It’s Old, But Is It Valuable?

- by Michael Stillman

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Worn cover of William R. King's Obituary


King was not a totally boring person, even though he mostly has been forgotten, while some of his contemporaries are remembered as great figures of their time. He served in the senate with the likes of Webster, Calhoun, Clay and Benton, but King was not a great orator. In recent years, about the only time his name has come up is in rumors, typical of today, that he was President James Buchanan’s homosexual lover. Even this controversial claim is focused more on Buchanan, who still has his defenders, then on the forgotten King.

King also had the misfortune of being a southerner, brought in to balance the ticket of 1852, which is to say he was pro-slavery and a slaveholder. This is not a legacy you want to have, as Thomas Jefferson could have attested had he lived another 200 years. Perhaps next time I will write a bit more about him, unless enough people tell me not to, but for now, this article is about his printed obituary. And typical flowery obituaries notwithstanding, King seems to have been a well-liked man, a “uniter not a divider” in a time when the divisions were becoming so wide, and the differences so irreconcilable, that a split was inevitable.

As mentioned earlier, there’s a giveaway in this book I hadn’t noticed when I bought it from a library 35 years ago that it was unlikely to ever be of much value. Right there after the title page is a resolution of the House of Representatives calling for the printing of 30,000 copies of these proceedings. Thirty thousand! That must have been about one for every citizen of the Republic back in 1854. This book is no rarity.

It was a library copy, as I imagine most were. This is not the type of book that would appear on a bestsellers list, so it was probably given to every library they could find. What else can you do with 30,000 copies?

The nice thing about library copies is it’s easy to trace their “provenance.” This book started at St. John’s Circulating Library in Frederick, Maryland, and ended up at the St. Andrew on Hudson House Library in New York State. The original warning from St. John’s remains pasted in the cover: the book may be borrowed for no more than two weeks, and a fine of two cents per day will be charged for late returns. From the looks of the internal pages, I’d say they never collected their two cents. I may have been the first one to open the book.

The second and similar book I found was Addresses on the Presentation of the Sword of Gen. Andrew Jackson to the Congress of the United States…” From 1855, it commemorates a ceremony accepting the sword General and later President Jackson had worn during battle. This one’s a rarity compared to the King book, with only 20,000 copies having been printed. And my copy has its library card still intact, showing that no one ever took it out.