Shipping up to Newport
Two weeks ago, I traveled to Newport, Rhode Island. Given the weather lately, you might think that I was--at least in part--copying the many bewigged South Carolinians who sought cooler, less humid climes during the summer months two hundred years ago. (Interestingly enough, I have yet to find any evidence that Miles Brewton ever visited.) In actuality, I was there to work with Molly Bruce Patterson, archivist extraordinaire and manager of digital initiatives at Newport Historical Society, on a paper we will be presenting this October at Bibliography Among the Disciplines. Our paper is entitled "Reconstructing Reading" and addresses the ways in which public historians can interpret and present past ways of reading. We aim to do so by exploring the role books played in the life of William Ellery, one of Rhode Island's two signers of the Declaration of Independence and a prodigious reader.
Newport Historical Society has a number of Ellery's books in their collections. Although it is only a portion of the library he had amassed by the time of his death in 1820, it is still astonishing given that many of the books NHS does have were saved by Ellery when he fled to Massachusetts during the American Revolution so that, unlike his home, they would not be burned by the British. In addition to Ellery's books, NHS also has his mahogany desk, two pairs of reading glasses (found in a desk drawer!), wick trimmers, and a number of manuscripts.
The books alone span over eighty years of Ellery's life--the earliest, with Ellery's increasingly confident penmanship and doodles, date to his teens shortly before he entered Harvard. As a young boy, he was taught to read by his father, a Newport merchant, who fostered his love of Greek and Latin. William had a lifelong penchant for the classics--evidenced by flourishing Latinized inscriptions dating back to the 1740s--a passion Ellery also encouraged in his own son decades later.
In the 1760s, Ellery made a midlife career change and taught himself law. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Ellery subscribed to the first American edition of Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1771-1772), printed in Philadelphia by Robert Bell. (Read more about these particular volumes here.) Blackstone was considered the definitive authority on English common law at the time and would have been essential reading, and reference, for a new lawyer like William Ellery.
Ellery was one of twenty-five Rhode Island subscribers, and he received his copy of the four-volume set in January 1774--just over two years before he was elected to fill Samuel Ward's seat at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. (In contrast, there were sixty-two subscribers from South Carolina--two of whom, Charlestown printers Robert Wells and Charles Crouch, purchased eighty-three sets total to see in their shops.) Based on the marginalia, Ellery seems to have read, and re-read, his copies of the Commentaries, as well as other key legal and political works one might expect to find in a lawyer's library, like Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws (1752), over the years. One of my favorite examples: Molly found one comment scribbled in the cramped margins of Commentaries margins about an "insane" king--surely a reference to George III in his later years!
Through our work, it has become clear that William Ellery, like so many in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, cherished his books and esteemed reading. Our goal is twofold: first, to put William Ellery's books in conversation with one another and place them beside other extant things which, conceivably, were part of his reading experience, and, second, to situate Ellery's library within the larger context of his life. To that end, we assembled several vignettes (one shown above) to illustrate the role books played in--and how they fit into--the life of one individual, eighteenth-century reader. Above all, we hope that this collaboration highlights how historians and museums might better use old books--as both texts and unique material objects--to engage with the public.
Ellery's books are filled with handwritten corrections (especially those typographical in nature and footnotes), inscriptions, snarky remarks, and ink drawings--providing us with a wealth of material for our presentation. At this point, the most difficult part will be deciding what to cut!