Our man in London

A view of the State Paper Office.

SELDOM are scholars, scientists or other devotees of learning able to practice their devotions apart from institutions, whether it’s by choice or necessity that they work with or under them. The power wielded by the likes of learned societies, religious organizations, schools or governments at any level, and their shifting propensities to foster or frustrate the pursuit of knowledge, can decide the very direction of science and scholarship, and whether their practitioners ultimately fail or flourish.

For the study of the history of the United States, early national governments showed for a long time little organized interest, and had scant material or other support to offer. Of the individual states, many were slow to see value in examining the past. And scholars of the colonial period had to reckon with the more distant but also more daunting influence exercised by foreign institutions. The archives of Great Britain, especially, continued to hold some of the most significant documentary evidence of America’s past, and access to these treasures was strictly controlled.

Vagaries of politics in the two countries, and of relations between them, could cause the luck of historians to rise or fall precipitously.1 But the 1840s were, comparatively speaking, an era of transatlantic good feeling. In the first half of the decade, diplomats resolved some long-standing issues between America and Britain: they effectively settled most of the northern boundary of the U.S. and, to less effect, reached an agreement on suppression of the international slave trade. In these years John Romeyn Brodhead, European agent for the state of New York, made important inroads for historical research by identifying and transcribing valuable colonial-era records in the State Paper Office in London.

New Jersey’s legislature was urged by its governor to act on recommendations, first made in 1843 and backed up by a committee report in 1844, “to emulate, to some extent, the patriotic and liberal course of their New York contemporaries, by engaging Mr. Brodhead to make the necessary researches in their behalf.”2 The report observed with enthusiasm that English archives were “now no longer sealed depositories: their doors have been opened,” but it cautioned against delay “lest at some future period less courtesy may be extended, and obstacles be presented that may not be so readily removed.”3

Lacking “any conception of the extent of the papers, and consequently of the expense that would be incurred in procuring copies,” the report advocated the compilation of “lists, or indexes” of New Jersey materials: a possible step toward obtaining future transcriptions, but beneficial in and of itself “even should nothing else be done.”4

William A. Whitehead, the leading champion of the proposal and the unnamed author of the report,5 worked behind the scenes for the state’s endorsement. He was sufficiently sure of success to confide to Brodhead that a smaller allocation of funds than what he’d requested was his “greatest fear, … so economical are we in New Jersey.”6 But he and many others had misread the lawmakers’ mood: the resolutions’ failure caused no small surprise and disappointment.7

Brodhead returned to New York that summer, laden with thousands of transcriptions from European archives. Other arrangements had now to be found for securing information about documents particular to New Jersey. The formation of a state historical society in early 1845 raised awareness of the issue, but in Whitehead’s view this development should not have prevented legislators “from doing what is now expected of them.”8 He assured lawmakers that the goal wasn’t to secure copies from English archives, but merely to learn what New Jersey documents were there. And to appease tightfisted officials in Trenton, he reframed the proposal so as to maximize its benefits and minimize the cost. He lobbied the governor and members of the Senate and Assembly, and offered his own labor free of charge if the project was adopted. But successive petitions to the legislature failed to tip the balance in his favor.9

A young Henry Stevens.

As it became ever clearer that such appeals were for nought, Whitehead and his colleagues in the New Jersey Historical Society turned to the “private enterprise and patriotism” of members and friends, creating a Colonial Document Fund and a committee to raise money by subscription. But this well-intentioned effort would have faltered, too,10 had it not been for contacts Whitehead made with another American abroad.

Henry Stevens of Vermont had sailed at age 25 for England, “a self-appointed missionary,” as he colorfully phrased it, “with a few Yankee notions in head and an ample fortune of nearly forty sovereigns in pocket.” The “irrefragable desire … to visit the old world, its libraries and bookstalls,” launched him on a career unique in the history of libraries and the business of books.11

A worldly but generous entrepreneur of the international book trade and a pioneer of the untapped field of Americana, Henry Stevens served wealthy bibliophiles James Lenox in New York and John Carter Brown in Rhode Island from his lodgings on Trafalgar Square, building what remain today renowned collections of items from and about the Americas. Stevens’s antiquarian and business acumen did much to shape the libraries of the British Museum and the Smithsonian as well.

But Stevens was also the son of Henry Stevens, the founder of his native state’s historical society. He was a student and protégé of Harvard historian Jared Sparks. His dedication to bibliography and to learning earned him honorary membership in several literary and historical societies including, in 1848, New Jersey’s own. And he had the necessary connections with employees of London’s State Paper Office, without whose cooperation nothing could be achieved. His credentials were thus admirably suited to the undertaking Whitehead had long envisioned.

In early 1849, Stevens proposed to the Historical Society just such a “Calendar or List” as Whitehead had in mind:

Each article should be a brief abstract of the contents of the document it represents. It should also indicate where the original exists, its length in estimated number of words, the price of transcribing it, and the readiest means for any one hereafter to obtain a copy.

“Such a volume,” Stevens continued, “if well executed would no doubt give much credit to the Society–and if the Society does it, it will be the first to introduce a new class of literature into our book-making country, which must sooner or later be generally adopted.” This was all the affirmation Whitehead needed to begin the fund drive anew. Soon Stevens was hired at a fee of $600, and received detailed instructions for seeking out documentation of New Jersey’s colonial past in the State Paper Office.12

To Whitehead’s chagrin, meanwhile, the Historical Society was not quite done with Trenton, nor Trenton with the Society. From its outset, the Historical Society’s ambitions had extended well beyond the borders of New Jersey, and eager to take its place among more established learned bodies it participated readily in the international book exchange devised and promoted by Alexandre Vattemare of Paris. In March 1850, a few New Jersey legislators intent on discrediting Vattemare took over the Assembly in the session’s final hours, and managed to pass several inane resolutions. One of these made slighting reference to the “Newark” Historical Society–no less an all-male club than their own–as an organization of “ancient dames.”13 Whitehead, having expressed warm interest in the “extension and success” of Vattemare’s “noble enterprise,” could be forgiven for taking the insult personally. He alluded to the affair at the Society’s next meeting, declaring that it was futile to petition the state any further.14

Out of concern over the pace of Henry Stevens’s Index, two members of the Society traveling separately in Europe were asked to look in on the operation in London. William B. Kinney, on his way to take up a diplomatic assignment in Italy, gave a favorable report, and indeed wished that Stevens could somehow be compensated for labors far beyond what the Society had anticipated. But there were delays, resulting no doubt from Stevens’s many demands and distractions, but also from the illness of a government clerk on whom he relied, “as it was not permitted to employ any person not belonging to the office, and no one else there could do it so well.”15

Stevens shipped the Index, still unfinished, by ocean steamer to America in July 1851. He described the containers and their contents for the Historical Society in these words:

The work fills nine volumes in quarto cases, covered with blue morocco, and having locks and keys. The entire work consists of eighteen hundred separate cards, each containing an abstract of some paper relating to New Jersey, found in the Queen’s State Paper Office. A reference to the particular place where each document may be found is given, together with the date, and its length in the number of folios. … The cards are arranged chronologically, two hundred in each case, and each case has the first and last date lettered on the back.

What could have sounded uninspiring to the uninterested proved in fact a work of considerable allure: members inspecting one of the nine cases at their September meeting commented on the “extreme neatness, not to say beauty” of the handwriting on each gilt-edged card inside. Most valuable for Whitehead and other historians, of course, was the information these 1,800 leaves contained: the Society voted thanks to Stevens for the “discrimination, good judgment and fidelity” of its selection and arrangement.

For Stevens and his helpers in the State Paper Office, “groping our way, as it were blindfolded, through huge folios of manuscripts badly arranged,” the project had been a costly and time-consuming one, “and even now is not so complete as I would like to make it.” Certain that there was more to discover, Stevens asked and was granted permission to continue with the task.16

Stevens’s Analytical Index as edited and published by Whitehead in 1858.

Even though another two years would elapse before all the entries were to hand, the Society began preparations to commit them to print. The jobs of editing and publishing the work would fall to Whitehead, who soon learned with satisfaction, and no doubt some vindication, that the New Jersey legislature had agreed to buy $500 worth of copies.17

The Analytical Index to the Colonial Documents of New Jersey, volume 5 in the series Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, appeared in 1858, nearly a decade after Henry Stevens began it. It had by then become Whitehead’s project, one longer and more arduous than Stevens’s had been. Both men concurred that the printed Index should incorporate documents “on this side of the Atlantic as well as in England,” that it would be much enhanced by appropriate “notes explanatory or illustrative,” and that consequently to a willing Whitehead should be consigned a work of “some time and considerable labor.”18

Whitehead issued a series of circular letters pleading for assistance from local officials and private individuals, but most of these went unacknowledged, and they bore little fruit. Left to execute the work virtually by himself,19 he produced a volume of over 500 pages, a calendar of documents double the size of Stevens’s Index. In the end he would justify, to himself and others, so monumental an effort–“to rescue from oblivion every fact and circumstance” connected with New Jersey’s progress, “or calculated to present it in its true light to the other States and to the world”–as a labor of love. With or without the aid of institutions, such was the work “that the State demands of those who love it.”20

Copyright © 2021-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] On the ebb and flow of one historian’s fortunes in the English archives, see Galen Broeker, “Jared Sparks, Robert Peel and the State Paper Office,” American quarterly 13:2:1 (Summer 1961) 140-152.

[2] William A. Whitehead, ed. An analytical index to the colonial documents of New Jersey, in the state paper offices of England, compiled by Henry Stevens (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 5. New York 1858) (hereafter Analytical index) vi.

[3] Report of the Judiciary Committee on the subject of the colonial records of N. Jersey (Trenton 1844) 4, 9; “Legislature of New Jersey, Report on New Jersey colonial records,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 17 January 1844 2:5-6, Sentinel of freedom (Newark, N.J.) 23 January 1844 4:2-3. The need for expeditious action was expressed more plainly two years later: “for independent of the danger which must ever attend the existence of such perishable memorials, they are held at the will of a foreign government, which at any time may close them to us effectually and forever.” Report of the special committee of Assembly on the subject of our colonial documents in England (Trenton 1846) 7.

[4] Having such information “would enable the authorities of the state to determine which papers were of importance; which of them obtainable on this side of the Atlantic, and otherwise discriminate judiciously how far the process of transcribing at any future period should be carried, and thereby save to the state, in all probability, an expenditure of large sums for copies of papers obtainable elsewhere at a cheaper rate.” Report of the committee of the Senate on our colonial records (Trenton 1845) 6.

[5] See my earlier post Try, try again at note 7). New Jersey Historical Society copies of the three reports cited in [fn2] and [fn4c] have “Prepared by W.A.W.” written on the first page in Whitehead’s hand.

[6] Draft letter to J. R. Brodhead, 12 January 1844, Manuscript Group 177, William A. Whitehead Papers, Box 2, Folder 7, New Jersey Historical Society. Whitehead’s proposed $2000 appropriation seems to have been reduced by half in the Assembly committee, which recommended only $1000 for the enterprise.

[7] See Try, try again at notes 8-9; Analytical index xii.

[8] G. P., “New Jersey history,” Newark daily advertiser 30 January 1845 2:3.

[9] Analytical index xii-xviii. At the beginning of 1845 Whitehead wrote the governor: “it would afford me pleasure to give to the state my services, gratuitously, excepting such expenses as might be necessarily incurred, either in corresponding with the subordinate officers of the State Paper office in England in relation to requisite researches, or in examining the New York papers, selecting such of them as it may seem desirable to obtain, and superintending the taking of copies for the State Library.” Draft of letter to Charles C. Stratton, 2 January 1845, Manuscript Group 177, William A. Whitehead Papers, Box 2, Folder 7, New Jersey Historical Society. Whitehead would make the case in person before committees of the legislature in February 1849: “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 19 May 1849 2:1; Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society(hereafter Proceedings) [ser. 1] 4:1 (1849) 2-3.

[10] Analytical index xviii-xix. A fund was begun in 1847 to obtain “an Analytical List or Index” of colonial documents, with Whitehead at the head of a committee of seven. Unable to meet its goal, and in anticipation of another presentation to the legislature, the committee was discharged in January 1848. “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 28 May 1847 2:2; “The New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 27 January 1848 1:5; Proceedings [ser. 1] 2:2 (1847) 74, 3:1 (1848) 4.

[11] Henry Stevens, Recollections of Mr James Lenox of New York and the formation of his library (London 1886) 15; idemSchedule of two thousand American historical nuggets taken from the Stevens diggings in September 1870 and set down in chronological order of printing from 1490 to 1800 described and recommended as a supplement to any printed Bibliotheca Americana (London 1870), dedication to John Carter Brown.

[12] “New Jersey colonial documents,” Newark daily advertiser 19 March 1849 2:1; W. A. Whitehead, Newark, to Henry Stevens, London, 10 May 1849, printed in Proceedings [ser. 1] 4:1 (1849) 8-12; Analytical index xix-xxii.

[13] “Legislature of New Jersey,” Newark daily advertiser 8 March 1850 2:5. The Trenton State Gazette conceded that the resolutions “were undignified and unworthy of the House; but the House had nothing else to do at that time, and we presume there was a general understanding that no notice of the proceeding should appear upon the journal.” “Monsieur Vattemare,” State Gazette (Trenton, N.J.) 11 March 1850 2:1. This seems to have been the case, and the resolutions did not reach the Senate before its adjournment. Cf. H., “Mr. Vattemare,” Newark daily advertiser 18 March 1850 2:4.

[14] W. A. Whitehead, Newark, to A. Vattemare, 26 January 1848, in Alexandre Vattemare Papers, 1817-1889, MssCol 3149, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library. “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 17 May 1850 2:3;  “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 14 September 1850 2:5; Proceedings ser. 1, 5:1 (1850) 2-3, 41.

[15] “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 25 January 1851 2:6; “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 17 May 1851 2:6; Proceedings [ser. 1] 5:3 (1851) 93, 5:4 (1851) 158. In all likelihood, the clerk to which Stevens referred was Vincent Francis Kuczynski (Wincenty Franciszek Kuczýnski), a Polish nobleman and émigré working in the State Paper Office. He died 7 August 1851 at the age of 45, and Stevens subsequently married his English widow. See Maria Danilewicz, “Anglo-Polish Masonica,” The Polish review 15:2 (Spring 1970) (5-42) 24.

[16] “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 13 September 1851 2:5; Proceedings [ser. 1] 6:1 (1851) 4-5. According to Whitehead, the Society’s resolution of thanks was passed “with great cordiality and unanimity”: Analytical index xxiii.

[17] “New Jersey Legislature to-day,” Newark daily advertiser 19 February 1852 2:5; “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 24 May 1852 2:4; “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser20 May 1853 2:2-3; “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 23 January 1854 1:5; Proceedings [ser. 1] 6:2 (1852) 18-20, 7:1 (1853) 4, 7:2 (1854) 51-52; Analytical index xxiii.

[18] “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 23 January 1854 1:5; “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 19 May 1854 2:5; Proceedings [ser. 1] 7:2 (1854) 51-52, 7:3 (1854) 86; Analytical index xxiii.

[19] Newark daily advertiser 20 June 1854 2:4, 28 June 1854 2:3; “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 23 January 1855 1:5; “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 18 May 1855 2:4; Proceedings [ser. 1] 7:4 (1855) 120, 131.

[20] Circular letter of 4 July 1854, reprinted in Analytical index xxv.


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