When the British burned down the Capitol — and much of the city of Washington — during the War of 1812, one of the casualties was the burgeoning Library of Congress, then 3,000 volumes large after being established in 1800.
Thomas Jefferson, in retirement at Monticello, offered his own library as a replacement. It was more than double the size of the previous collection; the former president boasted the largest, private literary stockpile of his time.
But another fire would claim almost two-thirds of the Jefferson collection nearly four decades later. The second disaster prompted the building of today’s Library of Congress. Today, the remaining Jefferson collection from 1815 is still housed there, and many of the lost books have been replaced with hard-to-find copies.
What books did young Jefferson bring to Philadelphia during the writing of the Declaration of Independence? Those texts can shed light on that landmark moment. Mark Dimunation, chief of rare books at the Library of Congress, says, “We can see the books that taught him languages as a diplomat, that taught him the art of diplomacy, we can see the science that he was involved in, the correspondence with living 18th century scientists. We have this documentation of not only the 18th century, but when you do the whole sweep of the circle, you realize that Jefferson has documented the Enlightenment, and has brought it to America.”
Jeffrey Brown explores how Jefferson’s bookshelf can teach us about the very roots of the United States.
Note: This piece is scheduled to air on the program Friday, July 4.