The War and the Library

This past Saturday, the Library of Congress blog noted a milestone in the history of its collection: “Two hundred years ago today, President James Madison set pen to paper to write a message to Congress.  His intent was to talk them into making the nation’s first formal declaration of war – on Great Britain, which was squashing U.S. exports as a side effect of a British naval blockade against Napoleon’s France.” 

The War of 1812 ensued, and when British troops attacked D.C. and destroyed the Capitol building, the government’s reference library perished.  Thomas Jefferson offered Congress his own personal library as a replacement.  It was not a donation, and the sale of 6,700 books fetched TJ what in 2012 amounts to $250,000.  “There is, in fact,” claimed Jefferson, “no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”  Today the Library of Congress holds 151.8 million items on 838 miles of shelves, more than 34.5 million books and printed materials, 3.3 million recordings, 13.4 million photographs, 5.4 million maps, 66.6 million manuscripts and 31.4 million digital files.

This would be the second instance where James Madison acted as an originator of the Library of Congress.  Back in 1783, the yeoman polity-mystic submitted a list of books for a premier Congressional library.  307 titles were organized by Madison into 13 categories, which included “Collection of best maps,” and all treaties made with “the natives of N. America.” Madison liked science works from Europe and writers critical of monarchy and religion, and his largest category was “Americas,” with 231 entries, the bulk of which were travel narratives.  Making his selections before George Washington had been sworn in as first President and the capital moved from New York to D.C., Madison chose subjects that might promote a national consciousness, and envisioned a bibliography to serve the ideas of the beginnings of the United States.
James Madison.
Congress failed to pursue Madison’s 1783 list, citing “the inconveniency of advancing even a few hundred pounds at this crisis.”  The matter was tabled until 1800, when Congress purchased 728 volumes from a London bookseller for $2,220.  Madison was no longer involved in the decision and the 1800 list differed from Madison’s bygone suggestions, with less emphasis on the Americas and works of radical thought, and absent of books on war and languages.  This collection served the country until Gen. Robert Ross sacked the capital and stook the Union Jack over the Potomac River, and soldiers stormed the White House to find the abandoned Presidential dining room laid out for a dinner party.
Just in time for the bicentennial, a new trove of documents on the War of 1812 was recently discovered in upstate New York.  Also, an academic blog plans to live-tweet the events of the conflict as they happened 200 years back. Future Use looks forward to its future use.

Glynn, T., & Hagensick, C. C. (2002). Books for the use of the United States in Congress assembled, 1783 and 1800. Libraries & Culture, 37(2), 109-22.

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