A Note on Historical Preservation on the 165th Anniversary of the Library of Congress Fire of 1851

On this day in 1851, a spark from a stove causes a devastating fire at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and destroys about 2/3rds of its 55,000 volumes, including most of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, sold to the institution in 1815.

This was not the first time that the Library’s collection was ravaged by fire. When the British army invaded Washington, DC, and burned the capitol during the War of 1812, they destroyed the Library of Congress’s then 3,000 volume of books and documents.

We have lost large amounts of the world’s documentary heritage due to war, fire, water, gas and heat, dust, and just plain old neglect.

As the late historian Pauline Maier described in her extraordinary work “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,” many of our nation’s most treasured documents were not always treated with reverence, or even care. The Declaration of Independence, one of our national treasures, serves as a particularly striking example of how our nation has evolved in its treatment of precious historic texts.

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was copied onto low-grade parchment – the “ordinary type of colonial manufacture that could be easily found on sale in Philadelphia.” The Declaration then went on to become “one of the most abused documents in the history of preservation . . . battered and bandaged since its birth.”

The Continental Congress likely transported the document, along with other papers, as it moved from place to place throughout the Revolutionary War. Later, the Declaration would sit, along with the national government, in New York and Philadelphia, until, in 1800, it was moved to the nation’s new capital in Washington, DC, where it remains today. Once in DC, however, the Declaration was still continually transferred around to various buildings and homes.

In August 1814, when the British invaded Washington, DC, a clerk managed to save the document from destruction by removing it from the city and hiding it in Leesburg, VA.

In 1823, the document was further damaged when a “wetpressing process” was used to make a facsimile copy. The ink on the document continued to fade after the State Department in 1841 “grew tired of pulling the document out to show visitors” and instead put it on display across from a large window, where it was exposed to excessive sunlight for approximately 35 years.

In 1921, the Declaration was transferred to the Library of Congress, where enormous care was taken to protect the already damaged and worn document. In 1952, the Declaration was finally transferred to the National Archives, where it now safely resides in an “airtight thermopane container.”

Today, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and archival institutions around the country take great care to preserve our nation’s documentary history.

Over the course of the last decade, digitization has arisen as an additional means of preserving our nation’s history. Digitization provides yet another way for our nation to commit itself to preserving precious historic texts, so they can be celebrated and studied for years to come. Not only does digitization help preserve the original documents by reducing handling and potential damage, but is also creates a permanent digital file of the original and increases access to the historical documents by making the materials available online.

More of American (and world history, for that matter) is available online than ever before. But there is still much work to be done. This is why my non-profit ConSource has devoted itself to making sure that the documents comprising our nation’s constitutional history are freely available online for anyone to explore and learn from. It is an honor for us to work with archival institutions all over the country to help preserve and spotlight the precious historical documents they house in their physical locations. To view the ConSource digital library visit ConSource.org.


The Federalist No. 1 is Published 229 Years Ago Today, on October 27, 1787

Cross-posted on the ConSource blog

The Federalist No. 1 was published 229 years ago today, on October 27, 1787. The Federalist, or Federalist Papers as they have come to be known, are a collection of 85 essays on the origins, purpose, and design of the United States Constitution. The authors and collaborators behind these essays were Alexander Hamilton writing 51 papers, James Madison writing 29 papers, and John Jay writing five papers. At the time of their publication, Hamilton, Madison and Jay did not sign their names to the essays. Instead, they wrote all of the essays under the pseudonym Publius.

James Madison in an 1818 letter explained that “[t]he immediate object of [The Federalist Papers] was to vindicate & recommend the new Constitution to the State of [New York], whose ratification of the instrument was doubtful, as well as important.”

The essays were designed to help solidify support amongst existing proponents of the Constitution, and to persuade undecided and unsympathetic citizens to support ratification.

Overview of the Essays

In The Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton outlined the topics addressed by each of the essays. He wrote,

“I propose in a series of papers to discuss the following interesting particulars: – The utility of the UNION to your political prosperity– The insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union– The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed to the attainment of this object– The conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government– Its analogy to your own state constitution– and lastly, The additional security, which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty and to property. In the progress of this discussion I shall endeavour to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance that may seem to have any claim to your attention.”

Essays 1 – 14 discuss the necessity of a strong union.

Essay 15 – 22 primarily address issues with the Articles of Confederation.

Essays 23 – 35 discuss how the powers enumerated in the Constitution provide for an “energetic” federal government.

Essays 36 – 50 focus on the structure of the proposed government and the principles of Republican government.

Essays 51 – 66 provide a detailed discussion of the House of Representatives and Senate.

Essays 67 – 77 discuss the design and powers of the executive branch.

Essays 78 – 83 cover the federal judiciary.

Essay 84 responds to the objections raised over the lack of a federal bill of rights.

Essay 85 concludes the essay series by stating: “A nation, without a national government, is, in my view, an awful spectacle. The establishment of a Constitution, in time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy, to the completion of which I look forward with trembling anxiety. I can reconcile it to no rules of prudence to let go the hold we now have, in so arduous an enterprise, upon seven out of the thirteen States, and after having passed over so considerable a part of the ground, to recommence the course. I dread the more the consequences of new attempts, because I know that powerful individuals, in this and in other States, are enemies to a general national government in every possible shape.”

Read The Federalist Papers

“The importance of The Federalist cannot be overstated. Throughout American history it has provided a pivot point of argument in great struggles over constitutional meaning. Hamilton and Madison themselves drew on The Federalist in debates over the constitutionality of the National Bank Act and other early assertions of federal authority. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Southern nullificationists and Northern unionists both invoked the essays, and modern-day proponents and opponents of sweeping executive powers have done so as well. In scores of cases, and with much-increased frequency in recent decades, the Supreme Court has drawn on The Federalist in resolving hard-fought battles over what the Constitution means for disputants in the context of federal litigation.”[i]

You can read all 85 essays in the ConSource Digital Library.

American Antiquarian Society Online Resource: The News Media and the Making of America, 1730-1865

The role of the media in this year’s presidential elect cycle has received quite a bit of attention. For educators and citizens who are interested in exploring how the news and public information have influenced the public and private lives of the American people from 1730 through the Civil War, I recommend this great free digital resource from the American Antiquarian Society.

The sites covers the following content areas –

(1) News in Colonial America

(2) News in the Age of Revolution

(3) News in Antebellum America

(4) News and the Civil War



“While Reason Retains Her Rule”: John Jay’s Words of Wisdom Strike A Chord in 2016

In 1788, John Jay published his “Address to the People of the State of New York on the Subject of the Constitution.”

I’m including below passages from his remarks that I believe should be read and reflected on this election cycle. I submit them to you without comment below.

While reason retains her rule, while men are as ready to receive as to give advice, and as willing to be convinced themselves as to convince others, there are few political evils from which a free and enlightened people cannot deliver themselves. It is unquestionably true that the great body of the people love their country, and with it prosperity; and this observation is particularly applicable to the people of a free country, for they have more and stronger reasons for loving it than others. It is not, therefore, to vicious motives that the unhappy divisions which sometime prevail among them are to be imputed; the people at large always mean well, and although they may on certain occasions be misled by the counsels or injured by the efforts of the few who expect more advantage from the wreck than from the preservation of national prosperity, yet the motives of these few are by no means to be confounded with those of the community in general.

That such seeds of discord and danger have been disseminated and begin to take root in America as, unless eradicated, will soon poison our gardens and our fields, is a truth much to be lamented; and the more so as their growth rapidly increases while we are wasting the season in honestly but imprudently disputing, not whether they shall be pulled up, but by whom, in what manner, and with what instruments the work shall be done.

. . .

Let us all be mindful that the cause of freedom depends on the use we make of the singular opportunities we enjoy of governing ourselves wisely; for, if the event should prove that the people of this country either cannot or will not govern themselves, who will hereafter be advocates for systems which, however charming in theory and prospect, are not reducible to practice? If the people of our nation, instead of consenting to be governed by laws of their own making and rulers of their own choosing, should let licentiousness, disorder, and confusion reign over them, the minds of men everywhere will insensibly become alienated from republican forms, and prepared to prefer and acquiesce in governments which, though less friendly to liberty, afford more peace and security.

Receive this address with the same candour with which it is written; and may the spirit of wisdom and patriotism direct and distinguish your councils and your conduct.