Reading History and the Massachusetts-New York Land Controversy, 1785-1787

King (top image) as painted by John Trumbull.  This is on display in the Yale University Art Gallery.  Photo by author.

Rufus King (top image) as painted by John Trumbull in 1792. This is on display in the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo by author.

Rufus King (1755-1827) spent parts of all three of his terms in the Continental Congress (1785-1787) trying to untangle the conflicting claims to 13 million acres of land in central and western New York.   In 1783, Massachusetts reasserted its claim to land east of the western border of New York based on the 1644 colonial charter granted by King Charles I, which gave Massachusetts a strip of territory to the Pacific Ocean.[1] New York disagreed and as mandated by the Articles of Confederation, both sides agreed to set up a federal court to settle the issue. That proved harder than expected, and both sides agreed to meet in direct negotiations at Hartford, Connecticut on November 30, 1786. Ten agents, four from Massachusetts and six from New York, worked until December 16 and came up with a compromise that gave sovereignty of the land to New York, but gave title to a little more than six million acres to Massachusetts. The historian Wendell Tripp referred to this acquisition of Massachusetts as “a pocket-size empire in a state of virginity.”[2] The legislatures of both sides ratified the agreement in 1787 and Massachusetts was able to raise funds from the tract by selling the title to a land syndicate for roughly three cents an acre in April 1788.[3]

By any measure, it was a success for King and the other Massachusetts agents. It also marked the first time King was involved in negotiations over boundaries. He would be involved with many other political and diplomatic battles over borderlines in the future, especially when he was the American minister to Great Britain from 1796-1803. This work required King to have access to massive amounts of often-obscure historical and legal information to formulate strong arguments. It was part of the reason why his Americana collection was so strong and why he purchased so many maps while in London. His initial work in 1785-1786 offers a glimpse of his research process that would be refined over time.

The Massachusetts-New York land dispute involved the detailed study of sixteenth and seventeenth and century exploration and colonization. One gets the sense of the vast corpus of material that had to be mined in order to fully synthesize the problems by looking at the records left behind by Alexander Hamilton, who was hired as one of the counselors for the New York agents. Hamilton used eight important colonial history books and one pamphlet to put together a timeline of explorations and land claims in North and South America generally and Canada, New England, Virginia, and New York specifically. In all, the notes take up eleven printed pages in the Papers of Alexander Hamilton.[4]

Massachusetts did not hire any legal help, but King undertook a similar research project, seeking out information on the boundaries specified in the several colonial charters from Massachusetts to Georgia and recording it in a notebook preserved at the New-York Historical Society. King went to the second volume of the Parliamentary Register from 1774 to excerpt material from the charters and used George Chalmer’s Political Annals of the Present United Colonies, from the Settlement to the Peace of 1763 to find several small details on the charters. He also used William Smith’s The History of the Province of New-York to locate material from the New York and New Jersey charters. Throughout the notebook, King underlined sections dealing with boundaries extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the basis of the Massachusetts argument for the land.[5]

As a well-connected Congressman, King knew the New York agents, who shared reports and maps with him before the negotiations.[6] King knew the likely strategy of his adversaries: “[New York] will prove a possession prior to the first massachusetts charter; and produce ancient maps to shew that the whole country west of the Hudson was laid down at the as nova Belgia; then arguing from the municipal principle, that a possession of a part, ensures to all the beneficial purposes of a possession of the whole Territory claimed attempt the establishment of their title by possession.” To counter this, King suggested looking at the Dutch records in New York and examining records in London. John Adams, the American minister in London at the time, followed up on King’s request and had the pertinent documents copied at the high cost of fifteen guineas. Also, King looked to William Smith’s The History of the Province of New-York, “which cites an old author, whose name I don’t remember, who considers the territory west and north west of Albany as Terra incognita.”[7]

King also knew the New Yorkers were examining colonial Massachusetts law and he recommended it, “would be well to examine every act of Massachusetts on this subject that may be obtainable; and perhaps the Laws fixing the county lines may by incautious expressions express some precise Limit to our western Line.” King also wanted to know what the reports of governors from Massachusetts and New York back to England said about the dispositions of each colony and a search of the records for Indian applications for protection, “any thing of that kind, from the western indians, to Massachusetts in early times, would weight well against the claim of the dutch defendants and therefore should be looked after.”[8]

In addition, King worried about New York’s strongest argument, the quo warranto proceedings of 1684 that revoked Massachusetts’ original charter, and led to a new charter in 1691. King challenged this argument in a legal manner, doubting “if any jugement [sic] was entered in form, which Hutchinson doubts in his history.” Thomas Hutchinson’s The History of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay provided a summary of the events of that led up to the new charter, “but nothing particular can be concluded from his history; if an authentic report of that case can be obtained, it might be very serviceable.”[9] King also remembered a declaration made by the governor of Massachusetts in 1676, suggesting that the colony extended to the Pacific, and “this paper is in Belknap’s History of New Hampshire, appendix paper 14. – the paper No. 15 in the same appendix, containing a report of the board of trade, throws light up on the same subject.”[10]

It is clear that part of the success of the Massachusetts’ agents involved the research preparation of King. His personal connections no doubt made the negotiations easier, but the arguments of King and his colleagues gave traction to a weak argument and led to a compromise that benefited their state. Books and documents proved the longevity of the Massachusetts claim and those arguments made the New Yorkers accommodate their adversaries. In part, it was the use of books and documents that led to a political victory that brought hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state coffers at a time when it was sorely needed.

[1] Massachusetts ceded all their western lands between the Mississippi River and the western border of New York in April 1785. King and his fellow Massachusetts delegate Samuel Holten formerly performed this duty in Congress.

[2] Wendell Edward Tripp, Jr., Robert Troup: A Quest for Security in a Turbuent New Nation, 1775-1832 (New York: Arno Press, 1982), 156.

[3] This syndicate, run by Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, also had to buy the land rights from the Indians already living there. They purchased the title of 2.5 million acres of land from the Indians, but were unable to keep up with payments on the land and sold 1 million acres of the eastern part of the tract to Robert Morris and had to return the western 2/3rds to Massachusetts. See Tripp, Robert Troup, 154-155.

[4] Harold C. Syrett, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Volume 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), 704-711.

[5] RK Papers, N-YHS, Vol. 105.

[6] James Duane to RK, January 1787, Houghton Library, “a duplicate of Mr De Witt’s map of the disputed territory, used in the late interesting negociation [sic].”; RK to John Lowell, 25 April 1785, Houghton Library, Harvard University (bMS AM 1582, 308-317) which notes sending a report written by John Jay “relative to our eastern boundary – I do not like it – pray shew [sic] it to those whom it may concern under the injunction of secrecy.”

[7] RK to John Lowell and James Sullivan, 23 April 1785, Houghton Library, Harvard University (bMS Am 1582, 308-317).

[8] ibid

[9] These records were sent by John Adams in London: RK to Lowell, Sullivan, and Parsons, 12 April 1786, Houghton Library, “By the last Packet I received from Mr. Adams an attested copy of the Letters patent of King James the 1st. to the council of Plymouth, together with the papers, copies whereof are inclosed – The copy of the letters patent is voluminous; and I have supposed it as well to keep in my possession as to transmit it by Post.”

[10] RK to Lowell and Sullivan, 23 April 1785

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Rufus King and William Wilberforce: The Attempted Translation of an Anti-Slavery Text

Rufus King, 1800

Rufus King, 1800

While Rufus King, the American Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain from 1796-1803, used his own reading for political ends, he also employed his diplomatic pull in an attempt to guide the reading of others. Most ambitiously, he worked with the anti-slavery Parliamentarian William Wilberforce to influence French actions against the slave trade during peace negotiations in 1801-1802. No doubt, the two leaders met through their mutual friend John Jay who probably recommended they seek each other out upon King’s arrival. They seem to have done so and were on intimate terms by at least April 1797. That month King wrote in his memorandum book that Wilberforce told him that Foreign Minister Lord Grenville, “was a cold, formal character; proud and in that respect quite a Lord – that he knew him well as ‘Billy Grenville’ when a Boy, that he had the seedlings of this Character in him then in like manner as the acorn contains the Oak.”[1] Such rapport demonstrates the basis of trust that the two leaders had for each other, and while no doubt personally gratifying to both, their friendship allowed them to advance their respective interests.


William Wilberforce

King’s anti-slavery credentials go back to the early 1780s when he fought to keep the institution out of the Northwest Territories. Wilberforce, ever the activist, probably saw King as a useful ally from the start of their friendship. He might have introduced King to his wider circle of anti-slavery partners, including Granville Sharp. King, who was familiar with the Somerset decision of 1771 and Sharp’s role in the famous case, corresponded with Sharp for a short period in 1797. Sharp sent King a letter along with several of his anti-slavery pamphlets, which King appears to have bound into one volume. It is unclear if the two men ever wrote again after this initial exchange.[2] But King and Wilberforce sustained a long-lasting partnership that lasted beyond the former’s years in Britain.

Their primary project involved the translation and dissemination of anti-slavery literature in Paris in order to influence the negotiations for peace in 1801-1802. The pair began their work in early 1800; long before serious negotiations had begun in early 1801. Napoleon Bonaparte, as first consul, had sent out peace feelers since 1799, but both Pitt and Grenville were distrustful of the general and refused to reciprocate. Wilberforce knew negotiations would eventually occur and he wanted to be ready. In early 1800 he wrote to King, saying “I have been reflecting with much Solicitude on the grand project I suggested to you of effecting a general abolition of the Slave Trade by a convention to be made in the negotiations for Peace.” Wilberforce suggested he could make the British government amenable to this plan, and, probably overstating his case, claimed the French have “little apparent interest” in continuing the institution. He pointed out that the French would be essential to counter any move by Spain, Portugal, or Holland to preserve the trade. In order to build French support at the coming peace negotiations, Wilberforce wanted “to lay before Bonaparte the short abstract of the Evidence adduced before the Ho[use]. of Com[mon]s, (espec[ial]ly. that affecting the Slave Trade in Africa, a subject little understood or consider’d) & still more the printed account of 2 debates which took place on my motions, wherein are speeches of Mr. Pitt & Mr. Fox.” Wilberforce asked King to sound out Louis Guillaume Otto, the French commissary for prisoners of war in London since 1799, and an old friend of King’s from the days when Otto resided in America in the 1780s, to see if the Frenchman was willing to help get the printed materials to Paris. Wilberforce was taking a great personal risk doing this, as it was illegal to negotiate on behalf of the nation without proper accreditation, but he saw it as a moral duty to act. To cover himself, he wanted to disguise any correspondence as a simple information exchange, like Sir Joseph Banks’ interventions with Napoleon to protect scientific ventures. King understood the risk and uncharacteristically agreed to join the intrigue.[3]

Shortly after this letter was sent, Wilberforce regretted not finding King at home so they could discuss “the subject of our late intercourse.” He lamented his inability procure any translation of the anti-slavery materials. The manuscript, “tho’ little for a printed Volume, that work will in writing appe[ar] of such formidable Bulk, that I fear it will scarce put in a Claim strong enough to obtain it a reading from a Man whose time must be so much taken up as that of the person whose perusal it is intended [Napoleon] – It has occur’d to me that it might be highly useful if the Proposal were without delay to be started by Mr. O[tto] – When once an Interest should be excited, then even a large Manuscript might not deter.” Wilberforce reported that a friend told him the fastest way to get a translation was to send the manuscript to Paris through French booksellers in London and let them build up a buzz for the work. Once word was out, “Anyone in Paris (the Premier himself) who might wish to see it, in Paris, might be inform’d where in Paris it was to be obtained, & the Translat[io]n by a Word from him might be accelerated in any degree.” King, realizing Wilberforce’s earnestness, wrote back the next day saying that Otto had been contacted and that he would look into the proposal to work with the French booksellers.[4]

The plan seems to have staled at this point. The year from mid-1800 to mid-1801 was filled with complicated maneuvering by King involving negotiations over the prize courts, border disputes, and the stalled commissions of the sixth and seventh articles of the Jay Treaty and left little time for side projects. But neither forgot the scheme. King’s mind was struck by a passage involving the slave trade during his reading of Edward Gibbon around this time. Under the heading “Negro Slavery” King extracted from Gibbon’s Memoirs: “Lord Sheffield having voted agt. the abolition of the Slave Trade, Mr Gibbon asks him in a Letter – ‘Do you not expect to work at Belzebubs sugar Plantation in the infernal Region, under the tender Govt. of a Negro Driver[’]”.[5] In late November 1800, Wilberforce told King he had arranged a dinner where they could meet and discuss their project to abolish the slave trade. A dejected Wilberforce said the matters that they consider of such importance “are not in so good a train as I would wish.”[6]

After another several month hiatus, the two friends picked up the pace of their work after the Pitt ministry fell in February 1801 over the Catholic emancipation issue. The new government, led by Henry Addington and his foreign minister Lord Hawkesbury, had fewer qualms about opening up peace negotiations with Napoleon, and did so immediately. Wilberforce wrote to King soon after these moves were made and desired to enter into direct talks with Otto after receiving permission from Addington to do so.[7] This led to Wilberforce transmitting the manuscripts to King under circumstances of extreme secrecy, and King in turn forwarded them to Otto, who was by now the French Minister Plenipotentiary to Britain.[8] Wilberforce directed King to tell Otto to “address it to the person for whom it is designed – I understand this must in any Case secure it from violation, which for many Reasons you must suppose me to desire – I wish likewise that Mr. O[tto] should not know from whom the packet comes to you – I have been detain’d so long by finding it difficult to get English tolerably translated into French.” Wilberforce desired Otto to not speak of where the manuscripts originated.[9] It is unclear if the parcel ever made its way to the French printers.

Throughout the summer of 1801 Otto and Hawkesbury tried to hammer out a preliminary peace deal in London. Unhappy with the progress at home, Hawkesbury sent Anthony Merry to Paris to negotiate with the French foreign minister Talleyrand. The parcel would have made it to France long before the preliminary peace was signed October 1, 1801. Both sides went right into negotiations for a final agreement with Lord Cornwallis continuously challenged and outmaneuvered by his French counterparts, Joseph Bonaparte and Talleyrand. Wilberforce became dejected almost immediately when the British were given the relatively virgin land of Trinidad in the negotiations. It would be a new focus of British development, which would require massive importation of slaves. Even if the French could be brought around, Wilberforce watched his own footing fall out from under him.[10] At best, the materials sent by Wilberforce and King were an afterthought, which is reflected in Wilberforce’s depressing reading of the diplomatic scene:

Wilberforce told me that he had not much hopes, that the Article abolishing the Slave Trade would be inserted in the definitive Treaty. Lord Cornwallis knew & cared little about it, but wd. act fairly, whereas Malmesbury [a retired diplomat whose advice was often sought], knowing the King’s opinion, like a mere courtier as he was, wd. be sure to defeat any hopes wh. might exist in its favour. Addington was well enough disposed, as well as others of his colleagues, but Hawkesbury partook of his Father’s sentiments on this topic and he had fairly told him that so long as he entertained these principles he W. would never look upon him with the friendship he desired to do. Wilberforce seemed to think (in wh. I believe he is quite mistaken) that Bonaparte was disinclined or lukewarm, on account of his wife, who is a Creole![11]

King was right, Napoleon was disinclined for reasons of politics and economics. Right after the Treaty of Amiens was ratified on April 1, 1802, Napoleon revived the institution of slavery and reintroduced the slave trade into the French Empire. It had never been formally abolished in the aftermath of the Revolution and Napoleon was now allowing his countrymen to operate under the pre-1789 rules of the trade.[12] The emperor then sent an expedition to reestablish French power in the Caribbean, leading Rufus King to express great fears of a renewed French Empire in America. The French would retake Guadeloupe from a band of rebels, but the failure to reassert French control on Saint Domingue in 1802 led to an eventually pull out from America when Europe erupted into war again in 1803.

[1] RK Papers, Vol. 73, N-YHS.

[2] Granville Sharp to RK, 30 June 1797, Box 88, N-YHS. This box contains only one folder. This folder contains manuscript copies of letters Sharp sent to several others on topics like Frankpledge. Sharp said he sent “the Plan for Towns &ca. I have also sent the French Plan Frankpledge … I have also sent 2 papers concerning the true Causes of the Late enormities in France … and a 3rd paper (in the same Cover vizt. the Extract of a Letter to the Govr. of Sierra Leone) urges the necessity of a Test to exclude Papists & Apostates from any share in a free and well constituted Legislature. … I have sent a Copy of the Militia Tract which I promised, with a Tract on Duelling, and also a Copy of my Declaration of the Peoples Right to a share in the Legislature (1st printed on behalf of the People of America) lest the Copy in your possession shd be only the first Edition, which had no index.” King’s library inventory notes he has one volume of “Sharps Tracts.” RK Papers, Vol. 74, N-YHS. The pamphlets have since been unbound and are available at N-YHS.

[3] John Pollock, Wilberforce (London: Lion, 1982), 181; William Wilberforce to RK, undated but before April 1800, Vol. 25, RK Papers, N-YHS. This letter is also in King, ed., The Life and Correspondence, Vol. 3, 510-513. It is erroneously dated “Sept. 1801.” The manuscript has no date and internal evidence contradicts a September 1801 date. At the end of the letter Wilberforce says “I have not forgotten that you expressed a wish to possess the publications mention[e]d in my Letter & have been , I trust successfully, taking steps for getting you copies of them.” At some point he at least partially followed up on this, as the “House of Commons” tract is currently located in the King library at N-YHS. It is bound with Thomas Clarkson’s An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in a volume called “Slave Trade” in RK Papers, Vol. 74, N-YHS.

[4] Wilberforce to RK, 4 April [1800], RK Papers, Vol. 25, N-YHS. RK endorsed the letter “Ansd 5th That the person had been seen & wd lose no time in communicating the proposal.”

[5] RK Papers, Vol. 102, N-YHS.

[6] Wilberforce to RK, 24 November 1800, King, ed., Life and Correspondence, Vol. 4, 336.

[7] Wilberforce to RK, undated but probably after 17 March 1801, Vol. 25, RK Papers, N-YHS.

[8] Wilberforce to RK, 22 & 27 May 1801, Vol. 25, RK Papers, N-YHS.

[9] Wilberforce to RK, 4 June 1801, Vol. 25, RK Papers, N-YHS.

[10] Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 105-108.

[11] RK Papers, Vol. 73, N-YHS. Also at King, ed., Life and Correspondence, Vol. 4, 21.

[12] Hugh Thomas, Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 546-547.

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Commonplace Books and Identity: A Brief Example from Alexander MacCallum Scott’s Reading

As David Allan, Earle Havens, and Stephen Colclough have argued, commonplace books offer examples of active reading where meaning is appropriated, personal identity built, and complicated responses to problems developed.  These notebooks contain extracts from texts, sometimes exactly copied and sometimes paraphrased, that were stored for future use in rhetoric, formal composition, or witty conversation.  Each extract was given a heading, or a tag, that would help the reader remember the passage when he or she needed it.  Self-constructed identity becomes apparent through the choices an individual makes when copying  these passages during reading.  If we can understand the filter the used in their selection process, then we can get a better sense of who they were.

Scott CP Book 1I came across an excellent example of this interpretation during spring break this past March.   I had the fantastic opportunity to travel to the University of Glasgow to co-teach a week long seminar on the history of the book to students in a variety of fields.  During one of my sessions on the history of reading, I taught commonplace books and the special collections librarian was kind enough to pull some excellent examples of the genre for the students to view.  One of the most striking was the late 1890s student commonplace book of Alexander MacCallum Scott, who would become a the Liberal MP for the Bridgeton constituency of Glasgow from 1910-1922. From 1917-1919 he was parliamentary private secretary of Winston Churchill and at the Ministry of Munitions, and later joined his boss at the War Office.

Throughout his career he was a strong anti-suffragist, a political movement  begun in the late 19th century to campaign against women’s right to vote.  This viewpoint is reflected in the passage recorded below:

Scott CP Book 2“Women

197) The new movement is for the civilization of women.  She has remained a barbarian.  At heart she is non-sociable.  The home has been her place of retirement, & it was only occasionally that she came in contact with the world & then under such artificial circumstances as the drawing room & ball room afford.  Unhealthy girls schools have fostered a spirit of meanness.  The mixed schools foster a spirit of healthy generosity.”

While it is unclear where Scott plucked this passage from, his views would ultimately lose out when women in the United Kingdom gained the right to vote in 1918.  Women in the US would have to wait until 1920.

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Review of Janice Radway’s “Reading the Romance”

Janice A. Radway, _Reading the Romance_ (1984)

Janice A. Radway, _Reading the Romance_ (1984)

This week I assigned my students Janice Radway’s classic Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (University of North Carolina Press, 1984; repr. 1991) as the text for our discussion of the history of reading and the history of book use.  As an American Studies scholar, Radway wanted to expose the culture of patriarchy that pervades modern life in America.  The hope being that if the public is alerted to a problem in cultural life, they will use this knowledge to advocate resistance and social change.   The political goals behind this argument are of less interest to me than the example of active readership she demonstrates throughout the book.

Reading the Romance is an ethnographic study of a group of 42 romance novel readers.  These readers, almost all of whom are white, middle class, married women, live in a commuter suburb of a Midwestern city – called Smithton.  The group is led by Dorothy Evans, a bookstore clerk who recommends romance novels to a batch of loyal customers.  She also writes a newsletter on the novels and has strong opinions about the value of romance reading for women.  Radway records several group discussions, interviews 16 particularly articulate readers, watches Evans in her work environment, and collects an extensive questionnaire.  Throughout the text, Radway is very clear that this is not a typical group of readers and consistently qualifies her conclusions.  That being said, she does make some large interpretations based on her findings, and she hopes that others will follow up with more research.

In the book, Radway challenges the literary critics of the 1970s and early 1980s, who focus on the text instead of the reader.  Literary critics posited that the mass produced text exerted immense control over the reader and that understanding its conventions would allow us to understand the power of these commodities over society.  Radway does not deny that there are certain controls and conventions built into a text, but she says that the reader has the ability to appropriate, poach, and interpret on his or her own.  People use books for a variety of reasons beyond what literary critics say is important and Radway demonstrates the diversity of readings the Smithton women bring to the much maligned romance novel.

Taking the Smithton women and the genre seriously, Radway discovers their reasons for reading romances are quite complex.  While the genre is formulaic, they have very strong opinions about certain novels and authors.  Some novels are very good at offering the emotional sustenance they crave, and others fail.  The Smithton women read voraciously in order to escape the burdens and loneliness of housework and childcare, carve out their own space and time in a culture that demands they nurture others and deny themselves, and to find hope and confidence that the men in their lives can be loving even when they do not always show such emotion.

Radway uses this starting point to expand her interpretation further.  She brings psychoanalytical interpretations to bear, suggesting that women are willing to accept rape in romance novels (under very specific circumstances) in order to understand and cope with the fear of potential male violence.  Also, she notes that daughters grow up with a nurturing bond with their mother that they are trying to reestablish this with their husbands.  They require examples of heroines in romance novels who tame a strong, masculine hero and demonstrate the value loving and caring for her.  As a result, reading is not just for the basic needs of escapism and relaxation; there is a core mythology that alleviates deep-seated psychological burdens as well.  She shows this by examining the texts and formulas of novels the Smithton women both like and hate.

At times she makes large interpretive leaps with her material, but that is a common situation required of all reading historians.  Sometimes she succeeds, and other time she does not.  For example, her argument that the formulas in romance novels function as myths for a community of women who are isolated from one another resonates, but her argument that reading romance novels gives women strategies to cope with a pervasive patriarchy sometimes falls flat (p. 75).  It is hard to imagine the Smithton women as “subversive” as well (p. 118).  All in all, the book is very unique in its evidence of reading – most studies rely on marginalia, notes, or police files – but she has oral history interviews.  While it is impossible to replicate such a methodology for pre-20th century reading history, her findings show that historians and critics must understand the reader as active and not passive.  That activity can and must be captured to write a full history of any era.

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Review of Galbraith and Smith’s “Rare Book Librarianship”

This excellent introductory text into rare book librarianship by Steven K. Galbraith (Curator at RIT) and Geoffrey D. Smith (Head of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at the Ohio State University) is a perfect book to assign for students new to the field.  It might be a good refresher for more seasoned rare book librarians, although I suspect it will mainly be used as a teaching tool.  Coming in at  a little over 180 pages, it is not an onerous read, although some sections, especially the chapter on digitization, are simplistic.  That being said, Galbraith and Smith have done a great service for fellow teachers and rare book librarians, especially since the text turned to before this one was Roderick Cave’s Rare Book Librarianship, last updated in 1982.  Galbraith and Smith’s work will be on my syllabus for some time.

The forward by  the newly-named director of the Lilly Library, Joel Silver, sets the tone for the book by relating to that rare book librarianship has moved from a model that emphasized collection development to one that stresses access and public engagement.  With library collections becoming homogenous due to increased sharing through inter-library loans and the growth of databases, Silver rightfully stresses that special collections and rare books provide the distinctive materials that set one institution apart from another.  With this being the case, it is one of the most exciting times to enter the field, if one can find a position in today’s tough job market.  But if special collections and rare book libraries are to stay viable, librarians need to demystify their space and attempt to remove the connotations of elitism surrounding them.  Today, a rare book librarian has to be pro-active, all the authors say, and go to where the patrons are.  That is why the longest section of this book has to do with outreach.  If more constituencies are not brought into the rare book room, these materials will not receive the resources they need.  In the end, they argue that there is a golden opportunity for rare book librarians, but they must take advantage of it.  This assessment is accurate.

The book begins with short introductions into the history of rare book libraries in the United States and bibliography.  They make the insight that most rare book librarians often have a deeper bibliographic knowledge of the hand press era, but that machine press era bibliography might be more important for most institutions because many land grant colleges were founded in the late 19th century and public universities did not enter into this field until after World War Two.   It is a point that deserves stressing.  I felt these chapters would be a good assignment for a class that only has one or two days to spend on bibliography.  It covers all the ground nicely.

They then delve into the day-to-day operations and activities of a rare book library.  They note that librarians need to understand their collections (especially the provenance of interesting volumes), know basic conservation techniques (avoid white gloves, keep temperature and humidity constant, provide proper housing for weakened items, etc.), and have security and disaster procedures in place.

Galbraith and Smith argue strenuously that rare book librarians need to be personable negotiators who can network with booksellers, donors, and administrators.  To be good negotiators, they have to understand their collection strengths and know how they want to build on them.  Having a clear mission and a plan for the future will help resolve many conflicts, they say.  In fact, avoiding conflict is a theme Galbraith and Smith stress throughout their book.  Navigating diverse constituencies and managing institutional politics are essential skills to develop for the rare book librarian.

I found some interesting material in the copyright chapter, namely that rare book librarians not only preserve their materials by having researchers digitally photograph items, but also eliminate the legal burden that making photocopies could place on a library.  The chapter on outreach has a long list of ideas for librarians, although most of them will be second-nature to anyone with an interest in how libraries work.

In conclusion, people interested in library science should keep this on their radar screen, especially if they are teaching or making suggestions for interns or volunteers thinking of entering the field.  It is a serviceable text that filled a need.

Update, 4/3/13: I used this textbook in my book history course and some surprises emerged.  I convened a panel of librarians to discuss their daily work and the problems and pleasures they encounter in the rare book room.  The book proved a useful starting for discussion, but it emerged that daily routines made much of what the book prescribed difficult to implement.  For example, the librarians all talked about being understaffed.  This meant the backlog was immense and that even a small number of researchers could dominate a day.  Galbraith and Smith advocate more outreach, but the librarians on the panel said that would be difficult for them.  Without more staff and funding, they could not handle a large influx of people to their libraries.  But then the counter-point emerged — if we don’t get more people into the library we will never get more funding.  Resolving this Catch-22 was something we could not do in a two-hour discussion, but it is worth considering.  Also, while digital skills are important, it is difficult to find the time to delve into that aspect of 21st century librarianship.  What I took away from the discussion was that a textbook can describe to you how things should be in a perfect world, but that the day-to-day life of the rare book room often makes it hard to make that vision a reality.

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The Library of William H. Seward

Seward statue in Seward Park in Auburn, NY.  The house museum is in the background.

Seward statue in Seward Park in Auburn, NY. The house museum is in the background.

This past weekend I went to Auburn, New York to visit the historic house museum of William H. Seward.  I had heard of the large library that was in the house and I made the trip to see if it would be a viable reading history project.  The house is quite large at thirty rooms and almost all of its contents belonged to the Seward family, most of it  connected to William himself.  Built by Judge Elijah Miller in 1816, Seward moved into the house in 1824 after his marriage to Frances Adeline Miller Seward.  Judge Miller lived with the couple until his death in 1851.  Seward died in the house in 1872.

I had heard that the library in the house had around 7,000 volumes and was hopeful that some of it would contain marginalia.  Once I arrived, the staff told me the count was closer to 5,500 volumes and that perhaps a little over half belonged to Seward himself.   It is always tough to make those types of estimates, as the library was clearly a family collection.  Books owned by Elijah Miller remained in the home after his death and various family members had book in the house while Seward was alive.  How many Seward himself used will require further research.  In addition to the volumes in the house, some books might still be with descendants of Seward, many of whom live around Auburn.

Seward bookplate in front pastedown of his copy of _The Works of Edmund Burke_, Vol. 1 (Boston, 1839).

Seward bookplate in front pastedown of his copy of _The Works of Edmund Burke_, Vol. 1 (Boston, 1839).

I made arrangements with the staff to look at books cited in his “higher law” speech of 1850 as well as other legal and historical volumes.  In all I looked at two dozen volumes in the four hours I had there, and found substantial marginalia in six of those volumes.  That percentage gives me hope that a thorough examination of the books could yield enough material to write several articles or a book.

Any project involving a biographical reading history requires a deeper archive and luckily most of Seward’s papers are at the University of Rochester.  In fact, history professor Thomas Slaughter has collaborated with the university’s librarians and archivists to teach a class using the Seward papers, which will lead to the digitization of the papers in the near future.  The archive in Rochester contains several library catalogs and the house museum has a catalog made by William Henry Seward, Jr., who lived in the house after his father’s death.  In addition, the first director and curator of the museum, Betty Lewis, who was hired in 1951 and worked at the house for four decades, cataloged all the books in the house.  That card catalog is in the house museum’s collection.  The museum undertook another cataloging of the books in 2008.  What is even more exciting is that the family and museum staff has kept the books in Seward’s shelf order, allowing scholars to get a sense of Seward’s categorization.  The abundance of reference materials would make this type of project much easier.

One wall of Seward's library in Auburn, NY.  The bust is a paper mache model used for the metal bust at his birth place in Florida, NY.

One wall of Seward’s library in Auburn, NY. The bust is a paper mache model used for the metal bust at his birth place in Florida, NY.

Books are all over the house, with most of them in a small office Seward built toward the end of his life, the library, and the drawing room, and some in bedrooms upstairs.  In the library, Seward set aside a separate set of shelves for his daughter Fanny’s library.  Fanny died in 1866 at the age of 21, and the books were left as a monument to her.

Most of the marginalia I saw was underlining and vertical lines in the margins.  But two examples were particularly striking.  Seward made at least two dozen notations next to various passages in Oeuvres Complètes De N. Machiavelli, Volume 1 (Paris, 1837).  He closely read the French text of the Florentine Histories and made marginal comments in English.  The other interesting example comes from Seward’s copy of The Works of Francis Bacon, Vol. 1 (London, 1841).  On page 745 of this volume, Seward wrote “Tyler / Texas / Treaty” in the margin of Bacon’s History of King Henry VII.  The marginalia was in comment to Bacon’s line,  “yet he did not consider

Page 745 of Seward's copy of _The Works of Francis Bacon_, Vol. 1 (London, 1841).

Page 745 of Seward’s copy of _The Works of Francis Bacon_, Vol. 1 (London, 1841).

that Charles [the King of France] was not guided by any of the principal of the blood or nobility, but by mean men, who would make it their master-piece of credit and favour, to give venturous counsels, which no great or wise man durst or would.”  This is a reference to the treaty of annexation that President John Tyler’s administration negotiated and the Senate scuttled in June 1844.

Lastly, I’ll share an interesting inscription from the Unitarian minister, one-term Massachusetts Congressman, and historian John G. Palfrey.  He sent Seward a copy of his History of New England (Boston, 1859).  On the front flyleaf he wrote:

Front flyeaf of Seward's copy of John G. Palfrey's _History of New England_ (Boston, 1859).

Front flyleaf of Seward’s copy of John G. Palfrey’s _History of New England_ (Boston, 1859).

John G. Palfrey,
as a small token of his profound respect for the Honble.  William H. Seward, begs Mr. Seward to accept this copy of a History of men who owned, revered, obeyed, uphold,  & were upheld by, The Higher Law.
Cambridge, Mass.;
1860, Sept. 1.

I’ll be posting other findings I made while I was in Auburn, NY in future posts.  But hopefully further research can help us understand not only what Seward read, but also how and why.

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Rufus King’s Granddaughter Survives the Sinking of the “Pulaski” in 1838

While I was working on a post about a printed subscription proposal for Benjamin F. Thompson’s planned 2 volume octavo edition of the History of Long Island (link to second volume here), which I found in the John Alsop King Papers at the New-York Historical Society, I discovered an earlier printed circular Thompson sent to King requesting interesting information that would help him write the book.  The item was dated August 7, 1838 and began by noting that, “[t]he last edition of ‘A Sketch of the first settlement of the several towns of Long Island,’ by the Hon Silas Wood, being exhausted, the undersigned has been solicited to prepare a more enlarged History of Long Island.”  The print continued for a long paragraph, after which Thompson attached a note to his friend:

Benjamin F. Thompson to John Alsop King, 7 August 1838, John Alsop King Papers, Box 1834-1856, Folder 1824-1839

Benjamin F. Thompson to John Alsop King, 7 August 1838, John Alsop King Papers, Box 1834-1856, Folder 1824-1839, N-YHS.

“I know(?) the terrible [illegible] which your feelings and that of your amiable family, must have experienced by the sad catastrophe of the Pulaski – and you may be assured no one more than myself deeply sympathised with you on the occasion.  You have had ample evidence of the strong and anxious public feeling which was felt by the whole community & especially by those of your county and neighborhood –

I have therefore foreborne to trouble [you] on the subject of my former communication till now – I have therefore to solicit from you a statement or memorandum of whatever in your examinations (if any you have made)  may have occurred to you, as important & worthy of a place in my projected History of Long Island.”

This was a reference to the harrowing ordeal of John’s daughter Mary King Nightingale (b. 28 October 1810) on the steamship Pulaski, which sunk off the coast of North Carolina after a boiler explosion on June 13-14, 1838.  On board was Mary, traveling with her seven-month-old daughter Laura Greene Nightingale.   Laura’s father was the grandson of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene, Phineas Miller Nightingale (b. 1803) of Cumberland Island, Georgia.  Mary and Phineas married at what is now the Rufus King Manor House in Jamaica, Long Island on 16 November 1836 and moved to Georgia.  It seems that Mary was taking Laura north to visit her relatives.  The Pulaski left Savannah, Georgia with a crew of 37 and 90 passenger.  It stopped at Charleston, South Carolina where it took on another 65.  Over 100 of them would die.


The Pulaski Disaster, June 1838

A description of Nightingale’s traumatic trip can be found in S.A. Howland, Steamboat Disasters and Railroad Accidents in the United States.  To Which is Appended Accounts of Recent Shipwrecks, Fires at Sea, Thrilling Incidents, &c, 2nd ed. (Worcester, MA: Published by Door, Howland & Co., 1840), 48-51.  Howland took this description verbatim from newspaper accounts of the time.

“There were four boats belonging to the Pulaski; two being swung to the sides, and two placed on the top of the promenade deck. The side boats were both lowered down, within five minutes after the explosion. In that on the starboard side the first mate, Mr. Hibbert, Mr. Swift, and one other person had placed themselves;—in that on the larboard side were Mr. J. H. [James Hamilton] Couper [who owned a 4,500 acre plantation in Glynn County, Georgia], with Mrs. Nightingale and child, and Mrs. Frazer and her son, who were under his charge. Capt. R. W. Pooler and son, and Mr. William Robertson, all of Georgia, Barney and Solomon belonging to the crew, and two colored women. By direction of the mate two of the crew launched one of the deck boats and got into her; but as, from her long exposure to the sun, her seams were all open, she immediately filled, and Mr. Hibbert removed the men to his boat. The boats met, when those in the second proposed to Mr. Hibbert to strike for the land, as it had on board as many as it could safely carry; this he declined to do, as he said he was determined to stay by the wreck until daylight, and had yet room for more persons. Both boats then continued to row about the wreck until the mate’s boat had picked up as many as she could carry, when Mr. Hibbert yielded to the propriety of consulting the safety of those in the boats, by going to the land, as their further stay would endanger them, without affording any aid to their suffering friends, and they left the wreck at 3 P. M. The boats took a N. W. course, being favored by a heavy sea and strong breeze from S. E.

At 12 o’clock they made the land, and at 3 P. M. were near the beach. Mr. Hibbert then waited until. the second boat came up, and informed them that those who were in his boat refused to row any farther and insisted on landing;—Mr. Couper united with him in protesting against this measure, as, from the heavy breakers which were dashing on the beach, as far as the eye could reach, it was obviously one of great peril. Being overruled, they submitted to make the attempt. The mate, who had previously taken the two colored women from the second boat, then proposed to lead the way, and requested Mr. Couper to lie off, until he had effected a landing and was prepared to aid the ladies and children. The first boat then entered the surf, .and disappeared for several minutes from those in the other boat, having been instantly filled with water. Six of the persons in her, viz.:—Mr. Hibbert, Mr. Swift. Mr. Tappan, Mr. Leuchtenburg, and West and Brown of the crew landed in safety. An old gentleman supposed to be Judge Rochester, formerly of Buffalo, N. Y., but recently of Pensacola, Mr. Bird of Georgia, the two colored women, and a boat hand, whose name is unknown, were drowned. The other boat continued to keep off until about §unset, when, finding the night approaching, and there being no appearance of aid, or change in the wind, which was blowing freshly in to the land, and the persons in the boat having previously refused to attempt to row any farther, Mr. Couper reluctantly consented to attempt the landing.

Before making the attempt, it was thought necessary, to prevent the infant of Mrs. Nightingale, which was only seven months old, from being lost; to lash. it to her person, which was done. Just as the sun was setting, the bow of the boat was turned to the shore, and Mr. Couper sculling, and two men at the oars, she was pulled into the breakers—she rose without difficulty upon the first breaker, but the second, coming out with great violence, struck the oar from the hand of one of the rowers. The boat was thus thrown-into the trough of the sea, and the succeeding breaker striking her broadside, turned her bottom upwards. Upon regaining the surface, Mr. Couper laid hold of the boat, and soon discovered that the rest of the party, with the exception of Mrs. Nightingale., were making for the shore ;—of her, for a few moments, he saw nothing, but, presently, feeling something like the dress of a female touching his foot, he again dived down, and was fortunate enough to grasp her by the hair. The surf continued to break over them with great violence, but, after a struggle, in which was spent the last efforts of their strength, they reached the shore, utterly worn out with fatigue, watching, hunger, thirst, and the most intense and overwhelming excitement. Besides this, the ladies and children were suffering severely from the cold. The party proceeded a short distance from the shore,, where the ladies laid down upon the side of a sand hill, and their protectors covered them, and their children with sand, to prevent them from perishing. Meantime, some of the party went in quest of aid, and about 10 o’clock the whole of them found a kind and hospitable reception, shelter, food, and clothing, under the roof of Siglee Redd, of Onslow county.

Mrs. Nightingale is the daughter of John A. King, Esq. of New York, and a grand-daughter of the late distinguished Rufus King.  During the whole of the perils through which they passed, she and Mrs. Fraser displayed the highest qualities of fortitude and heroism. They owe the preservation of their own and their children’s lives, under Providence, to the coolness, intrepidity, and firmness of Mr. Couper and his assistants, and to the steadiness with which they seconded the wise and humane efforts of that gentleman in their behalf.

On Monday they reached Wilmington, where they found a deep sympathy for their misfortune pervading the whole city, and generous emulation among its inhabitants to render them’ every possible assistance.”

26 others who clung to a makeshift lifeboat made from the bow of the ship and other floating debris were picked up four days later by a passing ship.  Mary and Laura made their way north and eventually arrived at Jamaica, Long Island.  The Long Island Farmer of 28 June 1838 noted they “arrived in this village yesterday afternoon.”

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