Did the British burn all the books? Remembering the war of 1812 and the first Library of Congress

War of 1812. Library of Congress The cannon of Toronto’s Fort York have been given an extra burnish lately. While not primed and ready, they have never ceased to point out over the waters of Lake Ontario (albeit there are few condo towers in the way now), and at least some of them are still capable of firing a round should the need arise. Which of course it won’t. Probably. Although, as the U.S. has plans on file for the invasion of Canada, it’s just as well that we’re keeping our powder dry. After all, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before – as we’re now being reminded in the form of the numerous events being held to mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

War of 1812. Library of CongressNew museum displays have been opened to educate Canadians about the war, which lasted nearly three years. The war has been given added emphasis in school curricula, and those seeking Canadian citizenship are encouraged to learn about a seminal event on our road to nationhood. A special coin has been issued to mark the victory of HMS Shannon over the USS Chesapeake in one of the great naval clashes of the war. Red-coated troops brandishing muskets have re-enacted old fights at the forts that still dot the frontier with the old enemy, and at the sites of the battlefields where British, Canadian and native peoples fell to preserve this land from the thieving grasp of the rapacious hordes to the south. That’s our take on it anyway.

There are many re-enactments to come, as the anniversaries of the various battles appear on the calendar. One event that will probably not be re-enacted, however, is the sack of Washington by the British army in August 1814. That particular anniversary is likely to be overshadowed, in any event, by the commemoration of the vastly greater horror that commenced a century later, in August 1914.

The burning of the American capital is an event relished by the British and Canadians as the culmination of the War of 1812 – payback by the Empire for having our clocks cleaned in the Revolutionary War, and for the attack on York (as Toronto was known at the time) by American forces the previous year. Also for what was regarded as a stab in the back by the U.S., which thought it could grab Canada while Britain was otherwise occupied with Napoleon.1 Such was the shock to the Americans of the destruction wrought on their capital that a vote to move it elsewhere was only narrowly averted,2 and the citizens of Virginia, Alexandria begged their own army not to march to their aid out of fear the British would accord them the same treatment as Washington.

After two years of war, and a series of relatively minor actions on land in the vicinity of the US-Canadian border (minor compared to the scale of the Napoleonic battles in Europe), and single-ship actions off the North American coast and on the Great Lakes in which the US Navy largely triumphed (until the aforementioned victory of the Shannon over the Chesapeake) the British embarked on what they hoped would be the end-game.

War of 1812. Library of Congress In late August 1814, in the middle of a blazing hot summer, a British fleet under the command of Admiral Sir George Cockburn, with military forces under the command of Major General Robert Ross, sailed into the Patuxent River, disembarked and marched inland towards Washington. They inflicted the first ever defeat on an American army in the field at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24th, then swanned into Washington. No-one was there to surrender the city. President James Madison was with his routed troops. His wife, Dolley, had escaped after supervising the evacuation of precious items from the White House, including the Washington portrait.3 Others, junior clerks in the main, did what they could to save important state documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, international treaties, and the correspondence of George Washington…”.4

Before they did anything, the British, hot and tired after their march and the fight with the American army, helped themselves to the food and drink laid out for the president and his anticipated guests in the White House dining room. Then they set fire to the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings – the Navy Yards had already been fired by the retreating Americans to keep the stores out of British hands. Private property was scrupulously preserved, however, and the Patent Office was also saved, through the intervention of William Thornton, the superintendent of patents, who persuaded the British that the record of inventions contained in the building was too valuable to be lost.5

While setting fire to official Washington the British also looted it. Whatever the president’s wife managed to save, and the depredations of Washingtonians who liberally helped themselves before the invaders arrived,6 there was a great deal left for them to take, if they’d been so inclined, and armies at that period very definitely were. Common soldiers received pitiful pay, which it was expected they’d supplement whenever opportunity arose. Opportunities to take souvenirs from the enemy capital would surely have attracted the officers, too. Condemn them if you must, but it is hard not to hope that the British were efficient in their looting. The alternative – that so much of historical significance in the life of the young Republic was reduced to ashes – is awful to contemplate. Despite America’s relative youth and rawness, there was a great deal of significance housed in the buildings of its capital in 1814.

War of 1812. Library of Congress At the time of the British invasion, Washington had been the seat of government for 14 years. Conditions were still primitive and most congressmen and senators lived in boarding-house accommodation. The population was small – about 8,000, of whom one sixth were slaves.7 There was little in the way of amenities. Things were changing though. The Capitol, its dome not yet constructed, had been occupied by the Senate and House of Representatives, and the White House had welcomed its second presidential occupant, James Madison, in 1809. The executive mansion had recently been refurbished and redecorated by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was responsible for the design and construction of the Capitol and other public buildings. There were new tables and chairs, sideboards, beds and bedding, drapery and of course porcelain, crockery, cutlery and glassware, much of it specially designed. The Capitol had already won praise for the magnificence of its design and appurtenances, like the Liberty sculpture and a magnificent eagle with a more than twelve-foot wingspan, the work of the brilliant young Tuscan, Giuseppe Franzoni, mounted over the Speaker’s chair in the House of Representatives.8

Then there were the books in the Library of Congress – some 3000 of them (as against the more than 18 million volumes now in the library’s collection), all of them painstakingly acquired with scarce, hard-won funds, mostly since the move to the new capital; most of them, ironically, published in Great Britain.9 They would, if still extant, in the words of one scholar, be worth “an oil sheik’s ransom.”10 As far as is known only a single one of these volumes survived the fire – and it was not returned until 1940.

In 1814 the Library of Congress was 14 years old. It had its official origins in 1800, in an “Act to make provision for the removal and accommodation of the Government” (to Washington), signed by President Adams. As well as provision for sidewalks (much needed in the muddy new town), the Act included $5000 “For the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress … and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them and for placing them therein.”11 A working members’ library was envisaged, “containing mainly references that a country lawyer might need if he moved into the complicated business of maritime or international law.”12

A library committee was established soon after the move to Washington, which took recommendations from senators and congressmen, and which placed orders for books with the London firm of Cadell & Davies. 740 books packed in trunks duly arrived in Washington. The parsimonious Thomas Jefferson was president by then, and he promptly sold the trunks to help defray the #498 bill.13 He then instructed the US consul in London to hunt for more books – only they should be bargains, with cheap editions and bindings preferred. Practical works were the order of the day. Belles lettres were eschewed. Jefferson emphasized a need for texts on international law, of which few works were then held in private American libraries.14

The books that arrived in that first shipment included, interestingly, the Debates of the British House of Commons, and Journals of the Lords and Commons. Law books included the standard works of the time, various abridgments and law reports, and first or early editions of works by such as Glanville, Hale and Coke. There was much more besides. History predominated. Famous works in the new library included a first edition of Boswell’s Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides. Bertram’s Travels. The original Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia. Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. As time went by, Jefferson’s standards were relaxed and the collection came to include works of fiction, poetry, and titles such as The Spectator, and “the twenty-five volumes of Mrs. Elizabeth Inchbald’s British Theater“, which was much appreciated by the entertainment-starved senators and congressmen.15

The new acquisitions were brought together for the first time with existing, hitherto scattered, reference collections, in 1802, at which time the first librarian was also appointed – John Beckley (who was also the clerk of the House) – at the salary of $2 per day.16

The “suitable apartment” referred to in the Act, by the time the British arrived in the summer of 1814, “combined all the characteristics of a law office, coffeehouse reading room, scholar’s nook, and cleric’s study.”17 It was hardly suitable however. After initially being housed in a fairly spacious chamber, formerly used by the House of Representatives as its meeting place, the library was moved in 1805 into “a former committee room that was in a bad state of repair, with loose floorboards and a leaky roof.18 It was open every day of the week, however, except the Sabbath, from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM (7:00 PM when the Congress was in session), its use confined to members of the House and Senate.19

The Library of Congress was, at the time of the British invasion in the summer of 1814, a solid working collection, with an emphasis on law and parliamentary history, but with a smattering of works considered as entertainment. If it still existed, a number of the works on its shelves would be counted as great rarities and doubtless displayed in glass cases. This library perished in the flames of war, but it was created anew the following year – arising phoenix-like from the ashes on the foundation of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library of nearly 7000 volumes, which he sold to the nation for $23,950.

War of 1812. Library of Congress To this day almost nothing has been recovered from the looting of Washington – not works of art, state papers, presidential mementoes, or books – whether they were take by its own citizens or the British invaders. Only two items have been returned. One was a medicine chest, souvenired by a British sailor and returned to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1939, by a Canadian descendant.20 The other was a book taken by Admiral Sir George Cockburn himself and returned to the Library of Congress in 1940.21 Of all the books in the Capitol, the one that took the Admiral’s eye was not in the library, but an office used by President Madison when he visited that edifice: Madison’s own copy An Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of the United States for the Year 1810.22 Perhaps it was because he spotted the entry that recorded the expenditure of $1,000 for development of an underwater torpedo.23 As a navy man he was probably appalled at the barbarity of the idea.

It is thought, by some, that a great deal more might have been taken, and that it was in fact on board the brig-sloop HMS Fantome, on its way to England via Halifax, which was lost in a storm off the coast of Nova Scotia. The wreck has been found but it lies scattered over the seabed and there is apparently no hope of recovering anything that might have been on board – least of all books. Others cast doubt on this legend. It is, of course, hard to resist the idea that, just perhaps, some of the library of 1814 still exists, hidden away to this day, or residing on the bookshelves or in the attics of the descendants of those who served in the invading British army and Royal Navy. Perhaps it does. Perhaps some day it will be rediscovered.


1 For an amusing take on the American decision to go to war, see Yoni Brenner, “The Madison Tapes”, The New Yorker, July 2, 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/humor/2012/07/02/120702sh_shouts_brenner

2 Anthony S. Pitch, The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1998, p223-5.

3 Dolley Madison was lucky to have got away with as much as she did, which was little enough, nearly all available transport having been taken by the fleeing citizenry. Pitch, supra n2, Chapter 5, “Pandemonium”.

4 Ibid., p44 et seq.

5 Admiral Cockburn personally oversaw the destruction of, offices of the National Intelligencer’s a virulently anti-British newspaper. “Make sure that all the C’s are destroyed,” Cockburn reputedly told the soldiers, “so that the rascalscan have no further means of abusing my name.” John C. Frederiksen, America’s Military Adversaries, From Colonial Times to the Present, ABC-CLIO, 2001, p116.

6 Pitch, supra n2, p98.

7 Ibid., p29.

8 Ibid., p106-7.

9 The 1812 Catalogue of the Library of Congress, Washington: Library of Congress, 1982. Introduction by Robert A. Rutland, pxix.

10 Ibid., pxxi.

11 Ibid., pviii.

12 Ibid., pxi.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., pxx.

16 Ibid., pxiii.

17 Ibid., pxix.

18 Ibid. pxiv.

19 Ibid., pxiii.

20 Anthony S. Pitch, “The Burning of Washington”, White House History, (Fall, 1998) http://www.whitehousehistory.org/whha_publications/publications_documents/whitehousehistory_04.pdf

21 Pitch, supra n2, p108.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

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