Rare Book Monthly
Book Catalogue Reviews - February - 2006 Issue
Signed Documents of The South from Joe Rubinfine
By Michael Stillman
It is a land of contradiction. The South was a leader in America's fight for freedom and liberty during the Revolution. Four of the nation's first five presidents were southerners. Yet, its "peculiar" institution, the antithesis of everything good for which the nation stood, would lead it to try to break apart that union it was so instrumental in forming. It is hard to understand why. One can only wonder what America's history would have been like without slavery and the racial animosities it spawned. We can only have a dream.
The latest catalogue from Joe Rubinfine is titled The South. It is a collection of manuscripts and signed printed material pertaining to that part of America. Most of the works relate to one of those two defining moments, The Revolution and the Civil War. However, there is some material from between those wars, and more, particularly of literary interest, from the 20th century. Here are a few of those items from the land of cotton and contradiction.
No one is more responsible for America's freedoms than Virginian George Washington. His success at leading American troops to victory in the Revolution resulted in such an outpouring of affection that he could have become king. He didn't want it. He wanted a government freely chosen by the people. Item 16 is a letter Washington wrote to one William Smith on June 8, 1788. The primary subject was the ship "Federalist," a 15-foot mini-ship he had given Washington. The General has great praise for the ingenuity of this built to small-scale ship, but also talks of more weighty matters, the new U.S. constitution then being debated. Maryland had ratified the document, but it was under challenge in Virginia. Washington makes his sentiments clear. Says Washington, "I cannot entertain an idea that the voice of the Convention of this State [Virginia] which is now in Session, will be dissonant from that of her nearly-allied Sister [Maryland]. Priced at $125,000.
Item 18 is a most interesting personal letter from George Washington to his brother John. Evidently, John Washington was short on funds, and his famous brother had tried, without much success, to help him obtain a loan. He then explains, "If I could furnish you I would do it with pleasure, but I am in debt myself without the means of discharging them, and besides, am exposed to great expenses." The year was 1784, and many who had been of reasonable means before found themselves in difficult straits after the Revolution. The future President then notes that he will have to sell some property, for while he is owed money by others, he sees no immediate prospects of being able to collect it. Washington next thanks his brother for some holly berries, and says that in the spring, he will be sending for some trees promised by Colonel Harry Lee. That would be Light Horse Harry Lee, Washington's trusted aide and Revolutionary War hero, whose own finances would eventually become so bad he would end up in debtor's prison. $11,500.