Library of Congress

The OTHER Fire at the Library of Congress – 1851

As many people know, after capturing Washington, D.C. in 1814, the British burned the U.S. Capitol and destroyed the Library of Congress. Thomas Jefferson, in retirement at Monticello, offered to sell his personal library to the Library Committee of Congress in order to rebuild the collection of the Congressional Library. On January 30, 1815, President James Madison approved an act of Congress appropriating $23,950 to purchase Thomas Jefferson’s library of 6,487 volumes.

On December 24, 1851 the largest fire in the Library’s history destroyed 35,000 books, about two–thirds of the Library’s 55,000 book collection, including two–thirds of Jefferson’s original transfer. Congress in 1852 quickly appropriated $168,700 to replace the lost books, but not for the acquisition of new materials. This marked the start of a conservative period in the Library’s administration under Librarian John Silva Meehan and Joint Committee Chairman James A. Pearce, who worked to restrict the Library’s activities.

The fire was reported in The National Era.

National Calamity

Our whole city is intensely excited by the great calamity which has just fallen upon the Capitol.

The Library of Congress, with its rich collection of valuable books, public documents, precious manuscripts, paintings, busts medals, and other works of art, is in ashes. The loss to the nation is great, and, to a certain extent, irreparable. This was probably, on the whole, the best library in the United States; it was enriched by the choice collection of works brought together by the care, discrimination, and taste of Mr. Jefferson, and had been an object of deep interest and regard to successive intelligent committees of Congress, who were intrusted with the duty of superintending its management, and adding annually to its treasures.

During the sessions of Congress, the beautiful hall of the Library was the daily resort of the lovers of letters, science, and art, from every State of the Union, and from foreign lands, where they always met with the kindest attentions from the gentlemanly Librarian and his assistants, who never failed to open to visiters all the objects which would serve to gratify their taste, curiosity, and intelligence.

The Captain of the Capitol Police opened the doors of the Capitol at about six o’clock on Wednesday morning, when all things appeared to be safe. About eight o’clock, the smell of fire convinced him that something was wrong; and on opening the door, a portion of the library was found to be on fire, and the flames spread with great rapidity.

Great efforts were made, not only by the fire companies, but by all classes of our citizens, to save the Library: but in regard to the books, papers, and works of art, which occupied the main hall, their efforts were without success. A large portion of the contents of the smaller room is reported as saved, though not without damage. The fire companies had been fatigued by a fire at a late hour the night preceding, so that they arrived late, and much time was lost in bringing the engines to a position which would render their powers available.

We have been told that about thirty-five thousand volumes of books have been destroyed, the estimate being derived from the number saved, the contents of the Library being about fifty-five thousand volumes. A number of valuable and excellent paintings also perished. Of these, were portraits of the first five Presidents, by Stuart, an original portrait of Columbus, a second portrait of Columbus, one of Peyton Randolph, one of Baron Steuben, one of Baron de Kalb, with a fine picture of Cortez, and one of Judge Hanson, of Maryland.

The fine busts of Jefferson , Lafayette, and General Taylor, with a bronze one of Washington by Mills, are also rendered worthless. To repair as far as may be this loss, will require a large amount; and we hope, when this amount shall have been expended, all will be done that can be done by human invention to preserve the Library of the Nation.


Collection: African American Newspapers
Publication: The National Era
Date: January 1, 1852
Title: National Calamity
Location: Washington, D.C.

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