- Two Founders, One Book
- Signed by John Hancock
- The Adams Family Reads the Classics
- The Lewis and Clark Expedition
- Egyptomania Comes to America
- Redcoats and Revolutionaries
- Inventing the Idea of Race
- In the Midst of War
- The Constitution
- Faith in the Age of Reason
- A Letter from Benjamin Franklin
- Women of Letters
- New World Nature
- Children’s Literature
- Languages New and Old
- From Royal to Republican
- Enlightenment à la Mode
- Better Homes and Gardens
- The Rediscovery of Classical Antiquity
In the Midst of War
Both documents in this case bear witness to the toll the American Revolution took on the American people. The eight-year war, one of the longest in American history, caused untold suffering for rich and poor alike. Here we have captured two moments of this struggle. The first is a political tract read by a major American revolutionary, Henry Laurens, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The second is a letter from George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, to Henry Laurens.
John Somers (attributed), The Judgment of Whole Kingdoms and Nations,
Concerning the Rights, Power, and Prerogative of Kings, and the Rights, Priviledges, and Properties of the People (London: J. Williams, 1771). The Jay Fliegelman Library of Association Copies JFL-297
Henry Laurens, South Carolina planter, merchant, and president of the Continental Congress in 1777-1778, was captured at sea by the British during the American Revolution. Suspected of high treason, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London from October 1780 until December 1781. Except on rare occasions when he had to sign legal or financial documents, Laurens was denied the use of pen and ink while in the Tower. Incoming books and newspapers were inspected.
The book you see here—The Judgment of Whole Kingdoms—somehow made it into Laurens’s Tower chamber. Perhaps using the pen and ink he had been allowed two days earlier to draw up a bill, Laurens has autographed and dated the book July 3, 1781. The approaching fifth anniversary of American independence seems to have fired Laurens’s republican passions. The Judgment of Whole Kingdoms (first published in 1709 as Vox Populi, Vox Dei, and republished and retitled in 1710) championed the rights of the British Parliament and people to restrain the power of kings: “Mankind,” wrote the book’s author, “is at Liberty to chuse what Form of Government they like best.” One can easily imagine that Laurens—outraged at his long captivity and tirelessly advocating the American cause—saw this tract as grist for his republican mill. Two pages of this book (5 and 20) bear pencil marks next to passages that proclaim that power rests ultimately in “the People.” Laurens’s journal from this time shows that he was also penciling long extracts from Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, drawing parallels between ancient Rome and Britain’s folly in prosecuting the American war.
Stanford professor and veterinarian Sherril Green has confirmed that damage to the back pages of the book is consistent with that caused by mice or rats. Were these vermin Laurens’s companions in the Tower? We don’t know.
Letter from George Washington to Henry Laurens, 17 February 1779.
In Washington Irving, Life of George Washington, vol. 4, part 1 (New York: G. P. Putnam and Co., 1856). Rare Book Collection 973.41.W31IRA F
Writing the life of George Washington became a cottage industry in nineteenth-century America. This volume of Washington Irving’s massive Life of George Washington (5 volumes, 1855–1859) hides a small surprise: a bound-in letter from George Washington to Henry Laurens. The letter appears to be a clean copy of a much messier draft in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. In it, the general thanks Laurens for his hospitality while he and Martha stayed at Laurens’s house in Philadelphia from late December 1778 to early February 1779. Washington also worries that the British on Staten Island were preparing fascines (bundles of wood used for strengthening earthworks). In the Library of Congress version, Washington calls the British the “Enemy”; in Stanford’s version, they are merely the “enemy.”