Saturday, January 24, 2009


The Great Jubilee of the Library of Congress [an alternative history]

Chapter I: Beginnings.

President Nancy Kassenbaum in the first act of her second term appointed under the co-chairs Vice President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the House Pat Schroeder the National Commission for the Bicentennial of the Library of Congress, three years hence in the year 2000. This history of library services during the last 200 years in the United States is but one product of that celebration, which we have come to call "The Great Jubilee." For no other act of Congress in its concept and execution has had greater impact on the people and civilization of the U.S. than that which established the library.

This is a history of how our system of library services stems from the foundation of the Library of Congress, and how the impetus of that institution has molded our civilization so that at the core of our education, our literature, our industry, our technology, our lives it is the very nature of libraryness that has made our nature and shaped the American character and way of life, making both character and way of life markedly different than they are anywhere else in the world.

In 1800, formal schooling was important to most American families, but they had relatively limited expectations for it. They wanted their sons, and usually their daughters as well, to acquire the rudiments of reading, writing and calculating – enough to read an almanac or the Bible, understand a property deed or reckon an account. New England, often called the "land of schools," had schoolhouses, paid for by local taxes, spread across its countryside. Elsewhere schooling was thinner, supported by varying mixtures of private, local government and church arrangements. Far to the South and to the West they became comparatively scarce. Nowhere was school attendance compulsory.

In all rural communities children old enough to do serious work took whatever schooling they might get in the winter months between the end of harvest and the start of planting. They were often kept at home whenever their parents needed their labor, so that those from hard-pressed families attended very irregularly, and some were still struggling through elementary reading and arithmetic in their late teens. Children as young as two or three went along to school with their older brothers and sisters, less to learn than to get them out from underfoot in busy households. Schoolmasters -usually young unmarried men who took the job on before settling on a trade or taking over a farm – faced a heterogeneous mixture of ages from "infants just out of their cradles," as the Massachusetts educational reformer Horace Mann obsered, to "men... enrolled in the militia." Schoolhouses were small, poorly kept structures, usually built near roadsides on barren, unwanted corners of land. In most of them, pedagogy stressed memorization before understanding, and the custom of reciting aloud often made their interiors a constant buzz of discordant voices.

In 1800, most white American children between five and fifteen spent a few weeks, up to a couple months, in school every year. Some never went at all, and in the back-country communities illiteracy was common, with many who "could neither read nor write, did not send their children to school."

The substantial majority of white American men, perhaps as many as three-quarters, had acquired enough schooling, sometimes with instruction at home, to be able to read. A slightly smaller number could write, the result of traditional practices that taught reading and writing as separate skills. American women lagged behind men in literacy; girls were more often kept from school. Slaves were kept unschooled and illiterate by conscious policy and in many Southern states by law. To be found reading, or trying to learn, could be positively dangerous for Southern blacks.

For a rural people, by the standards of their time, Americans were strikingly literate, surpassing most of the nations of Western Europe. But this did not mean that they were a country of great readers. Some of them, due to their meager instruction, read slowly and haltingly. Most Americans did not read much or at all; their cramped houses, scantily illuminated by a candle or two, made reading at night difficult. Books were relatively expensive and usually bought to fill only pressing needs. Bibles, hymn books, primers, spelling books, arithmetics and almanacs – books which guided worship, elementary instruction and the planting of crops – made up almost all of what country storekeepers stocked on their shelves and inventory takers recorded of household libraries. In Kentucky, "a newspaper ... was almost as scarce among the country people around us as the Sibylline leaves." New Englanders read more than Southerners and Westerners, but even in the countryside of Massachusetts, no more than one household in ten or twelve received a newspaper, and most families owned only a few volumes and "the year's almanack." Middling and prosperous city people, and some of the great farmers and professional men in the countryside, often read much more. The gulf was less profound than in societies with mass illiteracy, but it was real enough – in some communities almost a "matter of centuries," Francis Underwood thought.

Amidst early American pragmatism and the desire to read for the good of work and the good of the soul, the need for a library for Congress can readily be traced to the very foundation of the new nation, and the founders who brought it into being. For they were, by and large, gentlemen, that is patricians, educated, and with enough leisure to be be readers. In all, thirty-four of the fifty-five delegates finally seated at the Federal Convention were lawyers. More lawyers would have been present but for peculiar circumstances. Lawyer Patrick Henry declined to serve and later claimed he "smelt a rat," while attorney Richard Henry Lee also refused a place on the Virginia delegation in deference to his duties at the Continental Congress (meeting in New York).

Thus almost two-thirds of the delegates had cut their eyeteeth on Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, John Taylor's Elements of Civil Law, and Sir Edward Coke's celebrated Institutes of the Lawes of England; or, A Commentary upon Littleton. Perhaps lawyer Abraham Baldwin was the typical delegate in more ways than one. He came to Philadelphia late, but stayed until the last rap of Washington's gavel. Harvard-trained with "a compleat classical education," this Georgia attorney pursued "every other study with ease." Another member of the Georgia delegation said Baldwin was of "an accommodating turn of mind," and "well acquainted with Books and Characters."

Every lawyer on the Convention floor knew William Blackstone's Commentaries as well as his own handwriting. This familiarity caused Hamilton to allude to "the celebrated Judge Blackstone" when the debate concerned the focus of national power. Hamilton paraphrased Blackstone's remark "that the power of Parliament is absolute and without control" when he argued for a similar sanction in the Constitution. Eventually, the small-state delegates retreated and agreed that the Constitution, with its legislative branch as the working agent, "shall be the supreme Law of the Land." Blackstone's influence from the Commentaries is also evident in Article III, where treason is defined as "levying war against" the United States "...or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." The words are straight out of Blackstone's chapter on treason, which he adjudged to be the most heinous of all crimes.

Books and a knowledge of historical characters were the mainstays of the American public man in 1787. Although delegate-lawyer John Dickson said during the August 13 debates, "Experience must be our only guide," what he meant was not personal knowledge but the valuable precepts of history that every man present had gained through reading. As bookbinders from Boston to Williamsburgh learned, their customers for standard legal works were often gentlemen who were not interested in being admitted to the bar. For lawyers as well as laymen, books served as practical tools for that generation nurtured to manhood during the colonial crisis from 1765 onward. Nearly all of them knew the ancient writers on history, particularly Thucydides, Tacitus, and Livy. Probably half the delegates were able to read Cicero, Demosthenes, Aristotle, and Polybius in their ancient forms. In all likelihood, they had some acquaintance with Grotius Law of Nature and Nations, as well as the volumes by Vattel and Pufendorf bearing the same title. Many delegates were familiar with works on moral philosophy (an adjunct to legal study) by the Scotsmen Francis Hutcheson and Adam Ferguson. Every educated American had read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations by 1787. Less popular but revered by lawyers and laymen alike was Jean Jacques Burlamaqui's Principles of Natural Law, in Which the True System of Morality and Civil Government is Established, a standard work in American law offices that spread natural-law doctrines well into the nineteenth century. As Isaac Kramnich has noted, the Americans interested in improving mankind late in the eighteenth century "were much more likely to base their arguments on natural rights than historical rights." The fifty-five men at the Federal Convention actually preferred to involve both bases.

Clearly, most of the delegates gathered in Philadelphia were scholars of one sort or another. James Wilson, who spoke more than any other man during the proceedings, was a learned Scot trained at St. Andrews but Americanized in short order, and perhaps as well-read as any man at the Federal Convention. As a country filled with immigrants or the offspring of European immigrants, what was already unusual about America was that so many people read books. A contemporary Englishman who visited the new nation reported: "Whatever is useful, sells; but publications on subjects merely speculative, or rather curious than important, lie upon the bookseller's hands. They have no ready money to spare for anything but what they want; and in literary purchases, look for the present, or future use."

Indeed one reason Philadelphia was an attraction to the delegates was its libraries. The first Continental Congress met "in the Carpenter's Hall in one room of which the City library is kept & of which the Librarian tells me the Gentlemen make great & constant use," Madison was told in 1774. "Vattel, Burlamaqui, Locke & Montesquieu seem to be the standards to which they refer." By 1787 the situation had changed but little. The Free Library Company and American Philosophical Society collections were a quick walk from the delegate's desks, so that nowhere else in America was there such easy access to the collected knowledge of western civilization.

Moreover, the convention delegates were far ahead of most of their fellow men in terms of education, both formal and informal. A great deal of their leisure time was spent reading, and they read with much discernment. Two of the best-read delegates, Madison and Mason, were not lawyers and Mason's formal education was sketchy. Not all of the lawyers had attended the colleges at Cambridge, New Haven, Philadelphia, New York, Princeton, or Williamsburg, but most of them had a diploma from these institutions – Harvard, Yale, King's College (renamed Columbia in 1784), the College of New Jersey, or William and Mary. A few attended the Inns of Court or Inner Temple in London. These facts alone set them apart, for fewer than 2 percent of all Americans in the thirteen states had any formal education at all. Even so, Americans early on had stressed literacy in their daily, Bible-reading lives, and nearly every visitor from Europe was soon struck by the fact that even chambermaids and husbandrymen owned copies of Pilgrim's Progress or often read newspapers between their chores.

The revolution itself had been a great learning experience. By the time thirteen states had set up their own governments, lasted through eight years of war, and stumbled into a threadbare peacetime economy, the men chosen to be state legislators, councilors, congressmen, commissioners, justices of the peace, and other public functionaries had picked up a good deal of on-the-job training that required more than practical knowledge of the world. As the English bookseller noted, Americans keenly sought information "for the present, or future use."

On January 24, 1783, over seventeen years before the Library of Congress was established, Congressman James Madison presented to the Continental Congress "a list of books proper for the use of Congress." The books were never purchased. But Madison's comprehensive list of books for the intellectual nucleus of a legislative library is an outstanding example of his belief, shared by Jefferson and other founders of our nation, that if men possessed enough knowledge they would be able to solve the problems faced by the new nation.

During the latter half of 1782, the primary issues before Congress concerned finance, commerce, prisoners of war, western lands, and international affairs, including the alliance with France, the hoped-for terms of peace, the unsatisfactory relations with Spain, and the treaties with the Netherlands and Sweden. Most of the subject classifications in Madison's report reflect the needs of Congress for the guidance of authoritative works on these topics.

Madison certainly did not derive the names of authors and the titles of their books from a single source. Besides the modest library of James Madison, Sr., the private libraries of Donald Robertson, the Reverend John Witherspoon, and the Reverend James Madison suggest themselves, as do various institutional libraries, chiefly the Library Company of Philadelphia. Again Madison may have acquired much information by browsing in Philadelphia bookstores and scanning advertisements in the gazettes of that city. Among the volumes that attracted Madison's attention were the "near 4000" that Colonel Isaac Zane, Jr., had purchased from Mary Willing Byrd, the widow of Colonel William Byrd III, and brought in October 1781 to Philadelphia for sale at Robert Bell's bookstore near St. Paul's Church on Third Street.

During January 1783, when Thomas Jefferson was rooming at Madison's boarding house in Philadelphia, the two men surely conversed on the subject of a reference library for Congress. Many of the books Jefferson enumerated for his own desired collection parallel those of Madison.

Although neither Madison nor any other delegate in Congress could have known the exact number of titles and volumes in print by 1783, a reconstruction of Madison's list with full bibliographic information totals approximately 550 titles in about 1,300 volumes. Although the bulk of titles cover law, political philosophy, exploration and travel, history, and economic statistics, the list includes Encyclopédie Méthodique (Panckouke et al.) begun in 1782 and to include 192 volumes, a number of works on language, especially European, but also Richardson's A Grammar of the Arabic Language, 1776; Halherd's A Grammar of the Bengal Language, 1778; Ferguson's A Dictionary of Hindostan, 1773; and Jones, A Grammar of the Persian Language, 1771.

In time, of course, the rule of the patrician elite was supplanted by a popular democracy, but one cannot blame the democratic movement alone for the decline in regard for intellect in politics. Soon after party division became acute, the members of the elite fell out among themselves and lost their respect for political standards. The men who with notable character and courage led the way through the Revolution and with remarkable prescience and skill organized a new national government in 1787-88 had by 1796 become hopelessly divided in their interests and sadly affected by the snarling and hysterical differences which were aroused by the French Revolution.

The generation which wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution also wrote the Alien and Sedition Acts. Its eminent leaders lost their solidarity, and their standards declined. A common membership in the patrician class, common experiences in revolution and state-making, a common core of ideas and learning did not prevent them from playing politics with little regard for decency or common sense. Political controversy, muddied by exaggerated charges of conspiracies with French agents or plots to subvert Christianity or schemes to restore monarchy and put the country under the heel of Great Britain, degenerated into demagogy. Having no understanding of the uses of political parties or of the function of a loyal opposition, the Founders surrendered to their political passions and entered upon a struggle in which any rhetorical weapon would do.

Not even Washington was immune from abuse and slander. However, the first notable victim of a distinctly anti-intellectualist broadside was Thomas Jefferson, and his assailants were Federalist leaders and members of the established clergy of New England. The assault on Jefferson is immensely instructive because it indicates the qualities his enemies thought could be used to discredit him and establishes a precedent for subsequent anti-intellectualist imagery in our politics. In 1796, when it seemed that Jefferson might succeed Washington, the South Carolina Federalist congressman, William Laughton Smith, published an anonymous pamphlet attacking Jefferson and minimizing his qualifications for the presidency. Smith tried to show how unsettling and possibly even dangerous Jefferson's "doctrinaire" leadership would be. Jefferson was a philosopher and, Smith pointed out, Philosophers have a way of being doctrinaires in politics.
The characteristic traits of a philosopher, when he turns politician, are, timidity, whimsicalness, and a disposition to reason from certain principles, and not from the true nature of man; a proneness to predicate all his measures on certain abstract theories, formed in the recess of his cabinet, and not on the existing state of things and circumstances; an inertness of mind, as applied to governmental policy, a wavering of disposition when great and sudden emergencies demand promptness of decision and energy of action.
What was needed was not intellect but character, and here too Jefferson was found wanting: philosophers, the pamphleteer argued, are extremely prone to flattery and avid of repute, and Jefferson's own abilities "have been more directed to the acquirement of literary fame than to the substantial good of his country." Washington – there was a man, no nonsense about him: "The great WASHINGTON was, thank God, no philosopher; had he been one, we should never have seen his great military exploits; we should never have prospered under his wise administration." Jefferson's skills lie in "impaling butterflies and insects, and contriving turn-about chairs." No friend of Jefferson or of the country should "draw this calm philosopher from such useful pursuits" to plunge him into the ardors of politics. Jefferson's merits "might entitle him to the Professorship of a college, but they would be as compatible with the duties of the presidency as with the command of the Western army."

In the campaign of 1800 all inhibitions broke down. The attempt to score against Jefferson on the ground that he was a man of thought and learning was, of course, only one aspect of a comprehensive attack upon his mind and character designed to show that he was a dangerous demagouge without faith or morals; or, as one critic put it, of "no Conscience, no Religion, no Charity." It was charged that he kept a slave wench and sired mulattoes; that he had been a coward during the American Revolution; that he had started the French Revolution; that he had slandered Washington; that he was ambitious to become a dictator, another Bonaparte; that he was a visionary and a dreamer, an impractical doctrinaire, and, to make matters worse, a French doctrinaire.

The campaign against Jefferson became at the same time an attempt to establish as evil and dangerous the qualities of the speculative mind. Learning and speculation had made an atheist of Jefferson, it was said; had caused him to quarrel with the views of the theologians about the age of the earth and to oppose having school children read the Bible. Such vagaries might be harmless in a closet philosopher, but to allow him to bring these qualities of mind into the presidency would be dangerous to religion and to society. His abstractness of mind and his literary interest made him unfit for practical tasks.

Nevertheless, Jefferson was elected, becoming president in order to appoint the first two Librarians of Congress and to suggest books for purchase and addition to the library. As President, Jefferson was frequently asked for advice of all kinds. One correspondent, John Norvell, is typical of the number asking for recommendations on books and how they might best pursue their own learning. Norvell wrote in May 1807, "I should be glad to have your advise of the proper method to be pursued in the acquisition of sound political knowledge. Is it essential that much history should be read? And if it be, be so kind as to mention those authors which should be read; as likewise those writers on political subjects, who may be studied to greatest advantage."

Here, in part is Jefferson's reply, which he says must be of very short notice. He mentions 14 titles in all, several of multitple volumes, and opines on each.

I think there does not exist a good elementary work on the organization of society into civil government: I mean a work which presents in one full & comprehensive view the system of principles on which such an organization should be founded according to the rights of nature. For want of a single work of that character, I should recommend Locke on government, Sidney, Priestley's Essay on the First Principles of government, Chipman's Principles of Government & the Federalist. Adding perhaps Beccaria on crimes & punishments because of the demonstrative manner in which he has treated that branch of the subject. If your views of political enquiry go further to the subjects of money & commerce, Smith's Wealth of Nations is the best book to be read, unless Say's Political Economy can be had, which treats the same subjects on the same principles, but in a shorter compass & more lucid manner. But I believe this work has not been translated into our language.

History in general only informs us what bad government is, but as we have employed some of the best materials of the British constitution in the construction of our own
government, a knowledge of British history becomes useful to the American politician. There is however no general history of that country which can be recommended. The elegant one of Hume seems intended to disguise & discredit the good principles of the government, and is so plausible & pleasing in is style & manner, as to instill its errors & heresies invisibly into the minds of unwary readers. Baxter has performed a good operation on it. He has taken the text of Hume as his ground work, abridging it by the omission of some details of little interest, and wherever he has changed the text to what it should be, so that we may properly call it Hume's history republicanised. He has moreover continued the history (but indifferently) from where Hume left it, to the year 1800.

Norvell, who was only seventeen years old when he wrote to Jefferson, learned the journalistic trade in Maryland, studied law as well, and in 1817 purchased the Lexington Kentucky Gazette. Norvell moved to the Midwest, became involved in Michigan politics, and ultimately served as U.S. senator from that state from 1837 to 1841.

With Jefferson we continue the next chapter of this history. For when the British burn Washington in the War of 1812, Jefferson, always destitute for cash, offers to recover the loss of what library Congress had so far amassed, by selling his own collection to the nation. A partisan debate on the question followed.

© 2009 by Roger Sween.
I had thought to write an alternate history on the relation of books and learning in the United States on the occassion of the Bicentennial of the Library of Congress, but got only this far.

I am indebted to the following sources, especially those with *.

James Axtell, The School upon a Hill: Education and Society in Colonial New England (1974).

*Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: the colonial experience (1958).

John Y. Cole, Jefferson’s Legacy: a brief history of the Library of Congress (1993).

Robert D. Heslep, Thomas Jefferson and Education (1969).

*Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963).

Dumas Malone, The Sage of Monticello / Jefferson and his time; v.6 (1981).

John C. Miller, The First Frontier: life in colonial America (1966).

*Samuel Eliot Morison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England (2nd ed., 1956).

Russel Blaine Nye, The Cultural Life of the New Nation, 1776-1830 (1960).

S. Alexander Rippa, Education in a Free Society: an American history (1984).

**Clinton Rossiter, 1787, the grand convention (1966).

*Robert A. Rutland, “Well Acquainted with Books”: The founding framers of 1787; with James Madison’s list of books for Congress (1987).

To His Excellency Thomas Jefferson: Letters to the President. Compiled and edited by Jack McLaughlin (1991).

Lawrence C. Wroth, The Colonial Printer (2nd ed., 1965).