When more than 10,000 early American documents find new life in the digital world, we at The Junto want to know more about the challenges and opportunities of the project. Thomas Lannon, Assistant Curator of the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library, kindly took our questions on Thomas Addis Emmet’s extra-illustrated archive.
JUNTO: Who was Thomas Addis Emmet, and why did NYPL choose to digitize his archive? Broadly, what is the collection’s scope and potential for research?
LANNON: The Emmet collection of manuscripts, prints, and other material illustrative of American history is a foundational resource of the Library’s Manuscripts Division. In fact, it was presented to the Library as a gift in 1896. So, the Emmet collection predates the construction of the current Library at 42nd and 5th Ave. and is symbolic of the purpose and function of the public library’s role in preserving democracy and providing education to all. Many of the prints from the collection have been previously digitized, but we now present over 10,000 manuscripts from the collection for free on-line.
Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet was the grandnephew of the famous Irish Republican Robert Emmet (1778-1803). In his day, Dr. Emmet was a renowned gynecological surgeon. Chief surgeon of the Women’s Hospital in New York 1861-1872, Emmet actually authored the first American textbook of gynecology. One might argue Emmet’s critical efforts toward progress in vesicovaginal fistula repair pushed gynecological science and even childbirth itself into the modern age. Emmet was also a wildly successful collector of autographs, books, prints, and manuscripts. His collection is indicative of 19th-century patrician tastes and included at least 4 autographs by each of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Still today, autograph collectors seek signers of the Declaration as highlight items, with names like Button Gwinnet and Thomas Lynch, Jr standing out as the most rare. But, Emmet’s collecting habits extended beyond the Declaration of Independence, to include sets of members of the Continental Congress 1774-89, the Albany Congress of 1754, the Stamp Act Congress 1765, Signers of the Articles of Confederation, Generals of the Revolution, the First Federal Administration, and Presidents and Vice-Presidents of the United States. His collection is in fact the source of the Draft of the Declaration of Independence the Library often displays around July 4.
But, if we obsess over the names of the signatures in the collection, we’ll ignore the content of the letters to which they are still thankfully attached. With the collection now on-line, it should make this content accessible to scholarship and hopefully serve as a resource for varied approaches to understanding and working with the past. Ease of access will hopefully propel scholars and enthusiasts deeper into the dark recesses of the collection.
JUNTO: Can you identify a few documents that readers should check out right now, as a way to begin exploring the site?
LANNON: Many of the letters may be known to scholars who have worked on publication projects, or biographical studies. Editors of large projects such as the George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Laurens, Nathaniel Greene papers have all found fruit in the Emmet collection. I can try to describe a few here. Not of any real historical value, but worth pointing out insofar as it is now a digital object is Emmet 1652, a letter of Thomas Lynch Jr. to George Washington in 1775. It is possibly the only letter of Lynch, signer of the Declaration from South Carolina, in existence. Thus, an item once of extreme rarity is now freely available and easy to duplicate. I imagine Emmet himself would have wanted people to see that letter, or at least expect it to cause wonder.
There are many other items of real significance in the collection. For example, Emmet 9435, is a letter from George Washington to James Madison, Mar. 31, 1787. Washington lays out to Madison in advance of the Constitutional Convention the powers of the Executive. The letter, now on-line, is in Washington’s hand, previously only a poor quality photocopy was available as the “original.” Emmet 9453 is a great letter for Hamiltonians. It shows Hamilton writing to Gov. George Clinton, Poughkeepsie, N. Y., June 29, 1783. Hamilton describes the mutinous soldiers approaching Congress at Philadelphia. Veterans of the Revolution demanded pay and Hamilton, the delegate from New York, was operative in quelling their faction. In the letter he slightly maligns the Executive of the state of Pennsylvania. In fact, John Dickinson’s inability to muster a new militia to protect Congress from the mutinous soldiers led to the removal of Congress from that state. Hamilton’s letter is composed from ‘Princeton, NJ.’ I am sure this letter could lead to much discussion.
Another great document is Emmet 227. Though not exceedingly rare, it is an actual sheet of paper returned to England from America circa 1765. It shows an embossed “stamp” for two shillings, six pence, on the upper left-hand corner of a folio sheet of white writing paper. Emmet filed it of course in his “Stamp Act Congress” collection. Historians of the South will be happy to find material on the “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion, and sections on the “Siege of Savannah and Charleston.” In addition, “General Leslie’s Letterbook” consists of correspondence pertaining to the British Army command at Charleston, South Carolina, during the American Revolution which could advance study of that phase of the conflict.
Modern day Diedrich Knickerbockers can peruse a large swath of New York City historical documents including a curious case from the Mayor’s Court in 1687. Emmet 10523, is a “Plea, in action of trespass on the case, Amy, spinster, vs. George Lockhart, for £4 19s. for wages as a servant.” Emmet’s version of New York history came from his reading Mary L. Booth’s History of the City of New York and John Wakefield Francis’s Old New York or Reminiscences of the Past Sixty Years.
JUNTO: One of the most fascinating aspects of Emmet’s collection is how he arranged it. Can you expand on the practice of “extra-illustration,” and where he did/not use it?
LANNON: The documents are arranged by historical act or moment, thus there are documents representing the Albany Congress of 1754, Stamp-Act Congress of 1765, Annapolis Convention , Federal Convention, and Siege of Savannah to name only a few. These historical acts were in fact how Emmet himself arranged the collection in his own time, and how the Library also presents them on-line today. Emmet ‘extra-illustrated books,’ a standard practice for nineteenth century antiquarians, perhaps similar to our desire today to ‘like’ things on Facebook etc, or group documents around similar subjects. Emmet would take books, or sections of books, and arrange manuscripts and other documents into them that serve as further evidence of the specific topic or section. Then he would rebind the books alongside the additional documents for his personal library. This way, perhaps, he could remember what autographs were where could find them by consulting the standard sources of the day.
For example, Emmet’s collection of autographs of the Continental Congress, 1774 was original held in one volume. The text was taken from the “Journal of the Proceedings” printed at Philadelphia by William and Thomas Bradford. Into this volume, Emmet inserted 1 autograph, 1 broadside, 2 caricatures, 3 clippings, 18 documents, 13 drawings, 2 engravings, 59 letters, 1 map, 3 newspapers, 1 printed sheet, 2 pieces of paper money, 76 portraits, and 13 views. In Irving’s Life of Washington there is a letter by George Croghan (at Fort Johnson, Johnstown, N.Y.) to William Denny about the status of military affairs in 1758. This was selected by Emmet as it extra-illustrated the section of Irving’s text dealing with the French and Indian War. Connections like this may not necessarily be intuitive for users of the site, but could be highlighted via further public, digital scholarship.
JUNTO: Why retain and embed Emmet’s processing choices in presenting the collection to modern readers? Might Emmet’s extra-illustration be similar to the nonlinear hyperlinks that digital historians now favor?
LANNON: The collecting habits of 19th-century gentlemen such as Emmet have received very little study, when in fact their decisions and later bequests to libraries and archives made the scientific study of American history possible. Presenting Emmet’s collection as it was originally arranged may help us understand how knowledge of the phases of history was created by nineteenth century collectors. What was preserved and what was not is still somewhat mysterious. Questions remain about the provenance of manuscripts including how and where Emmet obtained items in his collection. So, accessing Emmet’s collection of autographs and manuscripts as it is arranged according his classification is to travel back in time and enter the fold of the antiquarian. A time when the national narrative was perhaps fading from record, Emmet collected the documents that told the story of American history in a way that preserved his notion of familiar republicanism. He assembled a great collection and filed it all according to his notion of the evolution of the representative democracy.
In the mid-20th century, Lester J. Cappon, then editor of the Thomas Jefferson Papers, addressed the Massachusetts Historical Society on the theme of autograph trade at the turn of the 20th century. Cappon considered the professional historian a “Johnny come lately, indebted to private collectors of books and manuscripts who, riding a hobby or cultivating a gentlemanly pursuit…have preserved records of the past on a highly personal basis.” Cappon would most likely not be surprised by historians who study political culture in early America through the use of documents, but who also overlook the “The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune” imbedded in the provenance of America’s founding documents. Over the 20th century, the Emmet collection has been cited and sourced in various ways in projects ranging from general textbooks to in depth monographs – but not much has been said about how and why this collection came to be.
JUNTO: What’s next for early American history digital projects at NYPL? How are digital tools like this one changing how libraries approach the practice of history, and the public?
LANNON: The Emmet collection is now available with each item described as to its content. However, the location will continue to be developed as a finding aid database and access point to digitized archival content. Soon, the correspondence of Samuel J. Tilden will be available via the site. We also hope to develop a publication platform on the site and offer further opportunity for fellowships to support research in archives and history. The staff of the Manuscripts and Archives Division hopes their on-line presentation supports research and future collaborative ventures between the Library, archivists, and history instructors of all levels. I believe that digitization strengthens connections between archivists and librarians to historians and researchers. We can share a common interest in history and try to better understand how access to historical resources impacts our communities.