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First Judaica & Judaic Firsts: Jefferson Creates A Library

We begin, as all accounts of the Library of Congress must, with Thomas Jefferson, America's third president and first bibliophile. Jefferson wanted to be remembered for three achievements: first, his authorship of the Declaration of independence; second, his creation of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom; and third, his founding of the University of Virginia. From the perspective afforded us by the passage of time, we may add to these achievements a fourth, his fathering of the Library of Congress. "it would be hard to overstate the importance of the Jefferson connection to the life of the Library," writes Charles A. Goodrum in Treasures of the Library of Congress (New York, 1980). "Jefferson gave us the shape of what has become the largest library in the world." He did so through the example of the personal library he built which, in a moment of national crisis, became the new nation's library.

Jefferson took a keen interest in the Library from its inception in 1800. Limited in function (it was originally intended to serve the needs of members of the Congress), the Library remained small in size and narrow in scope. On August 24, 1814, British troops set fire to the Capitol building, the flames consuming every volume which had remained there.* When news of the Library's destruction reached Jefferson, living in retirement in Monticello, he proposed his own book collection as replacement. His library, consisting of some nine to ten thousand volumes, was of such size and scope that he had decided "that it ought not continue private property" and had provided that, on his death, "Congress should have the refusal of it at their own price." Now that Congress was in need of it, he made it available for acquisition. "You know my collection," he wrote, "its condition and extent."

I have been fifty years making it, and have spared no pains, opportunity or expense, to make it what it is. While residing in Paris, I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged for a summer or two in examining all the principal bookstores ... putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable. I had standing orders ... [in] Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Madrid and London. . . Nearly the whole are well bound, abundance of them elegantly, and of the choicest editions existing.

Eventually, after debate, negotiations, and a close vote (81-71), Congress authorized the purchase of Jefferson's 6,487 volumes for $23,950, paid in Treasury bills. The library reflected Jefferson's interests, "architecture, philosophy, art, literature and science, as well as his political and social concerns." Goodrum reports that:

The Congressional Library Committee ... [and subsequent committees, as well] were fully aware that they had a national treasure in the volumes. They therefore instructed the Librarians to see that the Jefferson collection was perpetually reinforced and that whatever additions were required to keep it current, catholic and comprehensive should be secured.

The broad humanistic interests and the bibliophilic sensibilities of Jefferson served as guides to successive overseers of the Library.

The books arrived in Washington in the summer of 1815, and among the volumes that made the journey from Monticello (which, having survived another conflagration, remain part of the Jefferson collection today) are seven works of Jewish interest. These first Judaica of the Library of Congress are books on history, philosophy, and law, two of them touching upon the special situation of the Jews among the nations.

Sources:Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).