boston athenaeum

Overview: The Boston Athenaeum’s archives are rich in material connected to the history of the institution (1807 to present), as well as two other cultural institutions in Boston: the Anthology Society and the Boston Library Society. These archival collections include information about early members, reading lists, and the development of the organizations over the course of two centuries. The manuscripts department at the Athenaeum is also focused primarily on the institution’s history with documents relating to topics including early members, the Beacon Hill neighborhood in which it is located, and the influence of the Athenaeum on Bostonian culture.

In addition to materials related to the history of the Athenaeum itself, the institution’s archives are particularly strong in materials from the Civil War era. The Athenaeum possesses a collection of diaries of Massachusetts soldiers who served in the Civil War, as well as the papers of African American lawyer and abolitionist Robert Morris. Other records include the papers of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architects and artists and the records of the second savings bank established in the United States (the Provident Institution for Savings).

Then Athenaeum also collects rare books. Early American history is one of the Athenaeum’s particular strengths with a large collection of early American imprints, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works, government documents, broadsides, American Indian publications, Boston newspapers, imprints of the Confederacy, and portions of personal libraries. The Athenaeum is also rich in materials relating to the art of the book (bookbinding, fine printing, contemporary artists’ books).

American Revolution Materials: The centerpiece of the Athenaeum’s American Revolution-related collections is a portion of George Washington’s personal library, which includes materials focused on the Revolution such as early histories of the era described in tracts, books, and letters. The collection also includes Washington’s orderly book, kept from May to June 1778 while he was encamped at Valley Forge. Written in the hand of Samuel Shaw, his secretary, the book contains general orders given to the troops, the organization and supply structure of the Continental Army, and his everyday life.

Periodicals represented in the collection include The American Gazette (published in London), The Censor (Boston), and The Massachusetts Spy (Boston). There are also copies of numerous political tracts, sermons, orations, and published letters from the Revolution, including works by John Dickinson (“Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania), Benjamin Franklin (1774), James Otis (165-1766), and Thomas Paine (Common Sense). Many of these documents support the American cause: they call for the Revolution, criticize the British soldiers, and discuss taxation rights. Specific topics addressed by these documents include the Stamp Tax, the Boston Massacre, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, revolutionary Boston, prisoner exchanges (including Ethan Allen’s account of his captivity), Benedict Arnold, and the Battle of Yorktown. The Athenaeum also possesses accounts written in favor of the Crown (most printed in London) which address topics including the plight of loyalists, how to end the America-Britain conflict both prior to and during the war, and taxation. Included within this category are published letters of Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver, as well as German publications about the Revolution.

The Athenaeum’s manuscript collection is smaller in size and includes several letters and journals from the Revolution-era. Letters include Solomon Lovell’s report of the initial success of the American Penobscot expedition into Maine (summer 1779), Benedict Arnold to Silas Deane discussing his court-marshaling, Edmund Quincy to Henry Quincy (November 1777) celebrating the victory at Saratoga and describing life in Boston with the presence of British troops, and Joseph Tappan to his wife (November 1775) lamenting the “distress” in America. The Athenaeum possesses two military diaries: Richard Montague’s orderly book (1775) and Edward White’s journal (1780). Montague, a veteran of Bunker Hill, described his daily life while stationed in Cambridge, including information about provision and ammunition regulations, appointments, court martials, and camp life. White, Massachusetts Lieutenant of the 9th Regiment, described his life in camp during campaigns along the Hudson River, troop movements, official orders, and Benedict Arnold’s conspiracy and also included over one-hundred camp songs on themes of love and war. In addition, there is also the diary of civilian Ezekiel Price (May 1775-April 1776), who wrote of the outbreak of hostilities in Boston, the siege of Boston, and the evacuation of Boston by the British.

Government documents at the Athenaeum include both domestic and international items. American groups represented within the documents include the Boston Committee of Correspondence, the Massachusetts Council and Court, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, the Stamp Act Congress, the Virginia Convention, the South Carolina Provincial Congress, and the Continental Congress. Other Boston-area-specific government documents include financial receipts relating to the pension and pay of American soldiers, as well as a list of loyalists. There are also early publications of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and state constitutions. International documents connected to the Revolution include British Parliamentary materials, a proclamation by Wilhelm I, Elector of Hessel-Kassel, a Spanish justification for supporting the Americans in the Revolution, and a treaty between the United States and France from 1783.

The Athenaeum also includes a number of almanacs from the Revolution era, calculations of the American population in 1775 made by Edward Wigglesworth, and maps and atlases of Canada and America. All of the colonies are represented by this collection, which also includes more detailed maps of Charleston and Boston. There is also an American military pocket atlas published in 1776 which was owned by Henry Knox.
Commemorative materials related to the Revolution include numerous memoirs and early histories, which range from patriot to British perspectives. Authors with memoirs at the Athenaeum include Henry Clinton (British), Comte de Grasse (French), William Heath (American), William Howe (British), Charles Lee (American), Mark Moore (British), Thomas Lewis O’Beirne (British), and Banastre Tarleton (British). Early histories of the Revolution are also numerous and include works by John Adams and Frenchmen Mirabeau and the Abbé Raynal. Other commemorative materials include speeches, orations, odes, and sermons given by John Quincy Adams, John Hancock, and others on major anniversaries (battles, the Boston Massacre, the Fourth of July), days of thanksgiving, and at the death of George Washington. The Athenaeum also holds materials related to the formation of the Society of the Cincinnati and the autograph collection of Josephine L. Murray, which includes the signatures of John Quincy Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

Key Words: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Ethan Allen, almanacs, The American Gazette, Benedict Arnold, Articles of Confederation, autographs, Battle of Lexington & Concord, Battle of Yorktown, books, Boston, Boston Massacre, British army, Bunker Hill, Cambridge, The Censor, census records, Charleston, Henry Clinton, commemorations, Committee of Correspondence, Common Sense, Continental Army, Continental Congress, Silas Deane, Declaration of Independence, diaries, John Dickinson, foreign relations, France, Benjamin Franklin, Germany, government documents, Comte de Grasse, John Hancock, William Heath, William Howe, Hudson River, Thomas Hutchinson, Thomas Jefferson, journals, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, letters, libraries, London, Solomon Lovell, Loyalists/Tories, maps, Massachusetts Council, Massachusetts Provincial Congress, manuscripts, The Massachusetts Spy, memoirs, Mirabeau, Richard Montague, Mark Moore, Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Andrew Oliver, James Otis, Thomas Paine, Parliament, Penobscot expedition, pensions, periodicals, poems/odes, Ezekiel Price, prisoners, Edmund Quincy, Henry Quincy, Abbé Raynal, receipts, Saratoga, sermons, siege of Boston, Society of the Cincinnati, soldiers/militia, songs, Stamp Act, South Carolina Provincial Congress, Spain, Joseph Tappan, Banastre Tartleton, treatises, Valley Forge, Virginia Convention, George Washington, Edward White, Wilhelm I.

Collection Policies: The Boston Athenaeum’s online catalogue includes the holdings of its special collections department and is fully searchable. The institution continues to add to its holdings regularly through both purchases and gifts. The Athenaeum will loan special collections to appropriate exhibitions at the discretion of the curator.