On this day in 1851, a fire sweeps through the Library of Congress and destroys two-thirds of Thomas Jefferson’s personal literary collection.
Jefferson, who died in 1826, had offered to sell his personal library to Congress after the Congressional library, along with the rest of the Capitol and the White House, was burned by the British in 1814, during the War of 1812. His collection of 6,487 volumes of books and newspapers fetched $23,950 and, in addition to providing an invaluable archive to the nation, the fee helped pay off some of Jefferson’s personal debts. According to the Library of Congress, Jefferson also offered to arrange and number all the books himself. He called his collection, which contained a vast assortment of scientific works, an “interesting treasure” that he hoped would have a “national impact.”
Jefferson was a voracious reader who claimed that he could not live without books. His servants often found him sitting on the floor of his library at Monticello surrounded by as many as 20 open books and newspapers at a time. He studied a variety of subjects, including paleontology, mechanics, classical literature, natural history, agriculture, math, chemistry, philosophy and, of course, politics.