May 8, 2012

Rare book found in oldest library in US South


Dissertation Upon Parties by Henry St. John Lord Bolingbroke

A rare, 270 year-old book has been found in a vault at the oldest library in the South, the Charleston Library Society. “But after all this time the library won’t be able to keep it,” the Associated Press reports.

A book on political parties, Dissertation Upon Parties by Henry St. John Lord Bolingbroke, published in 1743, was one of 800 volumes planter and diplomat John Mackenzie donated to the College of Charleston in the 1700s. But it has yet to find its way there. According to the AP report:

[Mackenzie’s] library was housed at the Charleston Library Society, founded in 1748, until a proper library could be built at the fledgling college. But a devastating 1778 fire ripped through the Library Society and only 77 titles from the Mackenzie collection were thought to have survived.

The 78th, the Bolingbroke book, was found as part of a multi-year search through the Library Society vaults to record the thousands of volumes it contains. After centuries, the book about political parties, with Mackenzie’s name embossed on it, will be returned to College of Charleston officials at a ceremony on Thursday.

After the fire it seems that the surviving books were placed in the Library Society’s vaults, though the contents of the vaults have never been fully cataloged. Library archivist Trisha Kometer told the AP that the contents of its vaults remain unclear.

“We have lists but because the library itself has been moved from place to place to place, the collections have been integrated, they have been pulled apart and a lot has gone on during the years,” she said, making it difficult to tell for sure.

During the Civil War, for instance, the collection was moved from Charleston, which was bombarded throughout the war by union gunners, to the state capital of Columbia 120 miles inland.

The current cataloging efforts have turned up other gems at the library as well. Including two letters written by Alexander Hamilton, and a very unusual letter written by John Marshall, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, to South Carolinian Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, one of the drafters of the Constitution.

Kometer told the AP the Marshall letter “was written the day that Thomas Jefferson was sworn in (as president). John Marshall was the one who actually swore him in. He started a letter to Charles Coatesworth Pinckney in the morning and then he took a break and came back at 4 o’clock to finish the letter and said I have just administered the oath.”


Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.