John J. Beckley

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

John J. Beckley
1st Librarian of Congress
In office
January 29, 1802 – April 8, 1807
PresidentThomas Jefferson
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byPatrick Magruder
1st and 4th Clerk of the United States House of Representatives
In office
March 4, 1801 – April 8, 1807
Preceded byJohn H. Oswald
Succeeded byPatrick Magruder
In office
April 1, 1789 – May 14, 1797
Succeeded byJonathan W. Condy
2nd and 7th Mayor of Richmond, Virginia
In office
February 22, 1788 – March 9, 1789
Preceded byRichard Adams, Jr.
Succeeded byAlexander McRoberts
In office
July 1, 1783 – July 6, 1784
Preceded byWilliam Foushee, Sr.
Succeeded byRobert Mitchell
Personal details
John James Beckley

(1757-08-04)August 4, 1757
London, England
DiedApril 8, 1807(1807-04-08) (aged 49)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyDemocratic-Republican

John James Beckley (August 4, 1757 – April 8, 1807) was an American political campaign manager and the first Librarian of the United States Congress, from 1802 to 1807. He is credited with being the first political campaign manager in the United States and for setting the standards for the First Party System.

Early years[edit]

Born in London, Beckley's parents sent him at the age of 11[1] to the Colony of Virginia as an indentured servant. John James Beckley was sold to the mercantile firm of John Norton & Son in response to a request for a scribe by John Clayton, and he arrived in Virginia just before his 12th birthday.[1] Clayton guided Beckley's continuing education, and in working with Clayton, Beckley was introduced to many influential members of the colony. When Clayton died in December 1773, Beckley chose to remain in Virginia rather than return to London.[1]

Contrary to many reports, he was never a student at the College of William and Mary.[2] The Phi Beta Kappa Society had its beginning at the College of William and Mary on December 5, 1776. Since Beckley was not a student at the college, he was not eligible for membership. On December 10, 1778, the constitution of the society was broadened to permit the election of non-students, and a few months later, on April 10, 1779, Beckley was elected. Within a month, as might have been predicted, he was chosen clerk, or secretary.[1]


In June of 1782, Beckley participated in the first election of the city of Richmond, Virginia and was one of the 12 elected councilmen. In 1783, he was elected mayor of Richmond, a role in which he would serve three times.[1] By this time, he had amassed 49,000 acres (20,000 ha) of rich, unoccupied land in the west, but it was tied up in litigation. Beckley was a Freemason, and in 1785 participated in a fundraising effort which was responsible for constructing Mason's Hall in Richmond.[3]

James Madison sponsored him as Clerk of the House in 1789. When the position of Librarian of Congress was established on January 26, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson asked his friend and political ally John Beckley—who also was serving as the Clerk of the House of Representatives—to fill the post. As the first Librarian of Congress he was paid $2 a day.[4] Beckley served concurrently in both positions until his death in 1807.[5] He associated with the radicals (especially fellow immigrants) and became an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. He wrote frequently for Philip Freneau's National Gazette and Benjamin Bache's General Advertiser, becoming known as an articulate exponent of American republicanism. He used the press energetically to denounce Hamilton and the Federalists as crypto-monarchists whose corruption was subversive of American values.

He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1791.[6]

Political activities[edit]

By 1792, he had started a propaganda machine for the new Republican party that Jefferson and Madison were forming. Thus, he told Madison in May 1795, "I enclose eight copies of the 'Political Observations.' I brought two dozen from New York and have distributed them all. I expect 50 more in a day or two, and shall scatter them also—they were bought and dispersed in great numbers there, and are eagerly enquired after by numbers here—it will be republished in Boston, Portsmouth, Vermont, and at Richmond."[7] Also in 1792, he brought to light Alexander Hamilton's relationship with James Reynolds and his wife Maria. This led to James Monroe, Congressmen Muhlenberg (PA) and Venable (VA) confronting the Treasury Secretary on December 15, 1792. Hamilton denied any financial wrongdoing but admitted to an affair with the wife Maria and paying hush money to her husband. The Republicans agreed to keep the matter confidential and it did not become public until 1797.[8]

In 1795, he took the lead in denouncing Jay's Treaty and had emerged as the most visible spokesman of the new Republican Party. Writing under the sobriquet of "A Calm Observer," in 1796 he charged that, among other heinous offenses, George Washington had stolen public funds and that he richly deserved impeachment.[9]

In 1796, he managed the Jefferson campaign in Pennsylvania, blanketing the state with agents who passed out 30,000 hand-written tickets, naming all 15 electors (printed tickets were not allowed). Thus, he told one agent, "In a few days a select republican friend from the City will call upon you with a parcel of tickets to be distributed in your County. Any assistance and advice you can furnish him with, as to suitable districts & characters, will I am sure be rendered. He is one of two republican friends, who have undertaken to ride thro' all the middle & lower counties on this business, and bring with them 6 or 8 thousand tickets." Beckley thus became the first American professional campaign manager. Federalists had him removed as House clerk in 1797. His allies in Pennsylvania soon found him a state job and he became even more active in promoting the Jefferson candidacy in 1800. Jefferson rewarded him with his old post of Clerk of the United States House of Representatives; Beckley got the House to add on the title of Librarian of Congress.[2]


Beckley married Maria Prince, the daughter of a retired ship captain, just before Congress moved from New York to Philadelphia, where the two would live from 1791 until 1801.[1] Their son, Alfred Beckley, was born May 26, 1802.[1] Alfred would go on to found the town of Beckley on the western lands (now in West Virginia), and named it in honor of his father. His home, Wildwood, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.[10]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Berkeley, Edmund; Berkeley, Dorothy Smith (1975). "The First Librarian of Congress: John Beckley". The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress. 32 (2): 83–117. JSTOR 29781617.
  2. ^ a b Pasley, Jeffrey L. (Winter 1996). "A Journeyman, Either in Law or Politics': John Beckley and the Social Origins of Political Campaigning". Journal of the Early Republic. 16 (4): 531–569. doi:10.2307/3124417. JSTOR 3124417.
  3. ^ Freemasons; Richmond, Va; Richmond Randolph Lodge, No. 19; Rady, Charles Pinkney (1927). Historical sketch of the Masons' Hall, the first house erected for and dedicated to Masonic use in America (1785) and of Richmond Randolph Lodge, No. 19, A.F. & A.M., its owner and occupant, chartered October 29, 1787 ... Richmond: J.W. Fergusson & Sons, Printers. OCLC 6326284.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ Murray, Stuart (2009). The library : an illustrated history. New York, NY: Skyhorse Pub. ISBN 978-1602397064. OCLC 277203534.
  5. ^ "John James Beckley - Previous Librarians of Congress | Library of Congress". The Library of Congress. Retrieved March 9, 2018.
  6. ^ "John Beckley". American Philosophical Society Member History. American Philosophical Society. Retrieved December 16, 2020.
  7. ^ Cole, John Y. "Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress - Librarians of Congress". Library of Congress. Retrieved December 15, 2008.
  8. ^ Berkeley, Edmund; Berkeley, Dorothy Smith (1973). John Beckley: Zealous Partisan in a Nation Divided. Philadelphia: American philosophical society. ISBN 0871691000.
  9. ^ Cunningham, Jr., Noble E. (January 1956). "John Beckley: An Early American Party Manager". William and Mary Quarterly. 13 (1): 40–52. doi:10.2307/1923388. JSTOR 1923388.
  10. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 13, 2009.

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
new office
Clerk of the United States House of Representatives
Succeeded by
Preceded by Clerk of the United States House of Representatives
Succeeded by