Chronicles of America 

The Intellectual Life

In all the colonies interest in intellectual things was limited, and the standards reached by the generality were probably no higher than those of the people at large in England in the eighteenth century. In proportion to the population but few persons were highly educated, for a majority of the colonists either had no book learning at all or had no more than the rudiments of reading, writing, and accounting. The back country and the frontier had very few schools of any kind, and such popular education as was in vogue was confined almost entirely to the older settled regions along the coast, and there, what is now known as the education of the masses had scarcely yet been thought of even as an ideal. To the colonials popular education in the modern sense was as foreign as were democratic ideas in government.

The nearest approach to a plan of education for every one was made in New England, at least in Massachusetts and Connecticut, including the former colonies of Plymouth and New Haven. Here the colonists recognized the obligation of teaching all children something and imposed on the parents or the towns the duty of providing local schools for the benefit of the community. This obligation was so well understood that in laying out new towns, particularly after 1715, tracts were frequently set aside for schools, not only in Connecticut and Massachusetts but also in New Hampshire, Maine, and the Connecticut settlement in the Wyoming Valley. The higher education necessary for preparing boys for college was furnished partly by the grammar schools and partly, perhaps to a larger extent in the earlier period than afterwards, by ministers who conducted schools in their parsonages or rectories in order to eke out their modest salaries.

The subjects taught in the log or clapboarded schoolhouses were reading, writing, arithmetic, and the catechism. Spelling was introduced early, with little effect, however, as far as uniformity was concerned; but English grammar was not cultivated in the schools even in the larger centers until about 1760. The first aids to learning were the hornbook, the A B C book, and the primer. Dilworth's speller was in general use, if we may judge from its frequent appearance in the lists of books imported. Governor Wolcott of Connecticut tells us that he never went to school a day in his life, but was taught by his mother at home, and that he did not learn to read and write until he was eleven years old; and his case was probably by no means exceptional. Men in their wills often made provision for the education of their children, but in most cases they desired nothing more than reading and good penmanship; and an apprentice who had been taught to write "a legiable joyning hand playne to be read" was deemed properly treated by his master. Grammar schools where Latin and Greek were taught were rare. The Hopkins Grammar Schools in Hartford and New Haven and the Boston Latin School are noteworthy examples of higher education in New England, but even these schools did not reach a very high level.

Outside of New England, Maryland was the only colony which had a rudimentary system of public education, for under the Free School Act of 1694 a series of schools supported by the counties was planned, to be free for all or at least a number of the pupils attending. Such schools were started sometimes by persons of wealth who would subscribe what was needed; sometimes they were endowed by a single benefactor who would give money for this purpose during his lifetime or by will at his death. The original purpose of the free school was to provide an education for those who were unable to pay tuition. Even in New England, tuition was usually charged in most of the town schools, particularly of Massachusetts, during the seventeenth century and the first quarter of the eighteenth. After this time, however, the maintenance of schools by general taxation became more frequent.

How many such schools were established in Maryland it is difficult to say. Though an effort was made in 1696 to erect a school under the terms of the Free School Act, nothing was accomplished at the time, and as late as 1707 Governor Seymour could say that not one step had been taken for the encouragement of learning in Maryland. The fact however that the school founded at Annapolis was called King William's School confirms the belief that a building was erected in 1701, before the King's death, though it is not unlikely that little or no progress was made during the first few years of its existence. To this school, which was destined in time to grow into St. John's College, Benjamin Leonard Calvert left a legacy in 1733, and from that date, under the impetus of masters and ushers obtained from England, its career was prosperous and continuous. On the other side of the Bay, in Queen Anne County, a second school was established in 1723. From the records, which are still extant, we learn that the subjects taught were reading, writing, arithmetic, English, surveying, navigation, and geography, and that the school possessed a fine assortment of globes, maps, and charts. It offered an extensive course in mathematics, in which it made use of a quadrant, scales, and compasses, and many English textbooks. For a colonial school its collection of Latin and Greek texts, treatises, and lexicons was unusually complete. But despite its equipment and the fact that in plan and outfit it was manifestly ahead of its time, the school had a checkered career and a hard struggle for existence.

Among both the Quakers and the Germans education was intimately bound up with religion and church organization. The Friends' Public School, founded at Philadelphia in 1689 and destined to become the Penn Charter School of today, was not characteristic of the educational life of Pennsylvania. Wherever they lived, the Quakers and Germans tried to establish schools which were more or less under the supervision of their churches and hence lay outside the movement which led to the founding of the public school system in America. Though there were in Pennsylvania many private schools, it cannot be said that this colony was abreast educationally of either New England or Virginia. The Dutch in New York likewise established a system of parochial schools, of which there were two in the period from 1751 to 1762 in the city itself. But by far the most elaborate effort to build up schools in the interest of a particular form of doctrine and worship was that made by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which, after its foundation in 1701, entered upon a vast scheme of evangelization in all the colonies, including the West Indies. The establishment of libraries and schools formed a most important part of this undertaking. In New York alone, where the plan found its most complete application, between five and ten elementary schools were started. A single "charity" or free school in the city, which pay pupils also attended, was inaugurated in 1710 and, under such deserving schoolmasters as the Huddlestons and Joseph Hildreth, ran a continuous course until the Revolution. Though the subjects taught were mainly the three R's, the Psalms, Catechism, Bible, and church doctrine, it has been justly said that "the patronage of schools in America by this Society formed the foremost philanthropic movement in education during the colonial period."

In the colonies of New Jersey, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, and to some extent in Maryland and New York also, the system of education in vogue was a combination of private tutors, small pay schools, and an occasional endowed free school or academy. The tutorial method and the sending of children to England for their education were possible only among the wealthier families, and as free schools were not numerous in these colonies, it follows that public education there was not furnished to the children at large. Perth Amboy, for instance, seems to have had no school at all until 1773, and though the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel sent schoolmasters to Burlington, the results were meager, and New Jersey remained during colonial times without an educational system apart from the usual catechizing in the churches. In Virginia education was largely a private business, for though the Syms and Eaton free schools, the oldest institutions of the kind in the colonies, continued to exist, they did not grow either in wealth or in efficiency. This State had many private schools, such as that at St. Mary's in Caroline County, kept by Jonathan Boucher, who, in addition to his duties as rector, took boys at twenty pounds for board and education, or that of William Prentis in Williamsburg, who, though a clerk at the time and afterwards a merchant, had a school where he taught Latin and Greek and took tuition fees. Prentis's pupils read Ovid, Cato, Quintus, Curtius, Terence, Justin, Phædrus, Virgil, and Caesar, and used a " gradus, " a " pantheon, " a " vocabulary, " a Greek grammar, and two dictionaries. Sometimes the parents would advertise for "any sober diligent person qualified to keep a country school, " guaranteeing a certain number of pupils. That the results were not always satisfactory, even among the best families, is apparent from Nathaniel Burwell's unfraternal characterization of his brother Lewis as one who could neither read, spell, nor cipher correctly, and was in "no ways capable of managing his own affairs or fit for any gentleman's conversation."

Prominent planters obtained tutors from England, Scotland, and the Northern Colonies, and the accounts given by some of these teachers — Benjamin Harrower at Captain Daingerfield's, Philip Fithian at Councilman Carter's, and the Reverend Jonathan Boucher at Captain Dixon's — throw light on the conditions attending the education of a planter's children. The conditions thus described were probably more agreeable than was elsewhere the case, for in other instances not only were tutors indentured servants but frequently were treated as such and made to feel the inferiority of their position. One John Warden refused to accept the post of tutor in a Virginia family, unless the planter and his wife and children would treat him "as a gentleman. " The following letter from a Virginian to Micajah Perry of London in 1741 must be similar to many dispatched for a like purpose: "If possible I desire you will send me by Wilcox a schoolmaster to teach my children to read and write and cypher [the children were two girls, sixteen and twelve, and a boy five years old]. I would willingly have such a person as Mr. Lock describes, but cant expect such on such wages as I can afford, but I desire he may be a modest, sober, discreet person. His wages I leave to your discretion, the usual wages here for a Latin master from Scotland is £20 a year, but they commonly teach the children the Scotch dialect which they never can wear o$." In addition to his employer's children the tutor was generally allowed to take other pupils for whom he could charge tuition. Harrower did this but had considerable trouble collecting the fees, and John Portress kept a school on Gibbons's plantation in Georgia where he taught the neighboring children writing, grammar, and "practical" mathematics. In some instances the tutor acted also as a general factotum for the planter, even serving as overseer or steward. James Ellerton, the English tutor on Madam Smith's estate in South Carolina, had as much to do with corn, pigs, and fences as he did with reading and the rule of three.

A great many New York, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina boys of the more wealthy, families were sent abroad for their education. The sons of Oliver De Lancey of New York went to England, those of William Byrd, 3d, were at Sinnock's in Kent in 1767, Alexander and John Spotswood remained at Eton four years, and Samuel Swann of North Carolina studied in England in 1758. Keith William Pratt, Thomas Jones's stepson, at the age of fourteen was at Dr.

L'Herundell's school in Chelsea, learning French, Latin, Greek, writing, arithmetic, drawing, and fencing "as far as it is thought necessary for a gentleman. " His sister Betty, aged nine, wrote him from Virginia, when he was eight years old: "You are got as far as the rule of three in arithmetic, but I cant cast up a sum in addition cleverly, but I am striving to do better every day. I can perform a great many dances and am now learning the Sibell, but I cannot speak a word of French."

Despite their English education, few Southern boys were as precocious as Jonathan Edwards, who began Latin at six, was reading Locke On the Human Understanding when other boys were lost in Robinson Crusoe,1 and was ready for college at thirteen; or as Samuel Johnson, later president of King's College, who was ambitious to learn Hebrew at six, complained of his tutor as "such a wretched poor scholar" at ten, entered Yale at fourteen, and capped the climax of a long and erudite career by publishing a Hebrew and English grammar at the age of seventy-one. Few could quote classical writers or show such wide reading and extensive knowledge of books as did Cotton Mather or Thomas Hutchinson, but few in the South were surpassed by the boys in the North in versatility and knowledge of the world. Many Southern lads went to the Northern colleges at Philadelphia, Princeton, and New Haven, and a few to Northern schools to study some such special subject as navigation.

In the Carolinas there were fewer tutors than in Virginia. A large number of private schools, however, was maintained in Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah. There was a provincial free school in Charleston and another at Childesbury in the same colony, but the free school founded by Colonel James Inness "for the benefit of the youth of North Carolina" was not started in Wilmington until 1783. South of Williamsburg there was no "seminary for academical studies," says Whitefield, who tried to turn his Orphan House in Savannah into a college in 1764. The private schools which predominated were promoted by private persons who advertised their wares and offered a varied assortment of educational attractions such as arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, surveying, dialing, navigation, gauging, and fortification, but there is reason to believe that the results which they obtained did not justify the claims of the schoolmasters. Some, from motives in which desire for a living was probably a larger factor than zeal for education, announced that they were ready "to go out, to receive day pupils, or to take boarders."

In the mercantile centers the desire for a practical education was always strong. As early as 1713 in New York a demand arose for courses in navigation, surveying, mensuration, astronomy, and "merchants' accounts. " In 1755 a master by the name of James Bragg offered to teach navigation to "gentlemen Sailors and others in a short time and reasonable. " In Charleston, George Austin, Henry Laurens's partner, voiced a general feeling and forecast a modern controversy when he deemed training in business more to his son's advantage "than to pore over Latin and Greek authors of little utility to a young man intended for a mercantile career. " Here and there throughout the colonies there were evening schools,

as in New York, Charleston, and Savannah; French schools, as in New York and New Rochelle; besides schools for dancing, music, and fencing, and at least one school for teaching "the art of manly defense." Whether shorthand was anywhere taught is doubtful and highly improbable, yet from Henry Wolcott, Jr., of Windsor and Roger Williams of Rhode Island to Jonathan Boucher of Virginia and Maryland there were those who were familiar with it, and occasional references to writings in "characters" would point in the same direction.

As far as girls were concerned, the opportunities for education were limited. As a rule they were not admitted to the public schools of New England, and coeducation prevailed apparently only in some of the private schools, the Venerable Society's Charity School in New York, and in Pennsylvania, particularly among the Germans. In 1730 the Charity School had sixty-eight pupils, twenty of whom were girls. The Moravian girls' schools at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Salem, North Carolina, were unique of their kind. Day schools for young ladies were subsequently opened by men and women everywhere for the teaching of reading, writing, " flourishing, " ciphering, French, English, and literature, and for instruction in embroidery, the making of coats of arms, painting, "Dresden, Catgut, and all sorts of colored work" and various other feminine accomplishments of the day deemed "necessary," as one prospectus puts it, "to the amusement of persons of fortune who have taste."

A boarding school for girls was opened at Norfolk, Virginia, and another in Charleston, to the latter of which Laurens sent his eldest daughter; but boarding schools, though not uncommon for boys, particularly after 1750, were rare for colonial maidens, some of whom from the South were sent abroad, while many others were taught at home. Manuals on home training were known and used, one of which, The Mother's Advice to her Daughters, described as "a small treatise on the education of ladies, " was imported into New England in 1766.

Many efforts were made to instruct and Christianize both Indians and negroes. Among the best-known of these are the labors of Jonathan Edwards among the Indians at Stockbridge, of David and John Brainard among those of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and of Eleazer Wheelock and his missionaries among the Oneidas and Tuscaroras and at the Indian school in Lebanon. There was also an Indian school connected with William and Mary College; and Massachusetts in 1751 proposed to start two schools for the instruction of negro boys and girls, to be boarded and taught at the expense of the colony. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel made this work a very important part of its program and instructed its missionaries and schoolmasters "to be ready, as they have opportunity, to teach and instruct the Indians and Negroes and their children." As a consequence schools for this purpose were opened in many colonial towns and parishes. The pioneer, Dr. McSparran, gave much of his time to catechizing and teaching both Indians and Negroes, and there must have been others of the clergy doing the same unselfish work. Even Harrower, the Virginia tutor already mentioned, read and taught the catechism to a "small congregation of negroes" on Captain Daingerfield's plantation. One of the most famous efforts of missionary education was that of Commissary Garden of South Carolina, who started a negro school in Charleston in 1744, to which "all the negro and Indian children of the parish" were to go for instruction "without any charge to their masters." Funds were collected, a building was erected, and the school continued for twenty-two years with from thirty to seventy children, who were taught reading, spelling, and the chief principles of the Christian religion.

In the realm of the higher education, three colleges, Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale, were already prominent colonial institutions, but Princeton in 1753 was still "our little infant college of New Jersey, " and the College of Rhode Island (now Brown University), and Dartmouth, the outgrowth of Wheelock's work at Lebanon, were hardly as yet fairly on their feet. King's College (now Columbia University) and the College and Academy of Philadelphia (now University of Pennsylvania), organized to promote more liberal and practical studies, were just entering on their great careers. The degrees granted by the colleges were Bachelor of Arts and honorary Master of Arts, to which in some instances Bachelors of Arts of other colleges were admitted. Higher degrees, such as Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Laws, and Doctor of Civil Law, were not conferred by American colleges but were granted to many a colonist, chiefly among the clergy, by Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and, highest in repute, by Edinburgh. Occasionally a colonist received a degree from a continental university such as Padua or Utrecht. Though the cost of a degree in those days ran as high as twenty-five pounds, there was considerable competition among the New England clergy to obtain this distinction and not a little wire pulling was involved in the process.

For professional training in medicine, surgery, law, and art, many colonists went abroad to England, Scotland, and the Continent, where they studied anatomy, surgery, medicine, pharmacy, and chemistry, read law at one or other of the Inns of Court in London, or traveled, as did Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, to see the leading galleries of Europe. One of the first to study surgery abroad was Thomas Bulfinch of Boston, who was in Paris in 1720 studying obstetrics. He declared in his letters that few surgeons in America knew much of the business and that there was no place in the world like Paris. "I am studying, " he writes, "with the greatest man midwife in Paris (and I might say in the universe for that business)." In 1751 his son Thomas also went over to study pharmacy and boarded in London at the " chymists where drugs and medicines were prepared for the hospitals." Later he turned to surgery, rose at seven, as he wrote his father, walked to Great Marlboro Street, Soho, three miles away from his lodgings in Friday Street, St. Paul's, where, "I am busied in dissection of dead bodies to four in the afternoon, and often times don't allow myself time to dine. At six I go to Mr. Hunter's lecture [in anatomy], where I am kept till nine. " He tells us that he did chemical experiments in his chamber and diverted himself by seeing Garrick act. But the majority of colonial doctors who studied abroad went to Edinburgh. Dr. Walter Jones of Virginia, one of the most distinguished of them, took his degree there in 1769, and has left us in his letters a delightful account of his sojourn in that city. The colonists spoke a variety of languages. There were thousands who could not write or speak English, particularly among those who, like the Germans, came from foreign lands and not only retained but taught their native tongue in America. The Celtic Highlanders who settled at Cross Creek wrote and spoke Gaelic, and specimens of their letters and accounts still survive. Dutch continued to be spoken in New York, and in Albany and its neighborhood it was the prevailing tongue in colonial times and even long after the colonial period had come to an end. Many of the New York merchants were bilinguists, and some of them — Robert Sanders, for example, — wrote readily in English, Dutch, and French. The Huguenots adapted themselves to the use of English more easily than did the Germans and Dutch, though many of them in New York and South Carolina continued to use French, with the result that even their negroes acquired a kind of French lingo. The advantage of knowing French was generally recognized and among those who regretted their inability to speak the language was Cuyler of New York. A knowledge of French was desired partly as an accomplishment and partly as a business asset, for those who, like Charles Carroll, had been educated in France thus had a distinct advantage over their fellows.

Other languages were less generally understood. Moses Lindo, the indigo inspector of Charleston, was one of those who spoke Spanish, and many of the Jewish merchants and some of the foreign indentured servants were familiar with both Spanish and Portuguese. There must have been interpreters of Spanish in Connecticut in 1752 when there

• was some trouble over a Spanish ship at New London, for much of the evidence is in Spanish, and Governor Wolcott, who knew nothing of the language, had the documents translated for him. To a greater extent even than today, the exigencies of commerce demanded of those trading with France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, and the West Indies a knowledge of the languages used in those countries. Many colonists who went as merchants or factors to Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Lisbon, or the towns of the foreign West Indies, became proficient in one or more tongues. In all the colonies there were agents and missionaries who were familiar with Indian speech. In addition to such professionals as Conrad Weiser, Daniel Claus, Peter Wraxall, and Wheelock's missionaries, there were others who, though less regularly employed, acquired in one way or another a knowledge of Indian speech and were able to act as interpreters. Many of the slaves were African Negroes who spoke no English at all or only what was called "Black English, " and for that reason among others the Negro born in America always commanded a higher price in the market. Among the indentured servants were large numbers of Welsh who spoke only Gaelic, of English who spoke only their Cornish, Somersetshire, Lancashire, or Yorkshire dialect, and of Irish who spoke "with the brogue very much on their tongues. "

Not only were there thousands of men and women in the colonies who could hardly read and who could only make their mark, but there were also thousands who had little or no interest in reading or in collecting books. The smaller farmers and planters, artisans and laborers, confined their reading to the Bible or New Testament, the psalter or hymn book, and an occasional religious work such as the Practice of Piety or Pilgrim's Progress. Printed sermons also were popular, particularly after 1740, when those of Whitefield began to be circulated. Among the volumes with which the colonial reader was familiar were the almanacs —the Farmer's Almanac of Whittemore or Nathaniel Ames in Massachusetts, Wells's Register and Almanac, the Hochdeutsche-Amerikanische Kalender, Tobler's South Carolina and Georgia Almanac, and scores of others. From these the colonists obtained all the scientific knowledge they possessed of sun, moon, tides, and weather predictions, as well as a great variety of religious, political, and miscellaneous information, a diverting assortment of jokes, puzzles, and charades for idle hours, and tables of exchanges, interest, and money values for the man of business. Except the Bible, probably no book was held in greater esteem or was more widely read in the colonies in the eighteenth century than the almanac. In various forms and from the hands of many publishers it circulated from coast to back country and from Maine to Georgia and was the colonists' vade mecum of knowledge. It was even more popular than the newspaper, which, though issued at this time in all the colonies except New Jersey, was expensive, difficult to distribute, and very limited in circulation.

Collections of books, other than those on the shelves of the libraries and in the stocks of the booksellers, were largely confined to the houses of ministers, lawyers, doctors, wealthy merchants, and planters. Early libraries, such as those of John Goodburne in Virginia (1635), William Brewster in Plymouth (1644), and Samuel Eaton in New Haven (1656), were brought from England and consisted chiefly of theological works, with a sprinkling of classical authors and a few books on mathematics and geography. None of these collections contained works of fiction. William Brewster

had a volume or two of poetry and history. The library of William FitzHugh of Virginia (1671) included books on history, law, medicine, physics, and morals, but nothing of literature, essays, poetry, or romance. The law library of Arthur Spicer of Virginia (1701) was remarkable for its scope and variety; and the briefs of his contemporaries, William Pitkin and Richard Edwards of Connecticut, show that they too must have had the use of the leading law books of the day. Cotton Mather's library began when the owner was but nineteen with ninety-six volumes, of which eighty-one were theological and the remainder works on history, philosophy, and philology. The seventeenth century, both in England and America, was manifestly an age of heavy literature.

With the reigns of Anne and the Georges, a new literary activity began to make itself felt. Localities occupied by Quakers, Moravians, Wesleyans, and Covenanters disclose large numbers of books of denominational piety, many of them in Dutch, German, and Gaelic. Among those in English were Ellwood's Life, Penn's No Cross, No Crown, Elias Hook's Spirits of the Martyrs Revived, Sew-all's History, Barclay's Apology, Fox's Journal, and Boston's Fourfold State. The increased interest in agriculture, commerce, law, government, and housekeeping led the colonists to read books of a practical nature such as The Art of Cooking, The Complete Housewife, Miller's Gardener' s Dictionary, Longley's Book of Gardening, Burrough's Navigation Book, Leadbetter's Dialling, Wright's Negotiator, Mathew's Concerning Computation of Time, Mair's Bookkeeping, and other brochures relating to commerce, as well as many works, too numerous to be cited here, on law, local government, the practice of medicine, anatomy, surgery, surveying, and navigation. There were also many editions of the British statutes, law reports, proceedings of Parliament, and treatises on admiralty and marine matters, all of which were imported. Many of the leading men, particularly in the South, subscribed regularly to the London Magazine, the Gentleman's Magazine, Rider's Almanac, Eachard's Gazetteer, the Court Calendar, and other British periodical publications.

There was a close literary relation maintained between England and the colonies, and newspapers, books, and magazines were constantly sent by merchants across the Atlantic to their correspondents in America. An ever widening interest in public affairs was bringing in a steadily increasing number of histories, biographies, voyages, and travels — such as the histories of Rapin, Robertson, Mosheim, Raleigh, Clarendon, Burnet, Hume, Voltaire, and Salmon; the lives of Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, Louis XII, Marlborough, and Eugene of Savoy; and the voyages of Churchill and Anson. As time went on, an improving taste on the part of the colonists for poetry, essays, and fiction, and translations from the classics and foreign languages began to show itself. Among the chief poets were Chaucer, Milton, Dryden, and Pope, as well as such minor men as Gower, Butler, Donne, Waller, Herbert, Cowley, Congreve, and Prior. Among the essays popular in the colonies were those of Montaigne, Bacon, Swift, and Bolingbroke, as well as the contributions of Steele and Addison to the Tatler and the Spectator and of Johnson to the Rambler. In fiction we find the writings of Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Goldsmith, and Aphra Behn, and the romances, The Turkish Spy, The London Spy, and The Jewish Spy; and in the drama the works of Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, and Dryden. Among the translations from other languages were the Iliad and the Odyssey, Cervantes's Don Quixote, Lesage's Gil Blas and Le Diable Boiteux, Montesquieu's Lettres persanes, and the Mémoires of Cardinal de Retz, which was amazingly popular. For young people there were Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, The Arabian Nights, and a great abundance of fables, gift books, and short histories.

As an indication of the range and variety of these colonial collections of books it is interesting to note that here and there were to be found such works as Hoyle's Games, Memoirs of Gamesters, Madox on the Exchequer, Harrington's Oceana, and even More's Utopia. As for law books, Robert Bell, the publisher of Philadelphia, imported in 1771 a thousand sets of the English edition of Blackstone's Commentaries, and himself issued a thousand sets more in four royal octavo volumes, which he sold by subscription. Henceforth we begin to find, for the first time, copies of Blackstone appearing in colonial libraries and inventories. In many of the private libraries were works in French, but rarely in other languages except among the Germans. Grey Elliott, an English official in Savannah, was apparently an exception, for he had two hundred volumes "in several languages," but what these languages were we do not know. In all libraries were to be found works issued from the various presses in America. The books of Councilman Carter of Nomini Hall numbered 1503 volumes, and those of William Byrd, 3d, of which there were more than four thousand in many languages, constituted what was probably at that time the largest private library in America.

The practice of lending books was bound to be common in a country where they were rare and expensive and, where neighborliness was a virtue. A number of lists which are in existence show the prevalence of the custom. The catalogue of the library of Godfrey Pole of Virginia (1716), containing 115 titles, shows that about thirty books were out on loan and that several others had been lent and returned. In colonial correspondence we come upon such notes as this from a Dr. Farquharson of Charleston to Peter Manigault in 1756, in which he says that he is sending back "the books and magazines and would be obliged for a reading of Mr. Pope's works."

From lending books as a personal favor it was but a short step to the establishment of private circulating libraries. As early as the beginning of the eighteenth century the Reverend Thomas Bray, commissary of Maryland, had begun his series of "lending libraries" in "the Market Towns" for "any of the clergy to have recourse to or to borrow books out of, as there shall be occasion." How many such lending libraries were actually established it is difficult to say, but there was one at Bath, North Carolina, and another at Annapolis. There appear to have been, particularly in the South, other collections quasi public in character, such as the private library of Edward Mosley of Edenton, which was thrown open for public use. These libraries differed from the circulating libraries of such booksellers as Garret Noël of New York and John Mein of Boston, for example, in that no charge was made for the privilege of borrowing.

Perhaps the first library that may in a sense be called public was that owned by the town of Boston and kept in the "library room" of the Town House. It was started in 1656 and came to an untimely end in the fire of 1747. While it may have been accessible to readers, it was in no sense a lending library, for its massive folios and their equally ponderous contents must have made little appeal to any but the clergy. Much more important as an aid to the spread of good literature were the subscription libraries which came into existence as soon as books were made less bulky and more interesting and entertaining. Before the middle of the eighteenth century associations began to be formed for the buying and lending of books. Of these the most famous was the Library Association of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by a group of fifty persons, headed by Franklin, which ten years later published its first real catalogue. The Pomfret Association of Connecticut was established in 1740, that of Charleston in 1748, and that of Lancaster in 1759. To the last named Governor Hamilton and many leading Pennsylvanians gave money, globes, and astronomical apparatus.

Other instances of the spread of this movement were the Georgia Library, started in 1763, and the Social Library at Salem, Massachusetts, established some time before the Revolution. But there was at that time in the colonies no library supported by public funds and similar to the free public libraries of today.

The bookseller was an important colonial character. Though many of the colonists imported their own books directly from England, by far the larger number obtained what they wanted from those who made bookselling a trade. Merchants and storekeepers in all the large towns and along the Maryland and Virginia rivers carried in stock books which they obtained from England and Scotland. The inventories and invoices of these dealers are always interesting as showing their estimate of the popular taste. Though John Usher of Boston and Portsmouth was merchant and bookseller combined, few of the merchants did more than carry a small stock of books for sale, while on the other hand scarcely any of the booksellers concerned themselves with trade. They imported and sold books, published books and pamphlets, bound books, did job printing of all kinds, including blank forms for bonds, certificates, mortgages, and charter parties. They also made up and issued the newspapers of the day, served generally as public printers for their colonies, acted as postmasters in many towns, kept inquiry bureaus and intelligence offices for their localities, and were a local source of information. They also sold pens, ink, stationery, and all sorts of school necessities. The scope of their activities was perhaps less varied in the North than in the South, but everywhere they were indispensable in the life of their neighborhood. So important did these men become in colonial life that when Boston suffered heavily by the great fire of 1711 her most serious loss was the destruction of nearly all her bookselling establishments.

Back to: Colonial Folkways