18th and 19th Century Americana from Lesser Antiquarian Books
By Michael Stillman
Americana collectors cannot help but look forward to the latest offerings from David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books. Lesser always presents an intriguing assortment, primarily items from the mid-18th to the late 19th century. Many concern the Revolutionary and Civil War periods, or the troubling times which led up to those confrontations. These were the days which shaped the nation, and Lesser manages to find material which brings the discussions and disagreements that molded this land back to life. It is a fascinating look at the thinking of America's forefathers (and occasionally, foremothers). Some make their descendants proud; others make you wonder what on earth they were thinking. Here are a few examples of what we mean.
On September 5, 1756, when Pastor Timothy Harrington of First Church in Boston gave this speech, the colonists were struggling through the long French and Indian War. The good pastor thought this was a message from God when he published his speech entitled, Prevailing Wickedness, and Distressing Judgments, Ill-boding Symptoms on a Stupid People. Well, those "stupid people" would have their revenge when the French conceded defeat in 1763, but at this time, the British had suffered a major beating in the Battle of Monongahela, and Harrington saw a Divine hand in that defeat. Item 76. $275.
John Adams has been rehabilitated in recent years for the many contributions he made to the young nation. However, the Alien and Sedition Acts will forever be a blot on his administration. This Report of the Committee to Whom were Referred...Certain...Petitions Complaining of the Act, Intitled "An Act Concerning Aliens..." presents a remarkable argument from the House of Representatives justifying these laws. Now that we find ourselves in a time when the primary qualification for appointment to the federal judiciary is to be passive in applying constitutional rights, this argument is most instructive. These congressmen promoted an emasculation of constitutional rights that would make even the strictest of "strict constructionists" proud. The Adams administration had taken the position that it was free to punish individuals for speech it did not like. Herein, the argument is made that the first amendment provides no protection against such behavior. The requisite part of the amendment states, "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." In an argument worthy of strict construction, they argue that a literal reading only prevents the government from applying prior restraint to free speech. Nothing in it, they argue, prevents the government from punishing this "free" speech after it is made. Freedom of the press, they say, "consists in permission to publish, without previous restraint upon the press, but subject to punishment afterwards for improper publication." Of course, this type of freedom of speech is available in even the most repressive of nations. You are free to speak your mind, but you had better be prepared to suffer the consequences. Perhaps we too will see a return to such a literal reading of our precious Bill of Rights soon. Item 3. $1,250.