should this establishment take place on a plan worthy of approbation, I shall have a valuable legacy to leave it, to wit, my library, which certainly has not cost less than 15,000. Dollars. but it’s value is more in the selection, a part of which, that which respects America is the result of my own personal searches in Paris for 6. or 7. years, & of persons employed by me in England, Holland, Germany and Spain to make similar searches. such a collection on that subject can never again be made.
Thomas Jefferson to Littleton W. Tazewell, January 5, 1805
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Passionate leaders endow their own dreams.
Jefferson concluded his long letter envisioning the University of Virginia by putting a cherry on top. He would give it his personal library, several thousands of books. He had spent more than 35 years compiling that collection from the best sources in America and Europe. It had no equal.
But it was not to be. Before the University would open two decades later, an even more compelling need arose. The British burned the U.S. Capitol in the War of 1812 (“Mr. Madison’s War,” they called it.) and its small library. In 1815, Thomas Jefferson sold his beloved library to the federal government, where it would become the foundation of the Library of Congress.
In 1824, Thomas Jefferson spent maybe 100 hours compiling a list of books the University should acquire. The number of books and their cost were nearly identical to the size and value of the library he sold to Congress nine years earlier.