Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage

How did knowledge drop in Early America? Part III

Now a Regular Feature, Apparently


Some more evidence on how public documents generated by the nascent Federal State were spread around the new nation like so much fertile manure.

Exhibit A & A’

In August 1845, the State Department sent out a circular to the Presidents of “Colleges, Lyceums &c” informing them that “a box containing one set (17 volumes) of the Documents of the 1st session of the 28th Congress, and one volume of Nicolet’s Report, has been forwarded from this Department for you.”

Appended to the circular was a list of recipient institutions, by state. In New York, Union College, Hamilton College, Geneva College, Columbia College, and the New York Historical Society received copies; in Georgia, the University of Georgia and Georgia Historical Society garnered the same.

This pattern was repeated in each state; colleges and historical societies — and no other kind of institution, not even circulating libraries — got the goods.

A similar circular went out to “the Governors of all the States and Territories.” (The clerk did not feel the need to list all of these).

Exhibit B

In March 1843, when Anthony Halsey, corresponding secretary of the New York Mercantile Library Association, wrote to Daniel Webster, the Secretary of State, to ask the Department for “copies of Congressional Reports and other public documents for the past year,” Webster informed him that because “the distribution of the Congressional documents sent to this Department” was “regulated by law,” it was “not in my power to furnish the Mercantile Library Association with a Set.”

In explaining the reason for his request, Halsey noted that the MLA’s usual providers — congressmen — had neglected to donate these materials of late.

In Sum

It would appear that in the early 1840s, at least, “public” libraries were those held by colleges, historical societies, and state governments. There was a formal law (or laws) regulating free distribution of Congressional documents, etc. Libraries run by earnest and well-connected self-improvement types did not meet the standard set by this law.

More soon?

Previously: Part I, Part II


For circulars, roll 33, M40: Domestic Letters of the Department of State, 1784-1906, RG 59 (Washington: NARA, 1949);
On the mercantile library, roll 31, ibid. and roll 101, M179: Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789-1906, RG 59 (Washington: NARA, 1963),/a>

Image cite: Walter Parenteau, “Sorted White Paper Pile,” Flicker, CC License

Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage

How did knowledge drop in Early America? Part II

Because I know you were dying to find this out


Further reading in Cushing’s papers gives us some info at least approaching an answer to this query:

Dear Sir

I take an early opportunity to write to you on the subject of the Historical Society, agreeably to your obliging request. It was incorporated by the Legislature of this State, in the year 1809, when Clinton, Tompkins, Brockholst, Livingston, Bishop Moore, & other eminent men of that day, were among its active members. Its corporate name is, “The New York Historical Society.”

The Congressional Journals & Documents are regularly sent to the Society, but there are other publications to which we may be entitled – such as – the American State Papers, Diplomatic Correspondence, Gale & Seaton’s Debates, the Madison Papers, the Catalogue of the Library of Congress & of the State Department, &c.

I need not add, that should it be in your power to procure for our Library copies of any of these or other works published by Congress, you will confer a great obligation upon the Society.

The Library now contains about 12000 volumes, chiefly books of great value in connexion to the history of our country. Since my accession to the laborious office of Librarian, now nearly two years, more than a thousand volumes have been added, of which a great part have been donations; and it is my ambition to render it the most complete collection of books relating to America to be found in our country. …

~George Folsom to Caleb Cushing, New York, 11 Dec 1840, in Caleb Cushing Papers, Mss Division, Library of Congress

So: the New York Historical Society (or, as it affects itself to be now, the “New-York Historical Society“) was considered a “public” library eligible to recieve Congressional documents, though not by any means all government documents (hence the letter to Cushing).

Interesting. So “public” in the sense of being “public spirited” not, say, “open to the rabble,” like the later Carnegie-funded libraries would be. Now the next question is, how deep did this distribution go? Did libraries without the ambition to become the best collection of Americana also get government reports?

(Also: thanks to those who commented; I haven’t gotten a chance to do any secondary reading, but Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town is on my list)

More to come.

Image cite: marsi, “packing papers,” Flickr, CC License

Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage

How did knowledge drop in Early America?

Or, if a congressional report falls in the forest, can anyone find it?


I ran across this letter today while poking through the correspondence of Caleb Cushing, a Massachusetts Congressman and semi-influential figure in Whig politics. On the surface, it’s a perfectly normal letter, but the more I started thinking about it, the weirder it seemed.

But first, here’s the text:

Dear Sir,

I had the honor to receive the documents relative to the northeastern boundaries, & I feel truly obliged to you for your very kind & polite attention in putting yourself to the trouble of procuring & forwarding it. Our public libraries which are entitled to a copy of the Congress documents, do not generally receive them till very late, & they are often permitted to lie for a long time boxed up at the State house, because the officers of the library do not call for them – With renewed thanks for your repeated courtesies,
I have the honor to be,
very respectfully, &c
J. G. Bradford

~J. G. Bradford to Caleb Cushing, Boston, 20 July 1839, Container 20, Caleb Cushing Papers, Mss Division, Library of Congress

Cushing has a ton of letters just like this — either requests for public documents or thanks for the same. The correspondence files of most other politicians, in fact, from the backbenchers to important national figures, is just the same; at times, such request for reports almost outnumber requests for patronage gigs.

So what struck me was not that Cushing was doing such distribution, but that Bradford expected that public libraries would obviate the need for a personal request. On the face of it, that sounds perfectly commonsensical; of course Congress would distribute documents that way! But then you think…to what public libraries? They didn’t exist yet (or at least I didn’t thinks so). And then as the sheer number of requests — even from areas wading in seas of cheap print, like urban New England – attests, the reality seems to be that these documents were fairly difficult to lay hands on. Or maybe I’m only getting exposure to the lazy / motivated people.

Before seeing this letter, I had assumed that either government officials (Congressmen, et al.) distributed their alloted copies themselves, especially to their favored newspapers (which commonly summarized important reports and speeches); or people read summaries of reports in other print media. But this bit about public libraries really makes me wonder…

So my question is: what was the legislation on this? How were these documents supposed to be distributed? How were the actually distributed? And what does the daylight between these two poles mean?

I’m going to do a bit of digging on this, but suggestions (or even better, facts) welcome.

Image cite: nacaseven, “Holiday!” Flickr, CC License