More Fascinating Americana from David Lesser Antiquarian Books
The latest Rare Americana from David Lesser.
By Michael Stillman
David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books recently released their 91st catalogue of Rare Americana. Those familiar with Lesser's catalogues will find no surprises. Somewhere he manages to come up with books and pamphlets, primarily from 18th and 19th century America, which reflect their times better than the material of perhaps any other bookseller I have seen. Rather than founding documents of a nation, or major proclamations, Lesser offers the pamphlets of politicians of the day, sermons from preachers battling yesterday's demons, personal disputes carried into the public arena, stories of gruesome crime, and, dominating the period between the Revolution and Civil War, are the debates over slavery. Reading a Lesser catalogue is looking through a window on early America as it really was, not as we might like to imagine. Here are a few samples of this material, but you really need the entire catalogue to appreciate the views Lesser offers.
Georgia's Civil War Governor Joseph E. Brown was something of a flame-throwing character. First elected in 1857, he was not the first choice of the planters, but was still an ardent supporter of slavery, while also championing the poorer whites. He was a leader in the state's secession movement after Lincoln's election, but as the war began to evolve, he became a bitter opponent of Jefferson Davis and Confederate power. He resisted such activities as the Confederate draft and impressments of goods and slave labor. Some believe that Brown took his states' rights positions so far that he hindered the Confederacy's war effort. Brown also established effective public assistance programs considering the dire circumstances the state found itself in as the war dragged on. Item 18 is an example of his leadership in this area: Message of His Excellency, Joseph E. Brown, to the General Assembly...March 25, 1863. In it he calls for a prohibition on planting "excessive" cotton so that food crops can be grown. However, he goes on with some hyperbole over the war to ask, "How can we again shake hands with [the Unionists] over the slain bodies of our loved ones, and again embrace them in fraternal relations? Sooner than reunite...let us submit to the devastation of our fields, and, if need be, the extermination of our race." Brown would answer his own rhetorical question after the war, as he allied himself with the so-called northern "carpetbaggers," and for awhile even joined the Republican Party. Returning to the Democratic fold after Reconstruction, he served in the U.S. senate from 1880-1890. Priced at $600.
Most people know Cassius Clay only as the birth name of the boxer who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali. However, that name was one which had been passed down in his family for generations, and there was a reason his ancestors had adopted it. The original Cassius Clay was an ardent opponent of slavery from a border state in which such views were not designed to win friends. Like the boxer, this Clay was from Kentucky, but he was born in 1810, was a cousin of the famed politician Henry Clay, and served in the state legislature (his views were not conducive to higher elective office). He would serve as Minister to Russia during the Lincoln and Johnson administrations where he played an important role in the purchase of Alaska.
More Fascinating Americana from David Lesser Antiquarian Books
Georgia's Civil War Governor Joseph L. Brown, courtesy of Library of Congress.
In 1843, an attempt was made on his life, but he survived a gunshot wound and attacked his assailant with a knife. Perhaps his legendary toughness was part of the reason he lived to be almost 93. Item 24 is an 1844 printing of a Speech of Cassius M. Clay. Against the Annexation of Texas...in Reply to Col. R.M. Johnson...at the White Sulphur Springs...Kentucky, on Saturday, Dec. 30. 1843. Clay opposed the annexation of Texas because it was a slave state and breached a treaty with Mexico. Clay reportedly received little support from the pro-slavery audience. $450.
Item 32 is an interesting piece as it represents what may have been the last best chance to eliminate slavery peacefully and avoid the Civil War. Nat Turner's rebellion had stirred great unease in Virginia, and some white citizens were looking for a gradual way out, in keeping with the expectations of the Virginia founding fathers. On the other side, many southern leaders were in the process of turning from the view that slavery was a necessary evil, in time to be eliminated, to one that claimed it was some sort of righteous and good institution. Among those looking for a means of eliminating the cancer before it reached incurable proportions were Charles Faulkner from western Virginia and Thomas Jefferson Randolph, grandson of the Virginian President. They proposed a gradual abolition, one which would free all children of slaves born after July 4, 1840 (eight years in the future at the time). Item 32 is the other side, by William and Mary College Professor Thomas R. Dew, titled Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832. Dew's racist justification of slavery carried the day, though it was a victory that a later generation of Virginia's young men would pay for dearly. $1,000.
On June 30, 1859, Rev. D. F. Bittle gave An Address Delivered before the Ladies of Wytheville Female College in the Pyesbyterian [sic] Church at the Annual Commencement... Bittle did not speak about the terrible national issues brewing at the time. His was of a more immediate issue in education, one which is still echoed to this day. Bittle states that American students "never are much troubled by parental discipline," and "they select the things they want to do and reject those to which they have no native proclivity. They generally...take such studies as are easy and reject such as afford trouble in their pursuit." In other words, students of a century and a half ago were the same as those of today. Item 12. $275.
Here is a book that needs no explanation, as its lengthy title tells it all: The Terrible Deeds of George L. Shaftsbury, who Killed his own Mother and Sister, Fled from Justice by Leaping from the Palisade, Swimming the Hudson River, and Taking Refuge in New York City, where He was Joined by the Female Murderer, Marie Lavine, whom He Detected in the Act of Dragging to the River the Body of a Man whom She had Murdered in One of the Dens on Walnut Street, in that City; and They, after Passing Through the Most Dark and Unparalleled Career of Crime, were finally Both Executed in Quebec, June 7, 1850. For the Murder of Lord Amel and Family. By J. Elligen, Queen's Attorney. Oddly, this tale was published in St. Louis in 1851. One other point about this lurid, horrific story -- Lesser says that it is "probably fictional." Item 36. $600.
David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books may be found online at www.lesserbooks.com, telephone 203-389-8111.