A History Lesson With Booze ®

How Thomas Jefferson Saved and Changed the Library of Congress

Back in 1800, the U.S. government's oldest cultural institution was founded. Find out how the founding father influenced the library’s scope, then toast with a cocktail celebrating the institution's current top librarian.

Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The History Lesson

The Library of Congress started out as… well, just the Congress’s library.

Housed in Washington DC’s then-brand-new Capitol building, it consisted of a few hundred reference books… and a whopping nine maps. But thanks to a budget of few thousand taxpayer dollars, it soon tripled in size.

Many of the library’s books were bought and shipped over from England. Which is ironic. Because during the war of 1812, the English army briefly invaded D.C… and burned the Capitol building to the ground. Along with the library.

Luckily, there was an even bigger, and way better library nearby. Owned by a guy you may’ve heard of: ex-President Thomas Jefferson. It consisted of more than 6,000 volumes. All of which Jefferson offered to Congress, to replace the burned ones. They accepted, and in the process, changed the library forever.

See, the original library mainly consisted of books about government and legislating. But Jefferson believed in “universality.” That all subjects were important to consider in good governing. So his collection included tomes on science, philosophy, and literature. Some weren’t even in English. And as Congressional librarians expanded the holdings, they took the idea of “universality” to heart. Big time.

Today, the library of Congress is the biggest on Earth. Consisting of more than a 160 million items, on every imaginable subject, stored on 800-plus miles of shelves. It includes books, photographs, recordings and sheet music from around the world. Oh, and the map collection’s grown a little, too: from nine… to 5.1 million.

The Booze

The Hayden Cocktail


Mixed up by Eric Holzherr, owner of the Wisdom bar in Washington, D.C. The drink is named after Carla Hayden, 14th Librarian of the Library of Congress. (She is also the first woman and African-American librarian of the Library of Congress.)


  • 2 ounces of Madeira (“Boal” or “Bual” style preferred)
  • 1 ounce of Lillet Rouge
  • 1/2 ounce of Philadelphia Bluecoat Gin

Combine ingredients in a tumbler glass over ice and stir. Garnish with a large citrus twist (orange preferred). This is a fortified wine cocktail, which is a little less strong than your typical classic cocktail, but it’ll keep your head clear while you’re reading.