Monday, December 02, 2013


It was certainly one of the saddest episodes in our nation's history; the sacking of Washington by the British in 1814. Most public buildings went up in smoke, including the Capitol and President's House. The north wing of the Capitol housed the Library of Congress, three thousand volumes of history, law and classics meant to help Congress govern wisely and well. Fuel for the conflagration.

The largest personal library in America was Thomas Jefferson's, at Monticello: six thousand volumes. The 71-year-old Jefferson had intended to give the nation his library upon his death. Shocked by the burning of Washington (and in need of cash), he now offered Congress nearly his entire collection for $23,950. Ten wagonloads of books made their way to Washington.

Not everyone in Congress was happy, and not only about the cost. Too many books in foreign languages. Too much philosophy. Too many books of objectionable content, including the works of Voltaire. And who needed all that science that Mister Jefferson had so assiduously collected?

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.