If the reparations claim were pressed today in the United Nations with compound interest and an inflation index, it might undermine the economic stability of Great Britain.
So Daniel J. Boorstin, librarian of Congress, graciously settled for 6 pounds, 14 shillings (about $13) yesterday to cover the fire damage for three books used as kindling when the Redcoats put the torch to the Capitol 164 years ago during the War of 1812.
On Aug. 24, 1814, Boorstin recalled yesterday with a touch of envy, one of his predecessors as librarian of Congress had been able-bodied enough to be pressed into militia service and so managed to save only a couple of wagonloads of books before the British arrived.
The Redcoats used the books left behind as kindling to burn down the Capitol. Among those books were three from the Oxford University Press: Clarendon's "History of the Rebellion and Life," Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England" and "Jurisprudentia Philologica" by Robert Eden.
Yesterday, feeling expansive as it celebrated its 500th year of existence, the Oxford University Press compensated the Library of Congress for the three burned books at the contemporary value of 6 pounds, 14 shillings (the shillings were collectible coins from the period).
The ceremony served to open a major exhibition of books and documents to honor "Five Centuries: The Oxford University Press." The exhibition, which will continue through Nov. 26, fills the Great Hall of the Library and two adjoining galleries.
Yesterday even the British government lent its official presence to the settlement of the War of 1812 fire-insurance claim.
Brigadier David Houston, C. B. E., the military attache at the British Embassy who turned over the payment to Boorstin, said he appreciated that he was being spared the hisses and boos that usually greet a villain when he returns to the scene of his crime.
As for the deplorable book-burning by King George's soldiers, P. Lyon Roussel, the British cultural attache could not resist mention of the symbol of the phoenix of British-American friendship rising out of the ashes of the War of 1812.
Boorstin, gracious as only the rightly wronged can be, noticed that the British spokesmen had been very tactful in not mentioning a previous episode when American troops burned the library along with the parliamentary building in York, now part of Toronto, Canada, in 1813.
And, Boorstin added with the perspective of the professional historian, the book-burning British troops may have done this country a favor. With the loss of its books, the Library of Congress was forced to replace its narrow, limited collection with the wider, cosmopolitan selection from the private library of Thomas Jefferson.
The Library of Congress drew most of the exhibit items from its own rich collection. The earliest Oxford publication on display is a 1530 grammar. And, of course, the exhibition includes the famous Oxford English Dictionary, appropriately open to the word "quincentenary."