Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - April - 2010 Issue

David Lesser Offers Americana for the New York Book Fair

Lesser113

Americana from David Lesser.


By Michael Stillman

David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books has issued their 113th catalogue of Rare Americana. This one includes some books to be displayed at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, taking place in the city April 8-11. If you're heading for New York, you may want to check them out. Lesser offers an interesting assortment of publications, mostly from 1750-1900, which capture the essence of America in its early days. Those fascinated with American history, from events momentous to obscure, will appreciate the material they have collected.

Item 7 is the Report of the Committee..."An Act Concerning Aliens"... This 1799 report from the House of Representatives concerns the Alien and Sedition Acts, which tried to silence opposition to the government during the administration of John Adams. The argument claiming constitutionality for punishing speech opposing the government was the one regularly made at the time, though it seems hard to believe that's all the framers meant when they guaranteed free speech. The report claims the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech only prevents the government from imposing prior restraint on speech or its publication. Once the speech is made, the report contends, the government is free to punish those who speak with opposing views. Priced at $1,250.

Judge Thomas J. Killen was a bit testy about criticism of his courtroom. Killen presided over a lawsuit by one John Poynter McMillan. McMillan was obviously not pleased with the result, or the conduct of the court, and said so in print. Item 88 is Judge Killen's response, To the Public. In a Handbill Dated April 31, 1854... (are there 31 days in April?). Writes the Judge of McMillan, "Both your tongue and your pen, sir, have lost all power of slander, or detraction; true like the native pole cat, they may occasionally offend and disgust the community yet no one blames it because it is the nature of the beast." My guess is Judge Killen would be censored for intemperate conduct if he spoke of people who appeared in his court thusly today. Item 88. $875.

Political candidates have always had to deal with people's prejudices in their campaigns. Item 65 comes from the campaign of the first Republican presidential candidate, John Fremont, responding to claims that Fremont was a Catholic: Col. Fremont's Religion. The Calumnies Against Him Exposed by Indisputable Proofs. This was the 1856 campaign, and Fremont had been married by a Catholic Priest. The explanation was that no other clergyman was available at the time, and that Fremont was an Episcopalian. "Col. Fremont is not now, nor has he ever been, a Roman Catholic." It would take over a century before a Catholic was elected president. This was a particularly difficult time for this charge as 1856 was the one election in which the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party was a serious factor, running former President Millard Fillmore as their standard bearer. $275.

Winfield Scott Hancock was the Democratic nominee in 1880 and he ran against Republican James Garfield. Item 67 is a Hancock broadside headed, Plain Words to the Workingmen! Garfield Their Enemy. Hancock Their Friend. It describes how Hancock is protecting their interests with tariffs and that "He never took a bribe, never committed perjury." But then, Hancock's supporters found it necessary to warn "the workingmen of New Hampshire" that they must elect Hancock "if you want to keep the horde of negroes out of New Hampshire who have been invited into the State to compete with you at your mills and workshops." $500.

Lemuel Sawyer was a North Carolina congressman, and quite a character. He apparently neglected his duties, once declined to seek re-election and twice was defeated, yet twice he made comebacks as well. He was an extraordinarily personable man, which enabled him to defeat some big name opponents despite his own limited accomplishments. He served three sets of non-consecutive terms between 1807 and 1829 before finally being permanently retired by his constituents. He also wrote several pieces, some lost, none considered works of great merit. In 1844, he wrote a biography of Virginia Congressman John Randolph which was described at the time as "false, scandalous, malicious, and libelous." However, Sawyer saved his worst for himself. Item 124 is the Auto-Biography of Lemuel Sawyer, Formerly Member of Congress from North Carolina, Author of the Biography of John Randolph, published in 1844. According to the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, it is "a frank disclosure of his gambling, wastefulness, dissipation, chicanery, and tawdry love affairs. This book must be one of the most self-condemning documents in all American letters." After his first two wives died, Sawyer married a wealthy New York woman and proceeded to waste away her entire fortune. He died in 1852 a minor clerk in Washington. $350.

Item 56 is a Democratic promotion from 1852, Papers for the People. To be Issued Weekly during the Campaign. It describes Democrats as "the inherent progressive force," and calls slavery "a dark gift of European policy." This paper was obviously geared to a northern audience, as Democrats attempted to thread the needle of offending neither North nor South. The pamphlet then goes on to print biographies of the major contenders for the presidential nomination, Lewis Cass, Stephen Douglass (sic), James Buchanan, Sam Houston, and William Marcy. Cass was the nominee in 1848, Buchanan in 1856, Douglas in 1860, but none of these gentlemen received the nod in 1852. After 48 ballots, the Democratic convention selected Franklin Pierce as a compromise acceptable to supporters of the leading candidates when none of them could garner enough support. $250.

David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books may be reached at 203-389-8111 or dmlesser@lesserbooks.com. Their website is www.lesserbooks.com.

You will find many of David M. Lesser's books listed in "Books For Sale" on this site. Click here.

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