Events

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

19 January 1749: Birthday of Isaiah Thomas: Patriot, Printer, Founder of American Antiquarian Society

Mass Moments tells us:
On this day...in 1749, the Patriot printer Isaiah Thomas was born. In 1770, Thomas established the Massachusetts Spy, the first newspaper aimed at middle-class readers. While other papers were happy with 400 subscribers, the Spy had a circulation of 3,500. Thomas used the Spy to rally support for the cause of independence. Targeted by the British, he smuggled his press out of Boston to Worcester a few days before the Battle of Lexington and Concord. There, he continued publishing his newspaper. After the war, Thomas became the foremost publisher and printer in America. In 1812, he established the American Antiquarian Society, which today is one of the nation's most complete collections of printed work. (read the rest)
As both printer and patriot, Thomas was indeed a major figure in the history of Massachusetts and the early Republic. (for further information on Thomas and a copy of the paper, see this post from last summer) was a factor in the Revolution and carried an early account of the battles of Lexington and Concord.  Thomas's History of Printing in America (1810) remains a valued and still reprinted reference work.

Thomas performed yet another great service for the region and the nation.  As Mass Moments puts it:
In 1812, he used his considerable wealth to establish a society dedicated to preserving the "literature of liberty"— the newspapers, broadsides, books, pamphlets, and letters that had shaped public opinion during the revolutionary period. He donated his private library and a generous endowment. Then he personally visited newspaper offices and purchased as many back issues as he could. He believed that newspapers were the single best records of the thoughts and actions of common people — the people who made the revolution a success.
Located in Worcester, Thomas's American Antiquarian Society is today the most complete private repository of American printed works through 1876 and a lasting tribute to one man's passionate faith in the power of the printed word.
Here, my battered but treasured copy of the List of Officers and other members from 1814, when the Society was but two years old.


Among the names (for membership was by invitation only, and restricted to notables and distinguished men of learning), we find:
Hon. John Adams, L.L.D. Quincy, late President of the United States.
Hon. John Quincy Adams, L.L.D., Boston, Minister to the Court of Russia.
Hon. Dewitt Clinton, L.L.D. Newyork.
Rev. Timothy Dwight, D.D. L.L.D. President of Yale College, Connecticut.
Hon. Christopher Daniel Ebeling, Professor, Hamburgh, Europe.
Rev. Ebenezer Fitch, D.D. President Williams College, Williamstown.
Hon. Thomas Jefferson, L.L.D. late President of the United States, Monticello, Virginia.
Hon. John Marshall, L.L.D. Chief Justice, U.S. Virginia.
Hon. Gouverneur Morris, Morrisiana, Newyork.
Major General Thomas Pinckney, Charleston, S.C,.
Hon. Bushrod Washington, Judge Supreme Court U. States, Mount Vernon, Virginia
Hon. Daniel Webster, Portsmouth, Newhampshire.
Our town is represented in the person of:
Noah Webster, Amherst.
The document includes a record of "Articles Presented to the Society." The list begins by noting Thomas's founding donation of 8,000 volumes from his personal library and then records acquisitions of the past year.


Several items may be of particular interest:  The books are a miscellaneous lot; we find one incunable, a 1487 Venetian Bible.  Among the periodicals is a collection of the Massachusetts Spy, donated by Thomas himself.

Most noteworthy, perhaps, are materials from the personal library of the Mather family of distinguished Massachusetts clergymen (pp. 23-25): a major portion of the books, and among the manuscripts, "Upwards of 900 single sermons," as well as sermon notes, diaries, and other writings. Indeed, the AAS can today boast of the "preeminent" collection of works by the Mathers.


Among the manuscript material (p. 25) we also find "Compilation of Historical Tracts, in British America, written above 100 years ago," by the "Hon. Thomas Jefferson of Monticello."  One longs to know whether Mr. Jefferson (a busy man, by all accounts), read the publication and noted, barely two inches below his own name:
Original Copy of an Almanack, for 1792, in the hand writing of the author, a negro man, in Maryland, by the name of Banniker.
In any case, the Sage of Monticello had become acquainted with that book and its author nearly a generation earlier, for it is of course the work of none other than the many-talented Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806). It is ironic in more ways than one. Among Banneker's numerous achievements was assisting in surveying the land for the creation of the nation's capital in 1791. As PBS explains,
A notice first printed in the Georgetown Weekly Ledger and later copied in other newspapers stated that Ellicott was "attended by Benjamin Banneker, an Ethiopian, whose abilities, as a surveyor, and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson's concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation."
And the very manuscript preserved in the AAS collections likewise played a role in that early debate over race:
In 1792, Banneker published an almanac, based on his own painstakingly calculated ephemeris (table of the position of celestial bodies), that also included commentaries, literature, and fillers that had a political and humanitarian purpose. The previous summer, he had sent a copy of the ephemeris to Thomas Jefferson, along with a letter in which he challenged Jefferson's ideas about the inferiority of blacks.
Banneker declared it self-evident
that we are a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world; that we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt; and that we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments.
Counting on Jefferson's reputation for being more liberal-minded in this regard,
I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us; and that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that one universal Father hath given being to us all; and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties ; and that however variable we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him.
The lengthy letter deserves to be read in its entirety.  Thanking Banneker for the gift and the sentiments, Jefferson replied:
no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America. I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedt. humble servt. Th. Jefferson
It's a virtual parallel to the debates over Jewish emancipation (1, 2) unfolding concurrently in Europe.  Condorcet urged the abolition of slavery during the French Revolution, though his gradualist stance on emancipation remains the subject of debate. In any case, a serendipitous pairing of documents as we embark upon the celebration of Black History Month.

Finally, we encounter the odds and ends:  "Coins, Medals, and Paper Money," and the (for modern librarians and archivists) most dreaded "Various Articles" (pp. 25-27).


To be sure, there are the expected sorts of items:  engravings of Columbus and a depiction (medium not identified) of the Mather arms, various "Indian Utensils," and the like.

Then there are the some unexpected and intriguing items:  "A Silver Trinket for a Lady, supposed to have been made 700 years ago" (this, donated by Thomas himself), "part of the tobacco box used by Sir Walter Raleigh," "Two small pieces of Palm Leaf, on which are written with a stylus, several lines on the Malayan language," and "A Highland Dagger, used in the rebellion in Scotland, in 1745."

The mention of a twelfth-century piece of metalwork or a dagger associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie naturally quickens my pulse. The palm leaf manuscripts also pique my interest:  were they collected as mere curios (and how?), or was there some specific interest in the content or their significance for the field of linguistics or paleography? We have no idea. All we know is that the AAS was stuck with them, along with other and sundry objects, including some 800 coins from various regions and epochs, acquired since October 1813. And that was when the AAS was only two years old.  

One wonders how the previous owners acquired the artefacts and why they thought a new institution dedicated to "the literature of liberty" in the United States would want or need them. The real question, then, is: do they belong there?  In fact, it sounds all too familiar: as anyone involved with libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies knows, one of the biggest challenges is determining what is kept, finding the space for it, and arranging for its appropriate display and/or preservation. All too often, these institutions—especially the small, local-oriented ones—became dumping grounds, the equivalent of the town's attic or junk drawer. Many institutions have had to contend with numerous worthless gifts, but even intrinsically signficant ones (who wouldn't want a piece of medieval silver?) can be a problem if they are not in harmony with an institution's core mission or if the institution cannot properly care for them. As a result, there is new emphasis on developing appropriate collections policies (e.g. 1, 2, 3 ). And, understandably but more controversially, deaccessioning policy is also one of the hottest topics in the museum and library field.

And so, from a small and humble document, a glimpse into the intellectual world of the early republic that reminds us how much has changed and how much has not. Mr. Jefferson's doubts notwithstanding, we have an African-American president (which is not to say that our racial problems have disappeared). And, as Jefferson, the inveterate accumulator of books and much else, would have understood, collections management, too, remains a challenge.

Then as now, the American Antiquarian Society was an elite organization whose membership was small and included only the prominent.Fortunately, the collections and programs of the AAS are open to the general public and have become a chief resource for scholars of print culture as well as New England and American history. It is home to the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture and hosts numerous other programs, seminars, and public lectures. Among the many online resources are the Catalogue of American Engravings and the 19th Century American Children's Book Trade Directory. Just this past year, Cheryl Harned, one of the students in our UMass/Five College History Graduate Program, created a web site on the history of reading in order to make additional resources from the collections more widely available.

It's well worth a visit, whether on the web or in person.I think Isaiah Thomas would be proud.

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