Libraries and Learned Societies
Libraries and Learned Societies
Books. The cultural baggage of European immigrants to America included books reflecting the dominant literary trends of the age. Even the earliest settlers brought significant numbers of books with them, determined as they were to carry the best of their Old World culture into their New World homes. For some of them, books on law, history, and religion were deemed especially essential as they struggled to reconstitute society in the American wilderness. Books that instructed and uplifted, especially religious books, were most numerous. But learned political and theological works and belletristic literature could also be found in personal and college collections of the seventeenth century. As the eighteenth century progressed, institutional libraries grew in numbers and size, as did personal and family collections of books. In the English colonies the expansion of literacy gave rise to the phenomenon known as subscription libraries, whereby the general public had even greater access to a wider variety of books. The European Enlightenment contributed significantly to rising rates of literacy everywhere and brought forth increased intellectual activity, including the organization of learned societies such as the American Philosophical Society (1743) in British North America.
Spaniards. Among the first settlers into the Spanish borderlands were well-educated priests, military officers, and landowners. They saw themselves as promoters of Spanish culture and Christianity; books were crucial to their mission of transmitting European civilization to the American Southwest, Texas, and Florida. Juan de Oñate, who led the first European and Mexican settlers into New Mexico in 1598, carried books with him, as did several of his fellow officers, including Capt. Alonso de Quesada, who reported that he brought with him “seven books, religious and non religious.” Another Spanish captain accompanying Oñate was Gaspar Perez de Villagra, who later wrote the epic poem Historia de la Nueva Mexico (1610) in blank verse. Villagra’s work made its way into the private and mission collections of books in the province. Throughout the Spanish borderlands mission libraries contained at least some books, mostly liturgical works but also writings on philosophy, canon law, and ecclesiastical history as well as biblical commentaries and Latin classics. The library at Our Father Santo Domingo mission just southwest of Sante Fe included Diego de Baeza’s Commentaria moralia in Evangelicam Historiarum (1624), Antonio de Solis y Rivadeneyra’s Historia de la conquista de Mexico (1684), Fray Domingo de Soto’s In dialecticam Aristolelis commetarii (1554), and Philipp Cluver’s Introdução in universam geographiam (1624), as well as an assortment of Roman writers. Two governors of provincial New Mexico, Bernardo Lopez de Mendizabal (1659–1691) and Diego de Penalosa (1661-1664) both had impressive libraries and both were arrested and tried by the Inquisition. Having studied at the University of Mexico, Lopez was a learned man; he
and his wife, Doña Teresa, were accused of being Jews, and their reading habits came under scrutiny. Lopez’s library also included poems by the Italian Ludovico Aristo which were widely read by Spanish intellectuals though they were claimed by New Mexican clerics to contain “English heresies.” Governor Penalosa had an even more extensive library than Lopez. Besides devotional works and volumes on political philosophy, history, theology, and law, Penalosa possessed several novels, plays, and a volume on horsemanship. He too was accused of reading books listed on the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, though it must be said that the Holy Office of the Inquisition found little heretical reading materials in New Mexico. Devotional materials and almanacs came from the printing presses in Mexico City; most books were imported from Spain. The evidence is not conclusive, but the literacy rate was apparently higher in New Mexico than in Spain itself. Nevertheless, by the end of the eighteenth century no more than one-third of the men could sign their names. Of course, the literacy rate among women was considerably lower.
Frenchmen. Among the first settlers in Canada, Marc Lescarbot shared his extensive library with fellow colonists during the short life of their settlement at Port Royal in Acadia between 1606 and 1607. Lescarbot’s library was destroyed, but later colonists were known to have books particularly related to their profession: lawyers and judges had collections of books usually including legal commentaries; merchants usually owned well-known accounting books such as Le parfait negociant (1675) or Dictionnnaire universel de commerce (1723). Attorney-general Louis-Guillaume Verrier shared his extensive collection of legal volumes with the students he taught law, and François-Joseph Cugnet, secretary to the governor and council of Quebec, probably had the finest library assembled in New France. Especially popular were works by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon, Pierre Corneille, Molière, and Jean Racine. Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were also widely read. In 1778 the estate of Pierre de Laclede Liguestor, Saint Louis’s leading citizen, included a library of two hundred volumes. It contained titles by René Descartes, Fénelon, Charles Rollin and French translations of works by Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Benjamin Franklin on electricity. Educational institutions developed the largest libraries in New France. By 1750 the Jesuit College at Quebec had a library of over five thousand volumes on theology, ecclesiastical and classical history, the lives of the saints and devotional practices, and medicine. The Quebec Ursulines and Sulpicians’ Seminary also had impressive libraries. New France did not have any learned societies, but Michel Sarrazin, a surgeon general in the army, regularly contributed observations on the flora and fauna of North America to L’Académie Royale des Sciences de Paris. In terms of literacy, travelers often observed that the daughters of landowners in New France were better schooled than the boys, the latter being drawn into farm labor or the fur trade while their sisters were attending church schools. Statistics on literacy in New France, however, are inconclusive and scarce.
Dutchmen. The Dutch colony between New England and Chesapeake Bay may well have possessed the most literate colonists in seventeenth-century America. Both their commercial economy and Reformed faith demanded schooling, where not only reading and writing but also arithmetic were regularly taught. Even among women in New Netherland, the literacy rate was much higher than in New England and elsewhere in colonial America, no doubt because of the emphasis upon schooling in the Dutch republic. As in the Spanish borderlands and in New France, New Netherland possessed more than a few learned men who brought books with them and sent for more. Primers, Bibles, and devotional works as well as scholarly and literary volumes regularly made their way to New Netherland. The Dutch Reformed domines, especially the Reverend Henricus Selyns, possessed respectable home libraries, as did Latin schoolmasters Carolus Curtius and Aegidius Lucyck; Dr. Johannes de la Montagne and his son Jan; and Jacques Cortelyou, a student of Cartesian philosophy and known as a freethinker. Among those who published were Adrian Van der Donck, a young lawyer and leader of New Netherland’s political dissenters in 1650. In 1656 Van der Donck published Description of the New Netherland a promotional pamphlet praising the potential of the colony. Another was merchant Jacob Steendam, already a poet of some note before moving to America. Steendam published The Complaint of New Amsterdam (1659), lamenting in verse the neglect of the Dutch colony by the West India Company. Domine Selyn was another New Netherland poet. Upon the marriage of his friend, merchant and former teacher Aegidius Luyck, Selyn wrote a long poem titled “Bridal Torch.” However, not the poem or the promotional tract but rather the lampoon, usually laced with sexual innuendo or political satire, was the most popular writing done in New Netherland.
Van Imborck. The reading habits of New Netherlanders may perhaps be seen in the inventory of the estate of Dr. Gysbert Van Imborck, a physician and bookseller. Upon his death in 1665 Imborck had over 500 books, including 102 primers, 100 catechisms, and 154 other religious works. In 1643 the Widow Bronck’s estate included books by John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, and Martin Luther, a book on medicine, a child’s book, several moral and practical discourses, and a German Bible. For the use of the preacher at his patroonship, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer sent various books on theology and biblical interpretation, three on mathematics, one on philosophy, one on geography, one on history, another on economics, and two Bibles. More typical New Netherlanders possessed just a few books, like those in the inventory of the estate of Jan Jansen Damen, a well-off farmer who died in 1651: one folio Bible, one chronicle (probably on the Dutch wars for independence), and a quarto Bible.
Britons. By the middle of the eighteenth century British North America was one of the most literate societies on earth, well ahead of both New France and the Spanish Borderlands. Estimates vary, but literacy rates among the British settlers—not including Indians or slaves—was as high as 90 percent in some regions. Literacy was definitely encouraged by the Protestantism and commercialism of colonial culture, with religious controversy and economic expansion contributing significantly to the availability of schooling. Just as Protestantism placed a premium on reading the Bible, trade and commerce were facilitated not only by reading but also writing and arithmetic. The proliferation of newspapers, book and pamphlet printing, bookselling, and the development of libraries testify to the growth and importance of literacy in the English colonies. Even in the seventeenth century British Americans were a bookish people, especially the Puritans of New England. But whether in New England or on the Chesapeake, reading materials ran to the practical, the devotional or theological, and the Latin classic. Especially popular throughout English America was Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety (1611). In the seventeenth century the English poets most read in the British colonies were John Milton and George Herbert. All students studying Latin grammar read Greek and Roman histories, tragedies, comedies, and poems because they were part of the traditional Latin curriculum, even in a Puritan New England, which might otherwise have resisted such worldly writers. In the eighteenth century contemporary belletristic literature from England became common even among New Englanders. Indeed, anything of note published in Britain would shortly make its way to the colonies, including the works of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele. Most popular of all were almanacs filled with practical advice; practical guides to business, navigation, and surveying; and devotional pamphlets.
Collections. Among early New Englanders who owned personal libraries were William Bradford, William Brewster, and John Harvard. Among the fifty volumes Miles Standish owned were Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1614) as well as John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). Harvard left his substantial library to the college that bears his name; at his death in 1644, Brewster owned over four hundred volumes. Both Harvard and Brewster owned Capt. John Smith’s Description of New England (1616) and Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (1605). When he died in 1676, John Winthrop II, the first governor of Connecticut, possessed the largest and most variegated library in New England. Along with the classics and contemporary works on divinity, Winthrop’s library was filled with works on alchemy, mathematics, and astronomy. In Virginia, Ralph Wormeley II also had an extensive library. Among his books were Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humor (1618), Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Fifty Comedies and Tragedies (1647), and Michael Dalton’s widely read Country Justice (1618). Among the great individual libraries of early-eighteenth-century America were those of William Byrd II of Virginia, James Logan of Pennsylvania, and Cotton Mather of Massachusetts. They were followed by those two great bibliophiles, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, whose libraries were extraordinary for both their size and range. By 1750 college libraries such as those of Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary were rich depositories of books and documents. The resourceful Anglican priest Thomas Bray led an effort by the Church of England to establish parochial libraries in Annapolis, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston for the use of the clergy. In the late 1720s Benjamin Franklin and others of his junto in Philadelphia began a subscription library, and that effort prepared the way for Franklin’s Library of Philadelphia in 1731, which had two thousand volumes by 1770. Similarly, the New York Society Library was chartered in 1754, and its members paid a subscription fee which allowed them access to hundred of books. However, public subscription libraries, even the one in Philadelphia, were perhaps less effective in making books available than the booksellers themselves, especially in the major colonial towns. Many of them loaned books for free or set up their own subscription library at a minimum fee to interested readers. Moreover, these entrepreneurs bought books in large numbers and often sold them at bargain prices. A casual glance at a colonial newspaper after 1750 makes clear the rising importance of the ubiquitous bookseller and the variety of titles available to the general public.
Meetings of the Minds. Interestingly enough, several early Americans with the most impressive libraries were invited to join the prestigious Royal Society of London, founded by Charles II in 1660 and devoted to the advancement of “physico-mathematical experimental learning.” Among the American members of the Royal Society were Winthrop II, Cotton Mather, Byrd, and Franklin. Franklin’s junto, in which young mechanics and apprentices began a program of self-improvement, was hardly a learned society, but it pointed toward the quest for useful knowledge that would distinguish American intellectual life. Of course, the colleges had their debating societies, and during the eighteenth century various professional organizations began to emerge in the port towns, including legal societies, where lawyers regularly debated issues. As early as 1739 Cadwallader Colden, New York official, doctor, mathematician, and botanist, suggested to Franklin and others that American scientists organize a learned society. In 1743 Franklin formally proposed the American Philosophical Society, which faced competition from another Philadelphia scientific society in the early 1750s. The two organizations combined as the American Philosophical Society in 1768. Meanwhile, New Yorkers established in 1748 the Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge, which was essentially a literary society. The American Philosophical Society corresponded regularly with the Royal Society, but not until 1771 did it produce its own Transactions, which Benjamin Franklin promptly sent to all European learned societies. In 1764 New Yorkers organized the Society for the Promotion of Arts, Agriculture and Oeconomy, which offered bounties for manufactured products normally imported from Britain. This society was primarily an economic measure provoked by the Stamp Act rather than a true learned society.
Stephen Botein, “The Legal Profession in Colonial North America,” in Lawyers in Early Modern Europe and America, edited by Wilfrid Prest (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981);
Richard D. Brown, Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989);
Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1683 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970);
Bruce Curtis, “Some Recent Work on the History of Literacy in Canada,” History of Education Quarterly,30 (1990): 613–624;
Kenneth Lockridge, Literacy in Colonial New England (New York: Norton, 1974);
Joel Perlmann and Dennis Shirley, “Where Did New England Women Acquire Literacy?,” William and Mary Quarterly,48 (1991): 50–67;
Ellis Raesly, Portrait of New Netherland (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945);
Marc Simmons, “Authors and Books in Colonial New Mexico,” in Voices from the Southwest: A Gathering in Honor of Lawrence Clark Powell, edited by Donald C. Dickinson, and others (Flagstaff, Ariz.: Northland Press, 1976), pp. 13-32.