Acquiring Virginia's Treasures

In 1958, at the time of the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, John Fleming, a New York antiquarian book dealer, issued the catalog "Virginia's Role in America's History." Fleming had worked for Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, one of the most noted dealers of Americana of the time. After Rosenbach's death, Fleming acquired the remainder of the stock of the Rosenbach Company in Philadelphia. From this remarkable collection of Americana, Fleming brought together the "Virginia's Role" catalog. Fleming asked John Cook Wyllie, the Librarian of the University of Virginia, to contribute a forward to the catalog. Both men hoped the items listed in the catalog would find a home in the University of Virginia Library but the price proved too high.

A copy of "Virginia's Role" made its way to Paul Mellon and in the summer of 1958 he purchased the collection en bloc. This acquisition took Mellon's collection of Americana in a new direction, with a focus on his adopted state of Virginia. In 1961, Mellon strengthened his Virginiana collection when he purchased the contents of Fleming's second catalog, "Virginia and Her Illustrious Sons."

Happily for the University of Virginia Library, Paul Mellon acquired the Fleming materials and later saw to it that many of the items passed to the Library in his 1999 bequest.

Jefferson, Thomas. Autograph letter, signed, to John Holmes. 22 April 1820.

Jefferson writes to John Holmes, senator from Maine, thanking him for a copy of his pamphlet Mr. Holmes' Letter to the People of Maine. The pamphlet was Holmes's defense against the opposition of many of his constituents to linking the admission of Maine to the Union with the admission of Missouri as a slave state. Jefferson responds that the issue of extension of slavery to the territories (which was temporarily solved by the Missouri Compromise) "like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union." He writes of the difficulty of a practical solution to the issue of slavery and emancipation " . . . we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

Jefferson states that a diffusion of slavery over a broader territory would make emancipation easier and cautions against Congress interfering in state issues. He concludes that he will now die believing "that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of '76” is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it."


Washington, George. Autograph letter, signed, to General [William] Heath. 20 May 1797.

When Washington left office in 1796, he warned against "entangling alliances" in his farewell address. In this letter to an old friend, Washington repeats this theme. He expresses hope that the country will avoid the current European crisis and "do justice to all, and have no political connexion with any of the European powers...." He writes in closing that "my hours...glide smoothly on," and "the prosperity of our country will always have the first place in my thoughts."


[Parker, Richard.] Autograph manuscript. Notes on the trial of John Brown and his associates. 25 October-14 November 1859.

Virginia Circuit Court Judge Richard Parker presided at the trial of abolitionist John Brown. Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was instrumental in heightening sectional animosities that led to the Civil War.

In his notes, on display, Judge Parker briefly summarizes the events of each day of the circuit court trial of Brown and his followers.

For November 2 Parker writes, "Verdict guilty of treason as charged in 1st count of indict.--also of advising & conspiring with slaves & others to rebel as charged in 2d count of the indict. & of murder in 1st degree as charged in 3rd and 4th counts--John Brown, led in & it being demanded of him...if any thing for himself he has or knows to say why the court should not proceed to judgment, & execution--but had nothing but what he had before said. Therefore it is considered that he be hanged by the neck until he is dead...."

It is recorded that Brown said in his last speech, "Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done." After his death, Brown became a martyr for the antislavery cause.


Virginia State Convention of 1861. Manuscript. Record of the vote in the Virginia Convention on the Ordinance of Secession. 17 April 1861.

The official record of the vote, taken five days after the firing on Fort Sumter and two days after Lincoln's call for troops, tallied 88 for secession and 55 against. The Convention began on February 13, 1861, and a politically and morally charged debate raged between "unionists" and "secessionists."

Among the "yea" voters were former U. S. president John Tyler; University of Virginia law professor James P. Holcombe; Thomas Jefferson's grandson and future Confederate secretary of war George W. Randolph; future Confederate and U. S. congressman John Goode, Jr.; former U. S. cabinet member William B. Preston; and former governor Henry A. Wise. Among the "no" voters were U. S. representative Sherrard Clemens; future Confederate general Jubal Early; former congressman and cabinet secretary Alexander H. H. Stuart; future Virginia Unionist senator John S. Carlile; and future West Virginia congressmen William G. Brown, Chester D. Hubbard, and Waitman Willey. Most of the "no" voters hailed from the Shenandoah Valley and the mountains of western Virginia. Many of the latter went home and organized the new state of West Virginia.


Jefferson, Thomas. Autograph letter, signed, to William Russell. 1 May 1824.



Jefferson writes concerning his proposed scheme of public education. He notes that there is not a separate department of grammar, rhetoric, and oratory at the University of Virginia and states that no more professors are to be appointed at present. These comments appear to be a response to Russell's inquiry about available professorships at the University.

William Russell taught in Georgia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. He edited Russell's Journal of Education and founded the Merrimack Normal Institute in New Hampshire.


Jefferson, Thomas. Autograph letter, signed, to Edward Rutledge. 27 December 1796.

Jefferson begins the letter with a discussion of several agricultural topics, asking Rutledge to ship twenty bushels of cowpeas to Richmond and discussing improvements made on the Lieth machine for threshing wheat in Virginia and rice in South Carolina. Jefferson then turns to a discussion of how much "unmerited abuse" and "unmerited praise" he has attracted in his years of public service and his desire for retirement. He knows John Adams will win the 1796 presidential election and adds "I know well that no man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it. the honeymoon would be as short in that case as in any other, & it's moment of extasy would be ransomed by years of torment & hatred." Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later governor of South Carolina, served as a presidential elector in 1796 and cast his vote for Jefferson and Thomas Pinckney. Jefferson predicts he will live in peace while Adams will be shipwrecked in the gathering storm, but nevertheless urges Rutledge to continue in national public office for "there is no bankrupt law in heaven by which you may get off with shillings in the pound, with rendering to a single state what you owed to the whole confederacy." Jefferson concludes by stating that "I love to see honest men + honorable men at the helm, men who will not bend their politics to their purses ...."

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