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My Set of John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington: A Research Puzzle

by William M. Ferraro, Research Associate Professor and Acting Editor in Chief
June 16, 2016

An exceptional benefit of editing the Papers of George Washington is exposure to so many sources on early American history. A notable one that I encountered not long after starting with the project in June 2006 was John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington (5 vols.; Philadelphia, 1804-7). I discovered that the American edition’s sixth volume included maps of the Revolutionary War. I decided to visit the University of Virginia’s Harrison-Small Special Collections Library, just steps from my office, in order to examine the maps for my editing of Revolutionary War letters.

The maps proved to be wonderfully detailed and helpful, but the real find came as a complete surprise. The map volume listed all the subscribers who financed publication of Marshall’s multivolume biography.1 The names of individuals and institutions appeared under towns, cities, and counties grouped by state. Groupings also existed for the District of Columbia and foreign countries. Arranged in six columns per page, the subscribers numbered about 9,000. If properly cataloged and researched, this subscribers list could help scholars, and such work is a long-term aspiration of The Washington Papers. Nevertheless, even in its raw state, the list provides a wealth of information and intellectual opportunities.

I used some of that potential in a class I taught during the Fall 2016 semester. For a writing assignment, I asked each student to choose one-to-three subscribers from his or her hometown or the nearest place on the list. The student then prepared a research paper describing that locality and its people, and suggesting why a subscriber might have been interested in George Washington. An unanticipated problem arose for students from Florida, Colorado, and other places outside the settled or jurisdictional boundaries of the United States in the early nineteenth century. Unable to select a subscriber from their hometowns, these students identified listed localities associated with parents or grandparents. A particularly interesting paper emerged when a student from Denver discovered that her research subject, from Newburyport, Mass., was a distant relative!

The success of this assignment increased my desire to own a set of the Marshall biography volumes, a foundational work in both George Washington biography and U. S. historiography. Marshall wrote the books at the behest of Bushrod Washington, George’s nephew and Marshall’s U.S. Supreme Court colleague. Bushrod made available the vast collection of his uncle’s papers in his possession and encouraged Marshall to write on a scale commensurate with the achievements of its towering subject. While Marshall can be chided for borrowing heavily from other sources (in that period’s customary manner), his volumes captured the nationalist spirit that animated contemporary Federalists and unflinchingly positioned George Washington as the crucial figure in the founding of the United States.2

Since the original volumes of the first American edition are both scarce and expensive, you may imagine my delight this past winter when a full set (minus the map volume, which is very rare and expensive) landed on the shelf of Daedalus Used Books—a landmark shop for bibliophiles in Charlottesville—for only $125. According to Sandy McAdams, the sociable proprietor, the books “had walked through the door” only a day or two earlier. He further explained that the modest price was due to the fourth volume missing its end boards, or being “hurt,” in his more colloquial parlance. The other four volumes, however, looked fabulous. I happily carted the set home with thoughts that its subscriber probably had lived in central Virginia, because Daedalus primarily obtains stock from the surrounding area.

Unlike some book collectors, I like old books with the names of previous owners and marginalia that show past intellectual engagement. I eagerly paged through my Marshall volumes looking for clues about their history. A few turned-down page corners indicated prior reading, but pressed leaves and flowers in the first two volumes were the most prevalent evidence of former handling.

No volume contained writing, but the first volume did have a printed label pasted inside the back cover with useful information: “RARE, SCARCE, and OUT OF PRINT BOOKS, DOCUMENTS, Etc. For Sale By WALTER M. MURDIE, 134 Radcliffe Ave, PROVIDENCE, R.I.” Poking around the internet revealed that Walter M. Murdie was active in the Rhode Island capital during the 1920s and 1930s. The address was and is situated in a largely residential neighborhood, so he apparently operated his business out of his home.

Murdie’s pasted label dismissed my initial thoughts that the subscriber had lived in central Virginia and focused my attention on Providence and nearby jurisdictions. Having written my dissertation on town-meeting government in Rhode Island, I was quite familiar with the politics and prominent figures of the state.3 Subscriber listings in the map volume show 67 names under Providence, including Eliza Nightingale (1780–1863), a woman who never married. Another six can be found between nearly adjacent Cumberland and Warwick. The Providence subscribers include many people of note: Samuel G. Arnold, historian; Jabez Bowen, the state’s lieutenant governor during the Revolutionary War who corresponded regularly with Washington; John Brown, businessman and benefactor of Brown University; Theodore Foster, one of the state’s first U. S. senators; and Thomas P. Ives, merchant.

It will take an inordinate amount of research and extreme serendipity to confirm the subscriber who owned my set of Marshall’s books. Until that unlikely conjunction of circumstances, I will take pleasure in using the contents for my study and teaching, all the while thinking about the volumes’ distinguished Rhode Island owner and their largely mute past.

All photos courtesy of author.

 

Endnotes

  1. The Life of George Washington: Maps and Subscriber’s Names (Philadelphia, 1807).
  2. For an overview of Marshall’s authorship of his The Life of George Washington, see the “Editorial Note” in Charles Hobson et al., eds., The Papers of John Marshall: Volume VI, Correspondence, Papers, and Selected Judicial Opinions, November 1800–March 1807 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990), 219–30. For an examination of Marshall’s use of sources that stops just short of calling him a plagiarist, see William A. Foran, “John Marshall as a Historian,” in American Historical Review 43 (1937-38): 51-64.
  3. See William M. Ferraro, “Lives of Quiet Desperation: Community and Polity in New England over Four Centuries: The Cases of Portsmouth and Foster, Rhode Island,” PhD diss., Brown University, 1991.