Recent Acquisitions in Americana from the William Reese Company
- by Michael Stillman
Recent Acquisitions in Americana from the William Reese Company
The William Reese Company has issued a catalogue of Recent Acquisitions in Americana. There is a range of material related to America to be found, including some collections of photographs of architecture and important early atlases. However, we find a particularly notable number of items related to the Civil War and the trying times leading up to it. It was our most difficult of times, and we still haven't completely gotten over it, witness still ongoing disputes over the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate generals. That is not to mention we seem more divided now than at any time since... Here are a few selections from these recent acquisitions.
It took John James Audubon 11 years to complete (in sections) his massive first edition of the Birds of America. While he was busy observing and painting his birds in America, the printing was being undertaken in London. In 1833, midway through his work, Audubon wrote this letter to his son, Victor Gifford Audubon, who was overseeing publishing in England. Audubon must have had many ups and downs through this long process, but at the time of this letter, he was most upbeat. He was in Boston and had just made some sales. Audubon was excited, noting that although he had written Victor twice already in the previous four days, he had more good news to tell – the Massachusetts legislature had just passed an act to purchase a copy of his Birds. Harvard University and the Society of Natural History had already subscribed, and along with private buyers, that brought the number of Boston area sales to 17. That may not sound like a lot, but a complete set cost around $1,000, an enormous sum at the time. Today, 17 copies in new condition are worth more like $200 million. Still, the costs of production were so great that Audubon made very little profit until he later reduced the size from double-elephant folio to octavo and was able to sell the book in large quantities at a more affordable price. Item 5. Priced at $13,500.
A little while back, President Trump raised some eyebrows when he said that President Andrew Jackson was not happy about the Civil War and would have put a stop to it. The history was a bit mangled as Jackson had been dead 16 years when the war started, but the President was likely thinking of this event when he made that statement. Item 73 is a broadside headed Proclamation, By Andrew Jackson, President of the United States, dated December 10, 1832. South Carolina had recently passed its nullification ordinance, claiming that the state had a right to ignore any federal laws of which it did not approve. Jackson was not a compromising man, and he was not going to wait around for secessionist sympathies to set in, or give in to the South with compromises as the Presidents of the 1850's did. This broadside repeats part of the South Carolina resolution and Jackson's response. The President denounced nullification as rebellion and treason, and made it clear he would use whatever force was necessary to enforce federal laws. Unlike in 1860, South Carolina was unable to elicit support from other southern states and was forced to back down. As to whether Jackson's approach would have worked to head off the Civil War is unknown. Slavery was a more contentious issue and had greater support across the South. It is unlikely to have mattered by the time Lincoln took office, but if such an approach had been applied ten years earlier, we can't say, though it certainly couldn't have worked out any worse than the compromises of the 1850's at preventing the war. $2,250.
The series of compromises and conflicts of the 1850's, Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott, etc., were important events leading to the Civil War. Perhaps the one thing that was more responsible than any other was the part of the Compromise of 1850 satirized in this cartoon. It is captioned, Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law, a lithograph circa 1850 created by an unknown artist. It shows abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison pointing a gun at a slave-catcher as he defends a black woman. In the most biting of satire, the well-dressed slave-catcher rides on the back of Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, who's on all fours like a horse. A bow to the South in the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law demanded that northerners cooperate in apprehending escaped slaves in their midst. Since black people had no legal power to defend themselves, its practical application enabled slave catchers to claim free northern blacks were actually escaped southern slaves and drag them off to servitude as well. While most northerners were not abolitionists, and were willing to let the South do as it pleased at home, they were incensed at being forced to be a part of enforcing slavery themselves, as the law demanded. It created a divide between the South and those in the North who might otherwise have been more willing to compromise. The humiliating depiction of Daniel Webster refers to his support of the Compromise of 1850, which made a problem he thought it would resolve even worse. It destroyed the reputation of the great orator who had long been beloved in the North. Item 54. $4,500.
Fast forward ten years and all hope of a peaceful resolution came to an end. In December of 1860, South Carolina passed a resolution of secession, and in the following months the remaining southern states joined in. Shortly after the vote to secede, the South Carolina secession convention authorized a facsimile printing of the resolution, which was produced in March or April 1861. Two hundred copies were printed for its members and various other public officials. Most have been lost, with only 11 copies known in institutional collections. This copy was found among the possessions of William Dunlap Simpson, who had been a state legislator and after the war Governor and Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. This facsimile exactly reproduces the resolution and the signatures of the 169 delegates to the convention who unanimously voted for secession. The reproduction is so perfect that even ink blots on the original can be seen. Item 31. $60,000.
At the other end of the war we find this proclamation By The President of The United States of America, dated April 11, 1865. It was President Lincoln's last proclamation, issued just three days before he was assassinated. It orders most ports in the South closed. Just two days earlier, Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, and while people usually think that ended the war, it didn't quite. Lee's surrender only applied to his army, and while that turned the Confederate cause from dire to hopeless, various other troops continued to fight on for a few more weeks, as late as May for some in the distant west. So, for Lincoln, the war was not over, and part of the reason for attempting to seal the ports was to prevent Confederate leaders from fleeing the country. Item 88. $25,000.
In the days before films there was the 19th century version of "movies," giant scrolling panoramas that would be displayed as a person spoke. Here is a broadside announcement of such an appearance, headed Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley! Now Exhibiting for a Short Time Only, with Scientific Lectures on American Ærchiology. The panorama was produced around 1850 and this broadside would be from roughly the same time. The talk was given by Montroville W. Dickson, an amateur archaeologist who said he had spent 12 years examining Indian mounds. The panorama was the work of John J. Egan, and it depicts 25 "fanciful" historic and cultural scenes of Mississippi Valley Indians. The 387-foot panorama would be scrolled as Dickson spoke to reveal the scenes he was describing. Six large Mississippi Valley panoramas were produced at this time, but Dickson and Egan's is the only one that survives, now located in the St. Louis Museum. Item 100. $2,500.