney Bidulph. 5 v. 12mo. 15/
Lady Julia Mandeville. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Almoran and Hamet. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Tristam Shandy. 9 v. 12mo. pound 1.7
Sentimental journey. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Fragments of antient poetry. Edinburgh. 2/
Percy’s Runic poems. 3/
Percy’s reliques of antient English poetry. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Percy’s Han Kiou Chouan. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Percy’s Miscellaneous Chinese peices. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Chaucer. 10/
Spencer. 6 v. 12mo. 15/
Waller’s poems. 12mo. 3/
Dodsley’s collection of poems. 6 v. 12mo. 18/
Pearch’s collection of poems. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Gray’s works. 5/
Ogilvie’s poems. 5/
Prior’s poems. 2 v. 12mo. Foulis. 6/
Gay’s works. 12mo. Foulis. 3/
Shenstone’s works. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Dryden’s works. 4 v. 12mo. Foulis. 12/
Pope’s works. by Warburton. 12mo. pound 1.4
Churchill’s poems. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Hudibrass. 3/
Swift’s works. 21 v. small 8vo. pound 3.3
Swift’s literary correspondence. 3 v. 9/
Spectator. 9 v. 12mo. pound 1.7
Tatler. 5 v. 12mo. 15/
Guardian. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Freeholder. 12mo. 3/
Ld. Lyttleton’s Persian letters. 12mo. 3/


Ld. Kaim’s elements of criticism. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Burke on the sublime and beautiful. 8vo. 5/
Hogarth’s analysis of beauty. 4to. pound 1.1
Reid on the human mind. 8vo. 5/
Smith’s theory of moral sentiments. 8vo. 5/
Johnson’s dictionary. 2 v. fol. pound 3
Capell’s prolusions. 12mo. 3/


Montesquieu’s spirit of the laws. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Locke on government. 8vo. 5/
Sidney on government. 4to. 15/
Marmontel’s Belisarius. 12mo. Eng. 3/
Ld. Bolingbroke’s political works. 5 v. 8vo. pound 1.5
Montesquieu’s rise & fall of the Roman governmt. 12mo. 3/
Steuart’s Political oeconomy. 2 v. 4to. pound 1.10
Petty’s Political arithmetic. 8vo. 5/


Locke’s conduct of the mind in search of truth. 12mo. 3/
Xenophon’s memoirs of Socrates. by Feilding. 8vo. 5/
Epictetus. by Mrs. Carter. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Antoninus by Collins. 3/
Seneca. by L’Estrange. 8vo. 5/
Cicero’s Offices. by Guthrie. 8vo. 5/
Cicero’s Tusculan questions. Eng. 3/
Ld. Bolingbroke’s Philosophical works. 5 v. 8vo. pound 1.5
Hume’s essays. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Ld. Kaim’s Natural religion. 8vo. 6/
Philosophical survey of Nature. 3/
Oeconomy of human life. 2/
Sterne’s sermons. 7 v. 12mo. pound 1.1
Sherlock on death. 8vo. 5/
Sherlock on a future state. 5/


Ld. Kaim’s Principles of equity. fol. pound 1.1
Blackstone’s Commentaries. 4 v. 4to. pound 4.4
Cuningham’s Law dictionary. 2 v. fol. pound 3


Bible. 6/
Rollin’s Antient history. Eng. 13 v. 12mo. pound 1.19
Stanyan’s Graecian history. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Livy. (the late translation). 12/
Sallust by Gordon. 12mo. 12/
Tacitus by Gordon. 12mo. 15/
Caesar by Bladen. 8vo. 5/
Josephus. Eng. 1.0
Vertot’s Revolutions of Rome. Eng. 9/
Plutarch’s lives. by Langhorne. 6 v. 8vo. pound 1.10
Bayle’s Dictionary. 5 v. fol. pound 7.10.
Jeffery’s Historical & Chronological chart. 15/


Robertson’s History of Charles the Vth. 3 v. 4to. pound 3.3
Bossuet’s history of France. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Davila. by Farneworth. 2 v. 4to. pound 1.10.
Hume’s history of England. 8 v. 8vo. pound 2.8.
Clarendon’s history of the rebellion. 6 v. 8vo. pound 1.10.
Robertson’s history of Scotland. 2 v. 8vo. 12/
Keith’s history of Virginia. 4to. 12/
Stith’s history of Virginia. 6/


Nature displayed. Eng. 7 v. 12mo.
Franklin on Electricity. 4to. 10/
Macqueer’s elements of Chemistry. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Home’s principles of agriculture. 8vo. 5/
Tull’s horse-hoeing husbandry. 8vo. 5/
Duhamel’s husbandry. 4to. 15/
Millar’s Gardener’s diet. fol. pound 2.10.
Buffon’s natural history. Eng. pound 2.10.
A compendium of Physic & Surgery. Nourse. 12mo. 1765. 3/
Addison’s travels. 12mo. 3/
Anson’s voiage. 8vo. 6/
Thompson’s travels. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Lady M. W. Montague’s letters. 3 v. 12mo. 9/


Ld. Lyttleton’s dialogues of the dead. 8vo. 5/
Fenelon’s dialogues of the dead. Eng. 12mo. 3/
Voltaire’s works. Eng. pound 4.
Locke on Education. 12mo. 3/
Owen’s Dict. of arts & sciences 4 v. 8vo. pound 2.

It’s not too far a leap from there … to here.

Looks like quite a “suitable apartment,” doesn’t it.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

This entry was posted in Books, Founding Fathers, On This Day and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Happy Birthday, Library of Congress

  1. Clary says:

    How wonderful, I didn’t know the story of the Library of Congress. As a librarian myself, and also a compulsive book buyer, I can understand the love Jefferson felt for his collection.
    Those 2 books on Dialogues of the dead, classified as Miscellaneous, should interest me.
    Your sister is something! I’ve never heard of someone writing a song called The Books, I absolutely love it!!!

  2. Desirae says:

    Have you ever been there, Sheila? Seems like a worthy pilgrimage.

  3. Clary says:

    Hi Sheila
    I’m sure you’ll find this interesting, it’s a short 1956 documentary on the Biblioteque Nationale de France. A noir film, where the workers are sinister, efficient, almost merciless, and even in the end, explaining what readers find there, happiness, the word bonheur is chilling. Music by Maurice Jarre, a real work of art.
    Thank you for bringing this birthdays to my world, they open so many other worlds.

  4. Kate Poulter says:

    It’s wonderful to be the daughter of a librarian.


  5. Yes! The biggest thrill for a published writer, this one anyway, is realizing that your books are in the L of C. Our very own Library of Alexandria.

    Also, you grew up close to the Gilbert Stuart house? We went there when I was a kid! All I remember was looking at the painting and being told that George Washington’s eyes “follow you around the room.” They didn’t follow me, which was kind of disappointing. Beautiful place. Didn’t it have a mill of some kind, with a big wheel? Sticks in the mind.

  6. Jim Reding says:

    One of my uncles has worked there most of his adult life. He lives alone, so my mom, brother, and I have been periodically checking up on him. We had him on speakerphone last week, and he said the Covid-19 pandemic has kept him away from the library longer than he has been in all the years he’s been there and how strange that felt.

  7. Bill Wolfe says:

    As the son of a librarian, and the brother of another, I’m a big fan of libraries. I loved learning the history in this post. And I also love the category to which Jefferson assigned the Bible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.