Background: The books in the AAS collection began appearing long before a comprehensive cataloging system. Building on the foundational donation of Isaiah Thomas’ personal library, members sent books to the Society, and according to the letter transcribed below, at times also removed them.
Found by: AAS-NEH Fellow Mary Beth Sievens, Associate Professor of History, SUNY-Fredonia.
Location: Lincoln Family Papers, Box 5, Folder 1.
Hon John Davis.
Worcester August 16
Two or three weeks since, in pursuance of an understanding with the members of the Antiquarian Council, I took from the Antiquarian Library three or four volumes which I considered as so indecent and vile that they should not be kept by a decent Society or read by any respectable person. Among them were “Wilkes Essay on Women” and “Rochesters Poems.” I took them, for the purpose of burning them and brought them home, and, unfortunately left them in a drawer in my chamber, intending to purge the earth of such polluted shapes of conception on the earliest opportunity. Still more unfortunately, I left them covered with my clothes, in the drawer when I removed—I cannot express to you the mingled feelings of shame and sorrow I have [felt] this evening on finding all of them missing—I would not for slight consideration be suspected of having such works of damnation in my possession—still less of keeping the accursed trash for my private study—and least of all of being accessory to its circulation. I ask it as a special favor that you will remove them and keep them safely in your own own [sic] most safe deposit until I can consign them to a more secure resting place.
Obliged to be absent early in the morning and coming like a thief, by night, I have no other means of communication than pen and paper afford or I should personally and bodily express to you my grief for the consequences of my carelessness in this matter. Baldwin will confirm my story, and exonerate me from the disgrace of having ever begged, bought or stolen this base coinage of prostituted genius.
Good Night Dear Sir, and accept the assurances of the unqualified regard of respect of your distressed friend
PastIsPresent Postscript: The AAS archives do not reveal how John Wilkes’ “Essay on Women” or the Earl of Rochester’s Poems might have arrived in the stacks. Lincoln would have been consoled to learn that today the library no longer collects such items — that is, books published in Britain instead of the United States. But he would undoubtedly be horrified to learn of our recent acquisition of American risque literature: twelve 19th century translations of the work of French novelist Paul de Kock.