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Thomas Jefferson

Memorial on the Book Duty - November 30, 1821

        _Memorial on the Book Duty_
        November 30, 1821

        _To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United
States of America in Congress assembled:_

        The petition of the rector and visiters of the University of
Virginia, on behalf of those for whom they are in the office of
preparing the means of instruction, as well as of others seeking it
elsewhere, respectfully representeth:

        That the Commonwealth of Virginia has thought proper lately to
establish a university for instruction, generally, in all the useful
branches of science, of which your petitioners are appointed rector
and visiters, and, as such, are charged with attention to the
interests of those who shall be committed to their care.

        That they observe, by the tariff of duties imposed by the laws
of Congress on importations into the United States, an article
peculiarly inauspicious to the objects of their own, and of all other
literary institutions throughout the United States.

        That at an early period of the present Government, when our
country was burdened with a heavy debt, contracted in the war of
Independence, and its resources for revenue were untried and
uncertain, the National Legislature thought it as yet inexpedient to
indulge in scruples as to the subjects of taxation, and, among
others, imposed a duty on books imported from abroad, which has been
continued, and now is, of fifteen per cent., on their prime cost,
raised by ordinary custom-house charges to eighteen per cent., and by
the importer's profits to perhaps twenty-five per cent., and more.

        That, after many years' experience, it is certainly found that
the reprinting of books in the United States is confined chiefly to
those in our native language, and of popular characters, and to cheap
editions of a few of the classics for the use of schools; while the
valuable editions of the classical authors, even learned works in the
English language, and books in all foreign living languages,
(vehicles of the important discoveries and improvements in science
and the arts, which are daily advancing the interest and happiness of
other nations,) are unprinted here, and unobtainable from abroad but
under the burden of a heavy duty.

        That of many important books, in different branches of science,
it is believed that there is not a single copy in the United States;
of others, but a few; and these too distant and difficult of access
for students and writers generally.

        That the difficulty resulting from this mode of procuring books
of the first order in the sciences, and in foreign languages, ancient
and modern, is an unfair impediment to the American student, who, for
want of these aids, already possessed or easily procurable in all
countries except our own, enters on his course with very unequal
means, with wants unknown to his foreign competitors, and often with
that imperfect result which subjects us to reproaches not unfelt by
minds alive to the honor and mortified sensibilities of their

        That, to obstruct the acquisition of books from abroad, as an
encouragement of the progress of literature at home, is burying the
fountain to increase the flow of its waters.

        That books, and especially those of the rare and valuable
character, thus burdened, are not articles of consumption, but of
permanent preservation and value, lasting often as many centuries as
the houses we live in, of which examples are to be found in every
library of note.

        That books, therefore, are capital, often the only capital of
professional men on their outset in life, and of students destined
for professions, (as most of our scholars are,) and barely able, too,
for the most part, to meet the expenses of tuition, and less to pay
as extra tax on the books necessary for their instruction, that they
are consequently less instructed than they would be; and that our
citizens at large do not derive from their employment all the
benefits which higher qualifications would procure them.

        That this is the only form of capital on which a tax of from 18
to 25 per cent. is first levied on the gross, and the proprietor then
subject to all other taxes in detail, as those holding capitals in
other forms, on which no such extra tax has been previously levied.

        That it is true that no duty is required on books imported for
seminaries of learning; but these, locked up in libraries, can be of
no avail to the practical man, when he wishes a recurrence to them
for the uses of life.

        That more than thirty years' experience of the resources of our
country prove them equal to all its debts and wants, and permit its
Legislature now to favor such objects as the public interests
recommend to favor.

        That the value of science to a republican people; the security
it gives to liberty, by enlightening the minds of its citizens; the
protection it affords against foreign power; the virtues it
inculcates; the just emulation of the distinction it confers on
nations foremost in it; in short, its identification with power,
morals, order, and happiness, (which merits to it premiums of
encouragement rather than repressive taxes,) are topics, which your
petitioners do not permit themselves to urge on the wisdom of
Congress, before whose minds these considerations are always present,
and bearing with their just weight.

        And they conclude, therefore, with praying that Congress will
be pleased to bestow on this important subject the attention it
merits, and give the proper relief to the candidates of science among
ourselves, devoting themselves to the laudable object of qualifying
themselves to become the instructors and benefactors of their

        And your petitioners, as in duty bound, shall ever pray, &c.