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Thursday, September 2, 2021

Rare Books Collection: American Classics

Among featured collections, the Riesenfeld Center holds an outstanding range of early American law. Many of these are statutory laws that open a window onto early American society. Due to the contemporary need for legislation, statutory law makes up the great bulk of colonial American law. Many other law books were English imports to America until the later 18th century. The first native case reporter, Ephraim Kirby, did not publish his collection of Connecticut cases until 1789. General commentaries did not fare much better: Blackstone's influential Commentaries were available in the colonies before the Revolution in English and American editions, but American commentaries did not become a genre of publication until the early 19th century. The narrower American legal treatise came of age in the same period. Practice guides and form books, at least, which offered to lay practitioners of the law everything from contract templates, to selections of statute and common law organized by subject, were available from the earlier 18th century, in response to practical needs.

A few early American law books also carried some political significance. One notable example, English Liberties, was produced in 1721 in Boston by the older brother of Ben Franklin, as an updated re-print of a 1680 English work by Henry Care. It collects key English statutes, with a summary of what can be called English constitutional law, and features some elements of a legal practice guide. The Boston edition of English Liberties represented a defense of the colonists' "English rights" against a British Parliament intent upon revoking colonial charters; it was reprinted again in 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution. 

Political dispute and dissent eventually became widespread in the colonies, though books were not the best vehicle for them. Cheap newspapers and pamphlets were circulated more quickly to a larger audience. As the colonists' grievances against the English Parliament and Crown became acute, in the 1760s and early 1770s, newspapers shaped and carried public opinion. Popular letters first printed in newspapers might also be reprinted later. An example is John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, printed as a series of letters in newspapers from late 1767 to early 1768, and then in collected editions. An important figure of the Revolutionary period, Dickinson gained a wide public hearing through his opposition to new British tax schemes in the Townshend Acts (1767), which he argued were threats to the colonists' liberty and rights. 

The annual publication with perhaps the largest public following was Poor Richard's Almanac, which Ben Franklin and his friends sometimes also turned to political purposes. With details on astrology, astronomy, agriculture and current affairs, the almanac sold thousands of copies each year and made Franklin a well-to-do Philadelphian. The edition from 1765 is one with a legal and political dimension, since it included the text of the new Stamp Act (1765). As pseudonymous editor Richard Saunders, Franklin included the act as "most necessary" for Americans to read. When Franklin heard of the colonists' fiery denunciations of it, in early 1766, he was resident in London on business for Pennsylvania. He was granted a Parliamentary hearing and sided with his countrymen. Repeal of the act came soon after and gave lasting credence to Franklin's diplomatic and political abilities, which he would turn to good account in the following years.

Editions of these classics form part of the Center's early American collection - and there is much more to explore.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections    


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