Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
On the evening of August 24, 1814, during the second year of the War of 1812, British forces under orders from Rear Admiral George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross set fire to the unfinished United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. The British also torched other public buildings in the capital city in retaliation for what they perceived as excessive destruction by American forces the year before in York, capital of upper Canada.
The congressional library, then housed in the Capitol’s north wing, was destroyed. To “replace the devastations of British Vandalism,” former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his personal collection of books, the largest and most comprehensive in the United States at that time. With some reservations, Congress purchased his library for $23,950 in 1815.
The acquisition of Jefferson’s 6,487-volume library was the foundation of the modern Library of Congress. The Jeffersonian concept of a universal library covering all subjects is the basis of the Library’s comprehensive collecting policies. Jefferson’s belief that democracy depended on free access to knowledge eventually ensured the availability of the Library’s rich collections not only to Congress, but also to this nation and the world.
The U.S. Capitol and Its Library Are Burned
In 1812, the United States went to war with Great Britain. On August 24, 1814, British troops took control of the capital city and proceeded to burn the President’s House (White House) and the U.S. Capitol, which then housed the congressional library (Library of Congress) in its north wing. At the time of the British invasion, the Capitol comprised two wings connected by a wooden causeway. The British used rockets and gunpowder paste to set the Capitol ablaze. The books and the wooden floor and furniture went up in flames, and the library was lost.
Burning the City of Washington
At about 8:00 p.m. on the evening of August 24, 1814, British troops under the command of General Robert Ross marched into Washington, D.C., after routing hastily assembled American forces at Bladensburg, Maryland, earlier that day. Encountering neither resistance nor any United States government officials—President Madison and his cabinet had fled to safety—the British quickly torched the President’s House, the Treasury Building, and the Capitol, which then housed the congressional library. Directing their force at symbols of American government, they left most private property untouched.
Madison Records the Events of the Day
In these notes, written as the dramatic events of August 24, 1814, unfolded, President James Madison describes the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland, where American militia forces fled before British troops; the burning of the Capitol and the President’s House; his conversations with cabinet members: Secretary of State James Monroe, Secretary of War John Armstrong, and Navy Secretary William Jones; and their flight from the city.
Conflagration at the Navy Yard
After witnessing the British set fire to the Capitol building on August 24, 1814, Captain Thomas Tingey, director of the Washington Navy Yard, under the command of Navy Secretary William Jones, ordered the yard and several war ships burned to prevent capture by the British. Within weeks Tingey had the scorched yard operating again. William Thornton, who made this drawing, was the Superintendent of Patents. As the Capitol burned, Thornton successfully convinced the British to spare the Patent Office.
The Transfer of Jefferson’s Library
In 1815 Congress approved the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s 6,487-volume library to replace the one lost in the fire. After the packing and shipping of his library had been completed, on May 8, 1815, Jefferson commented to Samuel Harrison Smith, founder of the National Intelligencer:
Our tenth and last waggon load of books goes off today. . . . and an interesting treasure is added to your city . . . unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the U S and I hope it will not be without some general effect on the literature of the country.
Jefferson Counts and Measures His Library
Thomas Jefferson compiled this detailed list of the books in his library after agreeing to sell his collection to Congress. He noted books missing from his library, as well as those added after his catalog had been completed. Jefferson paid particular attention to the size of the books because that was the basis of calculating the purchase price.
A Souvenir that Survived the Flames
This ledger was the only book to survive the 1814 burning of the congressional library because British Rear Admiral George Cockburn took it as a souvenir, which he inscribed and later gave to his brother. Book dealer A. S. W. Rosenbach purchased the volume and returned it to the Library of Congress on January 6, 1940. The inscription on the inside cover reads:
“Taken in President’s room in the Capitol, at the destruction of that building by the British, on the Capture of Washington 24th August 1814 by Admiral Cockburn.”
A Recent Discovery
Although many of the books in the re-creation of Jefferson’s library have been culled from various collections throughout the Library of Congress and through acquisition of the same editions held by Jefferson, those books that don green ribbons were part of the 1815 purchase. This book recently rediscovered in the Law Library of Congress is now recognized as part of the original purchase. The page on the right carries Jefferson’s typical mark of ownership—at the book’s signature “I”, Jefferson added a “T” to create his initials. In the Roman alphabet the letter “I” and “J” are identical.
“I Cannot Live Without Books”
In the midst of the American Revolution and while he was United States minister to France in the 1780s, Jefferson acquired thousands of books for his library at Monticello. By 1814, he had assembled the largest and most comprehensive personal collection of books in the United States. Throughout his life, books were vital to Thomas Jefferson’s education and well-being. Jefferson’s books provided him with a broad knowledge of contemporary and ancient worlds. On June 10, 1815, he wrote to friend and former president John Adams, “I cannot live without books.”