David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books has issued a thick new catalogue in their specialty. That's Rare Americana, this one being catalogue No. 190. It is filled with various items of contemporary American events from the 18th and primarily 19th century. It's doubtful many of these items were meant to last for long. They focused on current issues such as elections and the latest debate over slavery. It's no wonder these items are rare today. Still, they are fascinating pieces of American history witnessed as it evolved. Here a few examples.
Doors were open to Chinese immigration in the 19th century as the growing nation needed cheap labor, particularly for building railroads. However, as their numbers grew, hostility arose in California, where the Chinese entered the country and many stayed. Instead of welcoming, the state tried to force them out. One such method was a state constitutional amendment saying “No corporation now existing, or hereafter formed under the laws of this State, shall...employ, directly or indirectly, in any capacity, any Chinese or Mongolians.” It was made a crime to do so. Tiburcio Parrott deliberately had himself arrested under the law so he could challenge it in court. Parrott was the President and Director of the Sulphur Bank Quicksilver Mining Company. The company depended on Chinese labor for its mining operations. Item 18 is the decision In the Circuit Court of the United States, for the Ninth Circuit. In re Tiburcio Parrott on Habeas Corpus, from 1880. The court struck down California's law. It ruled that under the Reconstruction Amendments to the U. S. Constitution, “all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory...to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens.” While those amendments were intended to protect the rights of the freed slaves, their guarantees applied to all persons. Priced at $950.
Not all people had the same rights as white citizens before the Civil War, an obvious understatement. Virginia led the way in human rights at the time of the Revolution with its Declaration of Rights, but by 1859, it was more focused on denying rights to black people. Item 101 is The Charters and Ordinances of the City of Richmond, with the Declaration of Rights and Constitution of Virginia. For example, the city charters provide “A negro meeting or overtaking, or being overtaken by a white person on a side-walk, shall pass on the outside; and if it be necessary to enable such white person to pass, shall immediately get off the side-walk. Any negro violating this...maybe punished with stripes.” Stripes were the markings left on one's body after a whipping. Numerous violations provide for fines if the perpetrator is white, while blacks, free or enslaved, may be sentenced with up to 39 stripes. $450.
Albert Gallatin is not as well known as many of America's founders, but his role was of no less importance. He was a polymath and visionary, seemingly knowledgeable in whatever he touched. While serving various government roles, including as a Pennsylvania senator in the 1790s, he is best remembered for his 14 years as Secretary of the Treasury under Jefferson and Madison. He replaced Alexander Hamilton in that role when the Democratic-Republicans swept out the Federalists, but his management of the economy was also at the highest level. Item 44 is his Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, on the Subject of Public Roads; Made in Pursuance of a Resolution of the Senate, March 2, 1807, published in 1808. Gallatin presented a plan for roads and canals in which the federal government would play a leading role. It was not to be. The forces against federal participation in internal improvements was too strong, so what was done was accomplished by forward-thinking states and communities, often in cooperation with private enterprise. It would not be until the advent of the automobile and the Good Roads movement, and finally Roosevelt's creating jobs during the Depression, that the federal government became deeply involved in creating a system of national highways. $750.
Frances Anne Kemble was a famous British actress and playwright of the 18th century, though her most important and lasting contribution to society is this book, related to neither. In 1834, she married Pierce Mease Butler, grandson of Pierce Butler, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a senator from South Carolina. His grandfather left him a fortune consisting of plantations in South Carolina and hundreds of slaves. Kemble met him while touring America and they married. As Lesser notes, “Why the famous British actress, who abhorred slavery, married the plantation master Pierce Butler is unclear. But marry him she did in 1834, providing her a first-hand look at Slavery during a brief sojourn to his Georgia plantations.” In the winter of 1838-39, they traveled to the plantations and Kemble was horrified by what she saw. She kept a diary. She pushed her husband to provide better and more humane treatment of the slaves, and of the mixed-race children she saw, attributed to the plantation overseer. This was evidently not well-received by her husband, and was a major factor in the breakdown of their marriage. After years of separation they divorced in 1849. He forbade her from publishing her account, threatening to break off all contact with her children if she did. The result was that she did not publish her observations about the cruelty of the system until 1863, in England. Her book is entitled Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. Her motivation in finally publishing it at this time is that England was leaning toward supporting the Confederacy and she wanted the British public to understand the horrors of the Southern cause they could be sustaining. The public took note. Item 68. $500.
This is another take by an outsider who spent time in the South, specifically Georgia. Emily Burke came from the North but got a job at an orphan asylum in the 1840s. She came away from her time loving Georgia and its people, but she too had one reservation. As she writes, “While I regret the oppression that exists at the South, I love her still.” She opposed slavery and also regretted the difficult life of poor whites. Racial attitudes have long kept the South from achieving its potential and one wonders why these irrational prejudices have persisted for so long when they have always been self-destructive. Her book is Reminiscences of Georgia, published in 1850. Item 11. $650.