Harvard University, Houghton library

Overview: Houghton is the main special collections facility for Harvard’s Arts and Sciences Faculty and focuses primarily on the study of Western civilization with strengths in Anglophone and Continental history, literature, the history of the book, and the performing arts. The Library’s early books and manuscripts collection range in date from 3000 BCE to 1600 CE and include papyri, early and illuminated manuscripts, and early printed books, as well as Arabic, Indian, Persian, and Syriac manuscripts. Its collection of early modern books and manuscripts (1600-1800) is strong in the fields of British and Continental literature, American history, the history of science, Canadian history, and the history of the book. The modern collection (1800 to the present) is particularly rich in manuscripts, rare books, ephemera, photographs, drawings, prints, paintings, and objects. Centering largely on Europe and America in geographic focus, highlights from this collection include papers of Emily Dickinson and John Keats, the John James Audubon Collection, Continental European literary collections, and significant collections of materials related to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. 

American Revolution Materials: The cornerstone of Houghton’s American Revolution collection is the Jared Sparks Collection of American Manuscripts (1582-1843). Sparks was a mid-nineteenth century Harvard history professor, and the collection includes a wealth of materials, both originals and transcriptions, connected to major figures and events of the Revolution. The collection is also an important source for nineteenth-century historiography as it contains notes and manuscripts by Sparks, other early histories of Colonial and Revolutionary America, and Sparks’s correspondence with individuals knowledgeable about the Revolution.

Journals within the collection include those of Thomas Ainslie (1776), the Board of Trade (1766-1767), and the New York Provincial Congress and Conventions (1775-1778). Papers and letters (originals and transcriptions) are particularly rich in material by and concerning French and American officers during the Revolution. Particularly featured are Benedict Arnold (letters to and from him), George Clinton (papers, letters to and from him), Henry Knox (papers), Lafayette (papers, letters to and from him), and George Washington (letters to and from him). The letters to Washington came from many of his officers during the American Revolution as well as from other Founding Fathers including John Hancock, Patrick Henry, and Samuel Adams. Other military-related documents within the collection include correspondence amongst British officers during the war and reminiscences written in letter form to Jared Sparks in the 1820s and 1830s by John Arnold (the Northern Campaign of 1777), John Eager Howard (the Battle of Germantown), and Lafayette.

Other letters and papers within the collection come from many of the major political players of the Revolutionary era. The most notable materials include papers of John Adams, Francis Bernard, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris, as well as letters either by or addressed to Samuel Adams (writing to Mercy Scollay), Edmund Burke (describing the debate in London over the petition calling for Thomas Hutchinson’s dismissal), Benjamin Franklin (letters to and about him), Alexander Hamilton (letters to William Short during the French Revolution), and Thomas Hutchinson (writing to England). The Sparks Collection also contains papers from government offices of Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Virginia.
Another major topic addressed by materials within the Sparks collection is foreign relations during the Revolution. The collection includes materials related to America’s relationship with Britain, such as letters discussing the Stamp Act, papers detailing attempted peace negotiations between 1776 and 1779, and correspondence involving the American commission in 1782 Paris. In addition to materials related to French generals in America, there are other documents discussing French diplomacy during the Revolution, including correspondence between the French and Spanish ministers.

Houghton also possesses the Dearborn Collection of Military and Political Americana, a collection of autograph letters and documents of American Revolutionary leaders. Organized by convention, it contains letters and other papers of individuals who attended the Albany Convention, Stamp Act Congress, and the Continental Congress, and/or signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, as well as documents with the signatures of American officers and aides and secretaries to George Washington during the Revolution.

Houghton Library’s Special Collections also include John Boyle’s A Journal of Occurrences in Boston (1759-1778), and the papers of Arthur Lee. Lee was American diplomat involved in negotiating with France for aid during the Revolution, and Houghton’s collection of his letters, manuscripts, and receipts include a great deal of his correspondence with the American Revolutionary government from Europe. Houghton also holds a number of smaller manuscript collections related to the American Revolution, such as papers of the Palfrey and Holmes families of Cambridge, as well as substantial numbers of printed books from the era and a large collection of broadside printings of the Declaration of Independence.      

Keywords: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Ainslie, Albany Convention, Articles of Confederation, Benedict Arnold, John Arnold, autographs, Battle of Germantown, Francis Bernard, Board of Trade, books, Boston, John Boyle, British army, Edmund Burke, Cambridge, George Clinton, Continental Army, Continental Congress, U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, ephemera, foreign relations, France, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, historiography, Holmes Family, John Eager Howard, Thomas Hutchinson, A Journal of Occurrences in Boston, journals, Henry Knox, Lafayette, Arthur Lee, letters, manuscripts, Gouverneur Morris, New York, Palfrey Family, Paris, receipts, research notes, Mercy Scollay, William Short, soldiers/militia, Spain, Jared Sparks, Stamp Act, Stamp Act Congress, George Washington

Collection Policies: Houghton Library does actively acquire materials related to the American Revolution, by donation and, on occasion, by purchase. Generally speaking, that acquisition process focuses on materials which enhance and strengthen the institution’s existent holdings. Houghton does loan material for exhibitions if the condition of the material is safe for transfer and display, the exhibition significantly contributes to a field of study, and the absence of the material from Harvard does not negatively impact teaching or research at the university. For further information about loan policies and procedures, see the Houghton Library website.

Most of Houghton’s larger manuscript collections have finding aids, which can be found online either by searching the online catalog, HOLLIS, or the finding aid database, OASIS. Nearly everything in the collections has some record in the institution’s online catalogs, however, the detail of the descriptions vary by collection.