18th and 19th Century Americana from Lesser Antiquarian Books
The latest catalogue of Rare Americana from David M. Lesser.
By Michael Stillman
Americana collectors cannot help but look forward to the latest offerings from David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books. Lesser always presents an intriguing assortment, primarily items from the mid-18th to the late 19th century. Many concern the Revolutionary and Civil War periods, or the troubling times which led up to those confrontations. These were the days which shaped the nation, and Lesser manages to find material which brings the discussions and disagreements that molded this land back to life. It is a fascinating look at the thinking of America's forefathers (and occasionally, foremothers). Some make their descendants proud; others make you wonder what on earth they were thinking. Here are a few examples of what we mean.
On September 5, 1756, when Pastor Timothy Harrington of First Church in Boston gave this speech, the colonists were struggling through the long French and Indian War. The good pastor thought this was a message from God when he published his speech entitled, Prevailing Wickedness, and Distressing Judgments, Ill-boding Symptoms on a Stupid People. Well, those "stupid people" would have their revenge when the French conceded defeat in 1763, but at this time, the British had suffered a major beating in the Battle of Monongahela, and Harrington saw a Divine hand in that defeat. Item 76. $275.
John Adams has been rehabilitated in recent years for the many contributions he made to the young nation. However, the Alien and Sedition Acts will forever be a blot on his administration. This Report of the Committee to Whom were Referred...Certain...Petitions Complaining of the Act, Intitled "An Act Concerning Aliens..." presents a remarkable argument from the House of Representatives justifying these laws. Now that we find ourselves in a time when the primary qualification for appointment to the federal judiciary is to be passive in applying constitutional rights, this argument is most instructive. These congressmen promoted an emasculation of constitutional rights that would make even the strictest of "strict constructionists" proud. The Adams administration had taken the position that it was free to punish individuals for speech it did not like. Herein, the argument is made that the first amendment provides no protection against such behavior. The requisite part of the amendment states, "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." In an argument worthy of strict construction, they argue that a literal reading only prevents the government from applying prior restraint to free speech. Nothing in it, they argue, prevents the government from punishing this "free" speech after it is made. Freedom of the press, they say, "consists in permission to publish, without previous restraint upon the press, but subject to punishment afterwards for improper publication." Of course, this type of freedom of speech is available in even the most repressive of nations. You are free to speak your mind, but you had better be prepared to suffer the consequences. Perhaps we too will see a return to such a literal reading of our precious Bill of Rights soon. Item 3. $1,250.
18th and 19th Century Americana from Lesser Antiquarian Books
Henry Berry, a representative in the Virginia House of Delegates, made one of the last southern attempts to deal with slavery internally, rather than wait until a solution was imposed upon the region. Berry foresaw a road to tragedy ahead, a vision awakened by Nat Turner's rebellion. While pointing out that he too was a slaveholder, Berry called the institution a "cancer on the political body of the state of Virginia." While not seeing an immediate danger, he said "the time will come, when there will be imminent, general danger. Pass as severe laws as you will, to keep these unfortunate creatures in ignorance, it is in vain, unless you can extinguish that spark of intellect which God has given them." Berry's solution, and his speech was given in 1832, was to free all children born of slave parents after July 4, 1840. It was a losing cause. Few of his fellow delegates would hear of even gradual emancipation, forcing the issue to be resolved in violent confrontation three decades later. Item 16 is The Speech of Henry Berry (of Jefferson,) in the House of Delegates of Virginia, on the Abolition of Slavery. $375.
On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Cooper Union speech in New York City. It would catapult Lincoln towards the Republican presidential nomination, and start the wheels which would eventually bring slavery to an end. In the early days of the republic, slavery had been looked upon as a necessary evil, an institution which needed to be tolerated to form a union. However, as abolitionism grew across the North, the South responded by painting the institution as something glorious, beneficial to slave as well as slaveholder, and something to be spread to the new territories. Lincoln firmly crushed this line of argument, calling slavery "an evil, not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity." The speech enabled moderate northerners, uncomfortable with slavery but not willing to force abolition on the South, to move to the Republican Party. The pamphlet is, The Republican Party Vindicated - The Demands of the South Explained. Speech of Hon. Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, at the Cooper Institute... Published in 1860 by the Republican Executive Congressional Committee in Washington. Item 98. $500.
The end of slavery certainly did not mean the end of discrimination. In 1868, Mrs. Kate Brown, a Black woman employed by the U.S. Senate, was ejected from a railroad car on account of her color. This action incensed some senators, particularly Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Sumner had been active in desegregating Boston schools, the abolitionist movement, pressed Lincoln to emancipate the slaves, and continued to support free Blacks after the Civil War. The report on the senate hearing is titled, ...The Committee on the District of Columbia...to Inquire into the Facts Connected with the Forcible Ejection from the Cars of the Alexandria and Washington Railroad of One of the Employees of the Senate, on Account of Race... Item 130. $250.
New York State Senator Demas Strong was deeply offended when George Bennett of the Brooklyn Daily Times accused him of accepting bribes. In 1866, Demas went to court to sue Bennett for libel. The aggrieved senator was successful in his action, but it must have been something of an illusory victory. Strong asked for $10,000 in damages, but the jury awarded him 6 cents. Of course, those were 1866 cents, so the judgment would be worth at least a dollar today. The item is The Strong-Bennett Libel Suit... Item 140. $350.
David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian books is located online at www.lesserbooks.com, and may be reached by phone at 203-389-8111.