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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

From Our Spring Exhibits: Law in Times of Crisis, II

Our current spring exhibits feature several works that were born in moments of crisis (see an earlier post for two of these).  Lawmaking at these moments often calls forth extraordinary legislation and sometimes emergency procedures to enact that legislation.  Sometimes convening in one place can also be difficult.  In the face of the current pandemic, the Supreme Court recently opted to hear arguments remotely and livestreamed them for the benefit of the public.  In the Senate, in-person meetings have continued, while the House has recently moved to allow remote voting.

The earliest national Congresses were no stranger to the problem of convening lawmakers in one place, though due to armed conflict rather than a virus.  The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774 to discuss grievances over unpopular British laws and to prepare the colonial American response, which was agreed first to take written form.  The Second Continental Congress convened to conduct national policy amidst the Revolutionary War, a circumstance that forced it to relocate several times in the face of an advancing British army.  Meeting in Philadelphia, Congress was forced to move to Baltimore in 1776 and to flee again in September 1777 as the British prepared to take Philadelphia.  As a result, it met in Lancaster and subsequently in York, Pennsylvania.  The drafting of the Articles of Confederation was completed in York, but its early and most important printing was by Francis Bailey, who quickly printed 300 copies in Lancaster in 1777.  The copy of the Articles in our collection, also from 1777, is the Boston reprint of Bailey's first edition.

In July 1778, Congress moved back to Philadelphia, after the British had abandoned it.  It was here that two brothers of the Lee family of Virginia, Richard Lightfoot Lee and Richard Henry Lee, both signers of the Declaration of Independence, met with the other delegates.  It may be that during this time they also purchased a work from the notable Robert Bell, a Scottish-born printer who set up shop not far from Independence Hall.  Our copy of Cesare Beccaria's famous Essay on Crimes and Punishments, in its first true American printing by Bell in 1778 (we also hold a false Philadelphia imprint of the work from 1766), shows the name of Francis L. Lee on its title page, which may be Francis Lightfoot Lee himself, or his brother Richard Henry Lee's son. Richard Henry Lee and another brother, Arthur Lee, quoted from Beccaria's work and perhaps from this family copy. 

In such times of crisis, the law must still be made (and published), and it's little surprise that lawmakers should need material for reflection, particularly on issues as important as criminal law reform.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections

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