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CHAPTER I: History and the Eighteenth-Century Colonist - Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience 
The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1998).
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History and the Eighteenth-Century Colonist
One of John Adams’s favorite questions was, “What do we mean by the revolution? The War?” No. “That was no part of the revolution. It was only an Effect and consequence of it.” As he told Hezekiah Niles, “the real American Revolution” was the “radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people.” Effected between 1760 and 1775, this took place “before a drop of blood was shed.”1
The shift in American sentiment was startlingly rapid and comprehensive. Americans basked in the reflected glory of the British imperial victory in 1763, secure in the knowledge that the French menace was finally removed. Benjamin Franklin noted that the colonies felt closer to the mother country than to one another.2 Yet fifteen years later Americans were engaged in a bloody war with the very King and country who had won for them their prized security. And in resisting England the colonies found unity: “Thirteen clocks were made to strike together,” observed Adams.3
How was this radical change accomplished? In large part it was the achievement of literate politicians who enlightened and informed American opinion. A French observer, the Marquis de Chastellux, passed along Benjamin Harrison’s engrossing picture of “a number of respectable but uninformed inhabitants” waiting upon their intellectual betters: “ ‘You assert that there is a fixed intention to invade our rights and privileges; we own that we do not see this clearly, but since you assure us that it is so, we believe it. We are about to take a very dangerous step [against England], but we have confidence in you and will do anything you think proper.’ ” The American Revolution, the Marquis concluded, was made possible, in Virginia at least, by the popular trust in “a small number of virtuous and enlightened citizens.”4
David Ramsay, participant in and historian of the Revolution, concurred with this judgment. In his History of the American Revolution, published in 1789, he paid eloquent tribute to “the well-informed citizens” who made the Revolution possible. Theirs had been the enormously difficult task of first arousing the people to their danger, theirs the subsequent task of sustaining popular feelings over the years of political crisis preceding the war. “In establishing American independence,” Ramsay remarked, “the pen and the press had merit equal to that of the sword.” Upon the literary contributions of the Revolutionary leadership “depended the success of military operations.”5
Both the responsibility and the accomplishment of these “virtuous and enlightened citizens” is difficult to exaggerate. In standing against their mother country the patriot leaders knew they were undertaking a hazardous experiment. But they knew the justness of their cause. They were devoted to liberty, but it was liberty based upon “English ideas and English principles.” The patriots believed themselves inheritors of the privileges of Englishmen, and “though in a colonial situation,” they believed they “actually possessed them.”6 They knew the origins and the history of the rights to which they so persuasively laid claim.
To the eighteenth-century colonist, the study of history was a prestigious and a practical pursuit. The Enlightenment furnished arguments for man’s ability to re-create, with his God-given reason, a Heavenly City in this world (rather than patiently awaiting the next). Men argued that as Newton had discovered universal physical laws, so must there be universal laws of history, that human nature must be the same everywhere, that similar causes produce similar results, that history can repeat itself—or, mirabile dictu, that with the lessons learned from the past, errors might be avoided for the future. Condillac spoke for fixed unchanging principles in history: “Discover these,” he told his monarch, “and … politics will have no more secrets for you.”7
The testimonial on history’s behalf was overwhelming. Lord Bolingbroke called it “philosophy teaching by examples.”8 John Locke praised it as “the great Mistress of Prudence, and civil Knowledge.” Even though he was one of the few political writers of his day who failed to draw upon history to support his contentions, he thought history “the proper study of a Gentleman,” and urged others to take “a View of our English Constitution and Government in the antient Books of the Common-Law.” David Hume thought history was “the greatest mistress of wisdom,” and Lord Chesterfield told his grandson he would acquire much credit and reputation by knowing history well.9
But history was above all useful. James Harrington regarded knowledge of history as the prerequisite of a politician. James Burgh called history an essential study for statesmen, “the inexhaustible mine, out of which political knowledge is brought up.” In his Thoughts on Education, a manual popular in the American colonies, Burgh contended that “there is no kind of reading that tends more to settle the judgement, than that of History and Biography.” Useful, the hallmark of a civilized man, historical study had wide appeal. “Man without learninge, and the remembrance of things past,” wrote Sir William Dugdale, “falls into a beastlye sottishnesse and his life is noe better to be accounted for than to be buryed alive.”10
Colonial judgment settled firmly upon the value of history. “Good History,” claimed Benjamin Franklin, could “fix in the Minds of Youth deep Impressions of the Beauty and Usefulness of Virtue of all kinds.” History showed the “Advantages of Liberty, Mischiefs of Licentiousness, Benefits arising from the good laws and a due Execution of Justice.” John Adams expressed the same thought when he pronounced “a comprehensive Knowledge of Law and History necessary for an American Statesman.” Thomas Jefferson throughout his life found “a knoledge of British history … useful to the American politician.”11
To understand the peculiarities of the colonists’ historical vision, one should recall that history in eighteenth-century England was not only subject to the vagaries of intellectual vogue but was also under heavy political pressures. Two principal views of English history had developed: one, usually the more accurate by the standards of modern scholars, can be called the tory interpretation—although not in any party sense; the other is reasonably familiar as the whig interpretation, although it too existed long before a formal Whig party and continued long after whig politicians opportunistically lost interest in it. The historical whigs were writers seeking to support Parliamentary claims upon the royal prerogatives by exalting the antiquity of Parliament and by asserting that their political ambitions had solid foundation in ancient customs. They presented an idealized version of an Anglo-Saxon democracy, which they usually found overturned by Norman treachery and feudalism. The tory historians preferred instead to see no ancient source for the Parliamentary claims and viewed Anglo-Saxon England as feudalistic, but lacking in Norman stability and order.12
In the years of intensive and intensifying political debate preceding the American Revolution, Americans converted the arguments of whiggish historians into intellectual weapons, constantly finding resemblances between historical accounts and contemporary criticism of English society, then applying historical generalizations to the context of American debate over imperial relations.
The origins of whig history invoked by American colonists are obscure, but certainly it began during the reigns of the Tudors. In the sixteenth century Tudor monarchs presided over the rise of the English middle class, which then developed an interest in antiquarian research. This research, conducted under severe handicaps, led to a rediscovery of the feudal limitations on royal power, limitations which took on a new political significance during the seventeenth-century conflicts with the Stuart kings.13 The Society of Antiquaries (founded in the reign of Elizabeth I and abolished by James I) attempted to discover the antiquity of Parliament. In 1571 the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum appeared, purporting to describe Parliament as it existed in the time of Edward the Confessor and encouraging a belief in the pre-Norman existence of the House of Commons. Seventeenth-century whig writers discovered in Tacitus, author of the famed Germania, a useful source for contentions that the Saxon witan was the original of Parliaments. Tacitus had described how the Saxons chose their kings and generals, how they restricted the authority of those they set up to rule, how frequent assemblies were held for discussion of tribal affairs. “About matters of higher consequence,” Tacitus wrote, “the whole nation deliberates,” and at regular intervals there were conventions in which the people drafted their own laws.14 Tacitus contributed to the popular notion of a golden age of political liberty in the past—ancient laws and customs were the best. Liberty did not have to be created; it only needed to be restored.
For the whig historians the nemesis of Saxon liberties was feudalism, generally held to have been introduced into England by William “the accursed Norman” in 1066. Hence the idea of a “Norman Yoke.” The Conquest deprived Englishmen of their liberty, established the tyranny of an alien king and landlords, and replaced the Saxon militia of Alfred’s time with the odious form of holding land of the King in return for military service.15 The scholar who probably contributed most to English—and colonial—awareness of feudalism was Sir Henry Spelman; at least his books were the oft-quoted bases for subsequent studies on the subject. No whig in the general political sense, Spelman made discoveries highly susceptible to whig employment. Convinced that the Norman Conquest had brought feudalism into England, he believed pre-Norman land tenure had been generally “according to the ancient manner of the Germans.”16
Contributors to whig historiography came to view Magna Charta as a major chapter in the restoration of English liberties. Here Sir Edward Coke made a significant contribution: in Herbert Butterfield’s view, Coke “more than anybody else translated medieval limitations upon the monarchy into seventeenth-century terms … his anachronistic sins became a service to the cause of liberty.”17 In his Second Institutes Coke presented Magna Charta as an affirmation, not of feudal but of common law; and “the Common Law of England had been time out of mind before the Conquest.”18 Coke’s admiration for common law led him to develop the doctrine of an ancient or fundamental constitution which predated Normans and Saxons and owed its being to no man.
Concepts such as these proved enormously useful in the hands of Parliament-men against James I and Charles I. The Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 brought fresh investigations into the antiquity of Parliament and English liberties from such writers as William Petyt (The Antient Right of the Commons of England Asserted, 1680) and William Atwood (Ius Anglorum ab Antiqua, 1681). With political success in 1688 came further volumes of historical justification. The constitution was now restored to its original principles, or so some whig historians would have it.
But historical contemplation had become a mainspring of political action. Englishmen in the eighteenth century persisted in this instinctive turning to the past for both an explanation and a solution to present problems. The whig interpretation did not die but took on a new life in the hands of critics who denounced the limitations of the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian succession. A group of historical writers, identified by Caroline Robbins as eighteenth-century “Commonwealthmen,” sought to maintain the revolutionary tradition of their seventeenth-century heroes, and in an endless stream of essays and histories (vastly more popular in America than in England) they kept fresh the memory and the political techniques of the crusades against the Stuarts. Rarely successful in practical politics, they denounced the whigs in power and regarded themselves as the Real Whigs in the tradition of the martyred Algernon Sidney, condemned as a traitor under Charles II for his unpublished “Discourses on Government,” which fixed sole power in Parliament and the people. Men such as Sir Robert Molesworth, Thomas Gordon (the translator of Tacitus), Walter Moyle, and John Trenchard, propagators of the new whig interpretation, formed the bridge between whig writers in the Stuart reigns and such “radical” reformers of the American Revolutionary era as James Burgh, Catherine Macaulay, and John Cartwright.19 For them all the past was a storehouse, not of mere example, but of authoritative precedents. This was the heritage of the eighteenth-century American colonist, raised and educated to think of himself as an Englishman, and eager to learn his history.
Books were the high road to history, providing the means to the “comprehensive Knowledge of Law and History” sought by John Adams and his fellow Americans. “How can I judge,” asked Adams of his diary in 1761, “how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading?”20 Reading, which made Lord Bacon’s full man, could also make the informed man, the history-conscious man, the American colonist firm in his view of his generation’s relationship to the long past, its place in the vivid present and the bright future.
Books were available, books of history ancient and modern, sacred and profane. Would-be American statesmen could find them in bookshops and printers’ shops, they could form their own libraries, they could read them in the “public” libraries of subscription companies, in towns large and small. History, particularly English whig history, was ready, on the shelves. In all of the lists of books there was a hard core of titles which served as common denominators and the solid majority of these volumes were either historical or political: often they were both. The more history a colonist read the more whigs he inevitably encountered, not only because of their weight or numbers but also because of their popularity and productivity.
Exposure to an academic library meant an early exposure to English history. Each of the nine colleges in colonial America had its library. Harvard College published library catalogues in which the number of secular historical volumes steadily increased as the eighteenth century advanced. The initial Harvard catalogue, issued in 1723, included such standard seventeenth-century historical sources as John Rushworth’s Historical Collections, and subsequent lists added Gilbert Burnet’s popular History of His Own Time and equally important whig works by Paul Rapin-Thoyras and James Tyrrell. Like many college collections, Harvard’s suffered from fire, but it was speedily restocked with the help of the strenuous English whig Thomas Hollis. A student at Harvard on the eve of the Revolution found numerous whig authors represented: Thomas Gordon, author of the Independent Whig and Cato’s Letters; Robert Molesworth, whose Account of Denmark revealed the nature of absolutism and portrayed liberty as “the greatest natural blessing mankind is capable of enjoying”; Edmund Ludlow (the regicide), whose Memoirs were an arsenal of arguments for republicanism and against standing armies; William Molyneux (friend to Locke), author of The Case of Ireland, which not only argued that Ireland was independent of the English Parliament but also elaborated a theory of natural inherent rights of men; and Catherine Macaulay, the anti-Stuart historian.21
Harvard’s collections were larger than those of any other colonial college, but not larger in the proportionate share given to history. Yale’s first library catalogue, 1743, listed many of the same history books; but where history had been at best a minor but interesting part of Harvard’s holdings, in Yale’s library history comprised the largest single category and continued to do so through successive catalogues.22 The College of New Jersey’s library was small, but again history was handsomely represented; and in 1755 when Governor Jonathan Belcher donated his library to the College, historical works of Burnet, Rapin, Ludlow, and Sidney and both Gordon’s Tacitus and Cato’s Letters were added. When fire caused destruction at Princeton, President John Witherspoon donated his personal collection including replacements for the burned volumes of Burnet, Vertot (the historian of revolutions), and Potter (Antiquities of Greece), and adding two editions of Tacitus for good measure.23 Rhode Island College, founded in 1764, issued a catalogue in 1782 which listed the familiar works of Mrs. Macaulay, Bishop Burnet, William Robertson (History of Scotland), and Lord Clarendon (History of the Rebellion). Fire destroyed the library of the College of William and Mary in 1705 and again during the Revolution; no catalogues were published by either King’s College in New York or the College of Philadelphia.24
Private libraries collected by the colonists were also full of history books, many of them the latest scholarship from Britain; but since books were expensive, private collections in the early eighteenth century were modest. In Virginia Richard Henry Lee II left his son Thomas a library of three hundred titles; the merchant Thomas Gadsden in South Carolina had one hundred and thirty-five volumes;25 Thomas Jefferson’s father, Colonel Peter Jefferson, willed him forty volumes. As the century advanced private libraries grew. Thomas Jefferson constantly added to his meager literary legacy, becoming one of the most important colonial collectors: at one point his library contained some thirty-two hundred titles comprising about six thousand volumes. Franklin’s collection was inventoried at forty-two hundred volumes, and the industrious John Adams collected forty-eight hundred. George Washington thought enough of his library by 1771 to order “a Plate with my Arms engraved and 4 or 500 copies struck.” Robert Carter of “Nomini Hall” had some fifteen hundred volumes by the eve of the Revolution; John Mercer’s library at “Marlborough” was large enough constantly to attract his younger friend and protégé George Mason. Even less wealthy colonists aspired to a literary estate of sorts: Joseph Smith was a Baltimore County ironmaster; when he died in 1770, his property was worth only £4 but it contained the first volume of Rapin’s History of England, along with clothes, a pen knife, two razors, and an ink pot.26
The size of the library mattered less, perhaps, than the industry of the owner. William Byrd made assiduous use of his fine collection of thirty-five hundred volumes at “Westover,” and besides, continually lent his books to interested neighbors.27 Jefferson loved his carefully chosen books; they were his windows on the world of the past, present, and future. He could not “live without books,” he confided to John Adams when both bibliophiles were in their great age. Neither fire nor finance kept him from such “pursuit of happiness.” Books were for Jefferson “a necessity of life.” Even after parting with his great library in 1815 (“the best collection of its size probably in America”) he found time and energy to collect another nine hundred volumes before his death eleven years later. He also took time to suggest a thirty-one-hundred-title library for his University of Virginia, so that students in Charlottesville also could look out the right windows.28
Most of the Revolutionary leaders shared what Jefferson called his “malady of Bibliomania.”29 John Adams tried to be financially careful as befitted a good Yankee, but when he was forty he ruefully confessed to his wife, Abigail: “I have been imprudent, I have spent an estate in books.” The habit never left him; his purchases and his reading continued throughout his life; even in his eighty-second year he modestly recounted the forty-three books read during the previous twelve months.30 John Dickinson, moderately wealthy, did not worry so much about his expenditures; he also had the advantage of inheriting the fine library of his father-in-law, Isaac Norris, Jr. His love for reading was constantly his refuge from the world: as a student he reported breathlessly how “I fly to Books, to retirement, to Labour, and every Moment is an Age, till I am immersed in Study.”31 As a mature man, he began his most famous work with the observation, “I spend a good deal of [my time] … in a library, which I think the most valuable part of my small estate.”32 One of the major penalties paid by William Hooper of North Carolina for his Revolutionary role was the British military spoliation of his books. “My library, except as to law books, is shamefully injured and above 100 valuable volumes taken away,” Hooper complained bitterly. This was bad enough, but “what vexes me most of all is that they [the British] have broken several sets of books … [so] as to make what remains useless lumber.”33
Books mattered to the eighteenth-century colonist. Frequently the owner wrote extensive marginal comments—Franklin did, and Dickinson, and Adams, and Jefferson. Sometimes a reader exerted himself to secure an American imprint to make a book more widely available. Jefferson did so in several instances. Sometimes a colonial reader would painstakingly transcribe selections into commonplace books or notebooks; Jefferson, Dickinson, and Mayhew filled wallpaper folios or tiny duodecimes with notes. As authors some colonists would divulge their private reading in lengthy footnotes or references in the text, to both dignify and illustrate their political argument. Dickinson piled citation on citation in his polemical pamphlets. Finally, colonists discussed with their correspondents their hopes and fears, their claims and arguments, commenting on the sources as they proceeded.
If academic and private libraries indicate the intellectual environment of the Revolutionary generation, there is a third source of importance—the eighteenth-century social or subscription library. Franklin inspired such a library for his adopted city of Philadelphia. His and other social libraries show not only the reading opportunities available to citizens of modest means, but insofar as the members determined contents, these libraries give further indications of colonial reading interests. Franklin’s Library Company, founded in 1731, enjoyed remarkable success and issued frequent catalogues to keep pace with its growth. Within ten years of its founding, the Company issued a catalogue with some three hundred and seventy-five titles, in which history proved the largest grouping by far—one hundred and fourteen titles, as compared with sixty-nine for literature. On the eve of the Stamp Act crisis in 1765 the Company ordered numerous additional volumes, including Henry Care’s popular English Liberties, Walter Moyle’s Tracts on Greek and Roman commonwealths, and Edward Montagu’s Rise and Fall of Antient Republicks, all contributors to whig history. On the eve of Independence the Company acquired Obadiah Hulme’s famous appeal to Saxon liberties, the Historical Essay on the English Constitution, suitably supported by Francis Sullivan’s slightly more sober Lectures on the Feudal Law. By 1775 the Library Company of Philadelphia had some eight thousand titles on its shelves, the vast majority of which continued to be historical.34
“Franklin’s Library” was a democratic institution: it served all categories of Philadelphians. A contemporary observer reported astonishment “at the general taste for books prevailing with all ranks of the citizens,” adding that the librarian “assured me, that for one person of distinction and fortune, there were twenty tradesmen that frequented this library.”35 A letter in Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette developed the theme: “I am but a poor ordinary Mechanick of this city, obliged to work hard for the maintenance of myself, my wife, and several small children,” announced the writer, and “when my daily labour is over, instead of going to the Alehouse, I amuse myself with the books of the Library Company, of which I am an unworthy member.”36 Since a membership cost “upwards of TWENTY ONE POUNDS” by 1768, the number of poor “mechanicks” drinking in the intoxicating drafts of literary fare can be questioned. But as a contributor to the American intellectual scene, the Library Company was probably without peer. Not only did its membership supply ten signers of the Declaration of Independence, but the Library served as the reference collection for the Pennsylvania Assembly and the Continental Congress.37
By 1776 there were more than sixty subscription libraries, but the success of the Philadelphia Library Company has overshadowed the activities of these other institutions. As early as 1737 a catalogue had appeared for the joint library of Saybrook, Lyme, and Guilford in Connecticut, which included the works of Burnet, Vertot, and Rapin. In Newport, Rhode Island, the Quaker merchant Abraham Redwood launched the library named after him, which issued an impressive first catalogue in 1750. Providence, close behind Newport, issued a catalogue in 1768 which disclosed large quantities of whig history. New York established its Library Society in 1754 and published a plump catalogue the next year. This latter collection grew steadily. Although New York’s holdings never rivaled those of Philadelphia’s Library Company, the destruction during the Revolution of the Society’s three thousand volumes—“exterminated by the atrocious vandalism of the British troops”—aroused understandable bitterness.
Smaller towns endorsed Franklin’s subscription system for securing books. Burlington, New Jersey, established a library in 1758 and provided residents access to Sidney, Cato’s Letters, and the curious but popular Britain’s Remembrancer of James Burgh. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, founded its Juliana Library Company in 1766, diplomatically dedicating its whiggish catalogue of that year to Lady Juliana Penn.38
Probably the most impressive of the libraries south of Philadelphia was that established by seventeen citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1748: within two years the Charleston Society grew to one hundred and thirty subscribers and published a catalogue with such familiar authors as Burnet, Rapin, Potter, Atkyn, Petyt, Gordon, and Vertot. Gifts followed, and the Society’s 1770 catalogue showed addition of Rushworth’s Collections and such historical works as William Blackstone’s Commentaries, Bolingbroke’s Letters on the Study and Use of History, Squire’s whig Enquiry into the Constitution, Dalrymple’s Feudal Property, and Mrs. Macaulay’s History of England. When Josiah Quincy visited the Charleston Society’s library in 1773, he found a “large collection of very valuable books,” and by the time the library was destroyed by fire in 1778, it had grown to six or seven thousand volumes. Today only the catalogues survive to show the remarkable reading opportunities afforded Revolutionary South Carolinians.39
Besides the subscription, private, and academic libraries, another important indicator of historical tastes of the eighteenth-century colonist was, naturally enough, the American book trade. Booksellers used all avenues to their object of profit. They resorted to broadsides, liberally distributed catalogues, sale notices, and auctions, which grew increasingly popular. The adventure of bidding stimulated sales by appealing to the hope of a bargain. According to the Union List compiled by George L. McKay, fewer than a hundred book auctions took place in the colonial period, but of these, fifty occurred in the quarter-century preceding the Revolution.40
Records of the colonial bookdealer and publisher—roles often combined in one person—furnish an abundance of information on readers’ habits. Auctioneers listed their merchandise in order of anticipated interest, and history headed the procession. “A very large and valuable collection of books in history, divinity, law, and physic” ran one typical advertisement in the Maryland Gazette in 1773. In Philadelphia the sequence was “history, divinity, and miscellaneous literary entertainment.”41 This last advertisement was one of scores run by the energetic and enterprising Robert Bell, who was enamoured with the auction as a means of moving his stock. An astute businessman, he preferred profit before politics. Since he would import or publish whatever he thought would sell, his lists serve as a yardstick for the political interests of his customers; history and law books were his best sellers.42
Bell may have improved on the colonial book auction, but he had competition in more conventional operations. Here, too, the successful dealers were those who took the colonial political pulse and stocked accordingly. Some found political demands too great: William Aikman, a Scot who settled in Annapolis in 1773, decided that the colonial drift toward revolution was altogether distasteful. Since this judgment coincided with a miscalculation of the market, he decided to beat a retreat to Jamaica in 1775.43 Henry Knox was not so troubled and did well with the bookstore in Boston from 1771 until the war attracted him to a military career. In 1773 he published a long Catalogue of Books Imported and to be sold, which indicates his judgment of the reading tastes of Bostonians. Equally active in Boston were Joseph Greenleaf and Edes and Gill, the latter publishers of the Boston-Gazette. To the south was Hezekiah Merrill, the Hartford bookman who advertised in the Connecticut Courant; and in New York lists were published by such dealers as Garrat Noel, Ebenezer Hazard, John Donaldson, Samuel London, and James Rivington.44 Rivington, publisher of the New-York Gazetteer, had reputed Tory sympathies which cost him his press in 1775, but he handled whig publications, including large quantities of history books.45
Philadelphia, a hive of bookmen, had more dealers than any other city. Sale lists of William Bradford, Robert McGill, and David Hall disclose their emphasis upon historical publications.46 And this pattern extended to the south, from Annapolis to Williamsburg, from Williamsburg to Charleston. Dixon and Hunter’s Virginia Gazette office doubled as a bookstore,47 and in South Carolina at least three booksellers advertised stocks of “choice and useful books,” most “lately imported from London.”48
Almost all of the stock was imported, for English publishers could advance books, thus furnishing capital, and there was less risk in importing quantities of books of known reputation. Yet there was less profit in this safe sort of business enterprise, and judicious local publishing could improve both reputation and income. Despite shortages of paper and ink, colonial book printing in the eighteenth century increased. The bulk of American imprints was given over to inexpensive pamphlets, sermons, and almanacs, none of which demanded risk or investment. But as Lawrence C. Wroth observed, “there is no greater mistake possible than for the student of literature to assume that this production of the native press is beneath his notice.” By the mid-eighteenth century there were twenty-four presses in ten of the colonies,49 which produced over thirty-six hundred titles between 1743 and 1760, mainly in the population centers of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.50
Large publishing projects were undertaken with caution, frequently on a subscription basis. The result was the issuance of books expected to be sure-sellers. The availability of reprinted English historical studies assumes importance in this setting. For example, although there were several English editions of Henry Care’s English Liberties available in America, the book underwent an American edition by James Franklin in Boston in 1721, and another by John Carter in Providence in 1774. Much the same treatment was accorded such works as The Independent Whig, which enjoyed Philadelphia editions in 1724 and 1740, and Rapin’s Dissertation on the Rise … of the Whigs and Tories, reissued in Boston in 1773.
The energetic Robert Bell was active in the reprint trade. He brought out Blackstone’s massive Commentaries on a subscription basis between 1771 and 1772; his success can be measured by twenty-two pages of subscribers listed in the fourth volume. He was also successful with William Robertson’s History of the Reign of Charles V, and followed it with the Political Disquisitions of James Burgh. Bell’s performance with Burgh is the more remarkable when it is recalled that the Disquisitions were published first in London in 1774-75, and Bell’s Philadelphia edition appeared in 1775—with most of the Continental Congress subscribing. “His Excellency, George Washington, Esq.; Generalissimo of all the Forces in America,” headed the list, which included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Dickinson, James Wilson, Christopher Gadsden, and Roger Sherman among others. Adams commented, somewhat unnecessarily, that he and his colleagues held Burgh in “high estimation,” and he vowed that he would help “make the Disquisitions more known and attended to in several parts of America.”51 Bell was unable to secure support for an American imprint of Hume’s pro-Stuart History of England, but made up for this misjudgment with an edition of John Cartwright’s whiggish pamphlet American Independence the Interest and Glory of Great Britain in 1776.
Probably the most successful of English works reprinted in America was the Chronicle of the Kings of England, a curious Biblical parody. First reprinted in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1744, then in Boston in 1759, the Chronicle enjoyed two American editions on the eve of the Revolution. The last was brought out by Robert Bell (in association with Benjamin Towne) in 1774.52
The eighteenth-century colonist did not lack opportunity for satisfying his literary appetite. If he went to college, he could read in the academic library. If he wished to extend his literary horizon beyond the capacities of personal collection, there was usually a library society nearby, or a generous colleague who would lend a volume. But for the typical educated colonist, buying books was as natural as reading them. The colonial book trade made a variety of books available. No reading colonist could long remain in ignorance of the new publications, since larger book dealers advertised in newspapers even outside their native colony.
History was the main field of interest. If law is associated with history—and the colonists so regarded it—history emerges as the largest single category. This was as true of the college library as of the subscription library, of the personal collection of a Jefferson or a Dickinson as of the advertised stocks of a Bell or a Knox. Americans were reading large amounts of history. The catalogues of all kinds of collections prove it. “These libraries,” Franklin later observed, “have improved the general conversation of Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand as generally made throughout the colonies in defence of their privileges.”53
[1.]John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, Feb. 13, 1818, Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, 10 vols. (Boston, 1856), X, 282–83, hereafter cited as Adams, Works.
[2.]Cited in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1774–1776 (N.Y., 1958), 4.
[3.]John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, Feb. 13, 1818, Adams, Works, X, 283.
[4.]Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782, ed. Howard C. Rice, Jr., 2 vols. (Chapel Hill, 1963), II, 429, 435.
[5.]David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1789), II, 322–23. Possibly Ramsay may yet secure the respect that is his due; see, as grounds for such a hope, Page Smith, “David Ramsay and the Causes of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 17 (1960): 51–77.
[6.]Ramsay, History, I, 42.
[7.]Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Oeuvres complètes …, 31 vols. (Paris, 1803), XXIX, 22–23; quoted in R. N. Stromberg, “History in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas 12 (1951): 302. Stromberg is concerned with the eighteenth century’s ideas about history.
[8.]Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Letters on the Study and Use of History (London, 1752), 14; see also Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought; Five Centuries of Interpretation (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), 84.
[9.]John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, ed. R. H. Quick (Cambridge, 1892), 159, 161; David Hume, The History of England …, 6 vols. (London, 1754–62), V, 471; Bonamy Dobrée, ed., The Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, 6 vols. (London, 1932), VI, 2630.
[10.]John Toland, ed., The Oceana of James Harrington, and His Other Works (London, 1700), 183; James Burgh, Political Disquisitions …, 3 vols. (London, 1774–75), I, vi, and Thoughts on Education … (Boston, 1749), 15; William Hamper, The Life, Diary, and Correspondence of Sir William Dugdale … (London, 1827), plate III.
[11.]Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania (Philadelphia, 1749), in Leonard W. Labaree, Whitfield J. Bell, Jr. et al., eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, 1960–), III, 412; John Adams to James Warren, July 17, 1774, Worthington C. Ford, ed., Warren-Adams Letters, 2 vols. (Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, 72–73 [1917–25], I, 29; Jefferson to John Norvell, June II, 1807, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 vols. (N.Y., 1892–99), IX, 72.
[12.]The best short study of the development of whig history (and the tory response) is found in Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman and His History (Cambridge, Eng., 1944); more recent and more specialized is J. G. A. Pocock’s The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law; A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, Eng., 1957), and David Douglas, English Scholars (London, 1939) has a brilliant sequel in his The Norman Conquest and British Historians (Glasgow, 1946). Also recent, and much indebted to Pocock, is F. Smith Fussner, The Historical Revolution: English Historical Writing and Thought, 1580–1640 (N.Y. and London, 1962). Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), is the pathfinding study of the thought and philosopy of Real Whig writers active between 1660 and 1776.
[13.]Butterfield, Englishman and His History, 9–10.
[14.]Thomas Gordon, trans., The Works of Tacitus, 2 vols. (London, 1728), II, 328–32.
[15.]Christopher Hill, “The Norman Yoke,” in Democracy and the Labour Movement; Essays in Honour of Dona Torr, ed. John Saville (London, 1954), II.
[16.]Edmund Gibson, ed., The English Works of Sir Henry Spelman …, 2 pts. (London, 1723), pt. II, 57, 5.
[17.]Butterfield, Englishman and His History, 54.
[18.]Sir Edward Coke, The Second Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England … (London, 1662), “Proeme”; Coke, The Reports of Sir Edward Coke, Kt., in English …, 7 vols. (London, 1738), IV, Pt. VIII, Preface. Jefferson owned this edition of the Reports; his copies survive in the Rare Book Room, Library of Congress; they are, however, uncatalogued.
[19.]Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman, 3–21.
[20.]John Adams, Diary, Aug. 1, 1761, Adams, Works, II, 131.
[21.]For a review of early college libraries, see Louis Shores, Origins of the American College Library, 1638–1800 (N.Y., 1934); for more light on Hollis, see Caroline Robbins, “The Strenuous Whig, Thomas Hollis of Lincoln’s Inn,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 7 (1950): 406–53; and also her “Library of Liberty—Assembled for Harvard College by Thomas Hollis of Lincoln’s Inn,” Harvard Library Bulletin 5 (1951): 5–23, 181–96. See Appendix II for a listing of Harvard’s historical holdings.
[22.]Yale issued library catalogues in 1743 and 1755; see Appendix II for listing of historical works.
[23.]See Julian P. Boyd’s edition of the 1760 Catalogue of the College of New Jersey (Woodbridge, N.J., 1949).
[24.]See Appendix II for listing of historical works in the Rhode Island College catalogue of 1782.
[25.]Louis B. Wright has surveyed the southern scene in quest of colonial reading tastes. See his First Gentlemen of Virginia: Intellectual Qualities of the Early Colonial Ruling Class (San Marino, 1940); “The Purposeful Reading of Our Colonial Ancestors,” ELH: A Journal of English Literary History 4 (1937): 85–111, and “The ‘Gentleman’s Library’ in Early Virginia,” Huntington Library Quarterly I (1938): 3–61.
[26.]Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian (Boston, 1948), 32; William H. Peden, Thomas Jefferson: Book Collector (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1942); George Simpson Eddy, “Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s Library,” American Antiquarian Society, Proceedings 34 (1924): 208; Lindsay Swift, “The John Adams Library,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Transactions 19 (1918), 267–69; Catalogue of the John Adams Library in the Public Library of the City of Boston (Boston, 1917); John Adams Manuscript catalogue, 1790, in the Adams Papers, reel 193, microfilm; George Washington to Robert Adam, Nov. 22, 1771, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 39 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1931–44), II, 77; Louis Morton, Robert Carter of Nomini Hall … (Williamsburg, Va., 1941), 215–16; Kate Mason Rowland, The Life of George Mason, 1725–1792, 2 vols. (N.Y., 1892), I, chap. 2; George K. Smart, “Private Libraries in Colonial Virginia,” American Literature 10 (1938): 24–52; Joseph T. Wheeler, “Books Owned by Marylanders, 1700–1776,” Maryland Historical Magazine 35 (1940): 339.
[27.]The manuscript catalogue of the Byrd Library reposes in the Library Company of Philadelphia; for just how scattered Byrd’s books finally became, see Edwin Wolf 2nd, “The Dispersal of the Library of William Byrd of Westover,” American Antiquarian Society, Proceedings 68 (1958): 19–106.
[28.]Jefferson to John Adams, June 10, 1815, Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, 2 vols. (Chapel Hill, 1959), II, 443; Jefferson to Richard Rush, June 22, 1819, Ford, ed., Writings of Jefferson, X, 133; William H. Peden, ed., 1828 Catalogue of the Library of the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, Va., 1945).
[29.]Jefferson to Lucy Ludwell Paradise, June 1, 1789, Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950–), XV, 163.
[30.]John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 29, 1774, Charles Francis Adams, ed., Familiar Letters of John Adams and his Wife Abigail, during the Revolution (Boston, 1875), I, 4; Jefferson to John Adams, Jan. 11, 1817, Cappon, ed., Adams-Jefferson Letters, II, 505.
[31.]John Dickinson to his father, Mar. 8, 1754, H. Trevor Colbourn, ed., “A Pennsylvania Farmer at the Court of King George: John Dickinson’s London Letters, 1754–1756,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 86 (1962): 257. For more on the library of Isaac Norris, Jr., see James W. Phillips, “The Sources of the Original Dickinson College Library,” Pennsylvania History 14 (1947): 110–13. There is in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania a manuscript list of books ordered by Norris for the use of the Pennsylvania assembly (Mar. 16, 1752), which included such items as Petyt’s The Ancient Right of the Commons, and Thornhagh Gurdon’s History of the High Court of Parliament.
[32.]John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer …, in P. L. Ford, ed., The Writings of John Dickinson (Philadelphia, 1895), 307. Ordinarily one would discount such a comment in political propaganda, but it fits perfectly with Dickinson’s private disposition, and also shows his anxiety to demonstrate that his opinions are well informed.
[33.]William Hooper to James Iredell, Feb. 17, 1782, Griffith J. McRee, ed., The Life and Correspondence of James Iredell …, 2 vols. (N.Y., 1857–58), II, 5.
[34.]Edwin Wolf 2nd, “Franklin and His Friends Choose Their Books,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 80 (1956): 14; Franklin’s own account of his Library, in Labaree and Bell, eds., Franklin Papers, III, 308–9; Wolf, “The First Books and Printed Catalogues of the Library Company of Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 78 (1954): 1–26; “A Book of Minutes … of the Library Company of Philadelphia,” I, 214, in MS, Library Company of Philadelphia. See also E. V. Lamberton, “Colonial Libraries of Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 42 (1918): 193–234.
[35.]Austin K. Gray, Benjamin Franklin’s Library … (N.Y., 1937), 20.
[36.]Quoted in Edwin Wolf 2nd, ed., A Catalogue of Books Belonging to the Library Company (Philadelphia, 1956), iii.
[37.]It was into “the library-room” in Carpenter’s Hall that George Washington darted upon hearing his nomination as Commander in Chief, according to the report of John Adams. See Diary, Sept. 5, 1774, Adams, Works, II, 365.
[38.]See Appendix II for the historical works in the Connecticut library, the Redwood Library in 1750, the Providence Library in 1768, the New York Society Library in 1754, the Burlington Library in 1758, and the Juliana Library Company in 1766. For an account of the library societies, see C. Seymour Thompson, Evolution of the American Public Library, 1653–1876 (Washington, D.C., 1952). See also Carl Bridenbaugh, Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in America, 1743–1776 (N.Y., 1955), 384–85; Austin B. Keep, The History of the New York Society Library … (N.Y., 1908), 119–20.
[39.]Frederick P. Bowes, The Culture of Early Charleston (Chapel Hill, 1942), 124–25; M. A. DeWolfe Howe, ed., “Journal of Josiah Quincy, Junior, 1773, Mar. 9, 1773,” Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings 49 (1916): 447; see Appendix II for listing of historical works catalogued in the Charleston Library in 1750. It might be noted that the success of the social library probably came at the expense of commercial circulating libraries; William Rind in Maryland advertised an initial listing of 150 titles, including the customary items of Rapin, Robertson, and Hume; Rind lacked capital, could not increase his stock, and failed. In Boston John Mein stocked equally familiar works—those of Burnet, Ludlow, Vertot—but failed because he gave political offense to John Hancock; Mein is credited with popularizing fiction in Boston, but his 1765 catalogue suggests at least an equal devotion to history. See Charles A. Barker, The Background to the Revolution in Maryland (New Haven and London, 1940), 64–66; Bridenbaugh, Cities in Revolt, 382; Charles L. Bolton, “Circulating Libraries in Boston, 1765–1865,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Transactions II (1910): 196–207. For the historical contents of Mein’s 1765 catalogue, see Appendix II.
[40.]George L. McKay, ed., American Book Auction Catalogues, 1713–1934: A Union List (N.Y., 1937).
[41.]Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), July 20, 1775; Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), Sept. 22, 1773. See also, for example, Connecticut Courant (Hartford), July 13, 1773; Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia), Oct. 28, 1771; Newport [R.I.] Mercury, Sept. 7, 1772.
[42.]A useful review of Bell’s career is A. Everett Peterson, “Bell, Robert,” Dictionary of American Biography; see also Bridenbaugh, Cities in Revolt, 381–87.
[43.]Wheeler, “Booksellers and Circulating Libraries in Colonial Maryland,” Maryland Historical Magazine 42 (1939): 117.
[44.]“Henry Knox and the London Book-Store in Boston, 1771–1774,” Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings 61 (1928): 225–304. For a review of his 1773 catalogue and the other dealers’ lists, see Appendix II.
[45.]There is an excellent account of James Rivington’s checkered journalistic career in Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence. See Appendix II for selections of Rivington’s sale lists.
[46.]The David Hall Letterbooks in the American Philosophical Society are particularly illuminating. See Appendix II.
[47.]Jefferson was among the book-buying customers of Dixon and Hunter; see Marie Kimball, Jefferson: The Road to Glory, 1743 to 1776 (N.Y., 1943), 102.
[48.]These are listed in Appendix II.
[49.]Lawrence C. Wroth, An American Bookshelf, 1755 (Philadelphia, 1934), 4.
[50.]Bridenbaugh, Cities in Revolt, 183.
[51.]John Adams to James Burgh, Dec. 28, 1774, Adams, Works, IX, 351.
[52.]Robert Dodsley may have been the author of the Chronicle, but no author was ever named in colonial listings until 1791, when Benjamin Franklin was erroneously given credit for the work. [Questions about the authorship of the Chronicle appear to have been resolved by Harry Solomon, The Rise of Robert Dodsley (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996)—T. C., 1997.]
[53.]Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, Albert H. Smyth, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 10 vols. (N.Y., 1905–7), I, 312.