Friday, May 16, 2008


I was recently asked by a self-proclaimed “history buff” if I could recommend up to three books which would embody “a very comprehensive overview history of your state” without being “overly scholarly.” It was for a personal reading project and I could hardly hold my excitement to oblige their request.

For the last three-quarters of a century, Ohio has been blessed with historians from three subsequent generations who have produced fine histories of the state which meet the criteria set out by this request. This wasn’t always so. Professor Elbert J. Benton of Western Reserve University wrote in the American Historical Review in 1926 on “the monumental evidence of the backwardness of Ohioans in writing their own state’s history.”

The three books I chose for the patron were all written by highly recognized and noted academic historians. Eugene H. Roseboom (1892-1984) was Professor of History at Ohio State University and author of A Short History of Presidential Elections (1957). George W. Knepper (1926-) is the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at The University of Akron and author of many books relating to his native Akron and Summit County. Andrew R. L. Cayton (1954-) is the Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and author of numerous historical books focusing on eighteenth and early 19th century Ohio and frontier America.

Eugene Roseboom calls his A History of Ohio the Sesquicentennial History of Ohio as it was published in 1953 when the state was 150 years old. While it leans more towards a textbook in its organization, it is substantive enough but not overly scholarly. It was last updated in 1967 which dates it a bit. But it is filled with copious photographs and illustrations which aid the novice in visualizing the text.

George W. Knepper’s Ohio and its People is considered the first scholarly history of the state since Carl Wittke’s six-volume History of the State of Ohio (1941-44). While not compromising the history of early Ohio for the present day, Dr. Knepper presents us with an up-to-date history taking us to “Ohio in the Post-Industrial Age.” It was published and republished in 1989 and 2003 during the bicentennials of the Northwest Territory and the state of Ohio, respectively.

Andrew R. L. Cayton’s Ohio: The History of a People (2002) is Ohio’s bicentennial tribute to its past. Dr. Cayton weaves original sources to tell the story of famous and not-so-famous Ohioans to tell the state’s story spanning three centuries. It reads like a novel but every fact is footnoted like an academic work.

So if you are looking to understand the breath of Ohio’s past, I would recommend all three of these books. The Knepper and Cayton books are still available from Kent State University and Ohio State University Presses, respectively. All three are also available from most of your local Ohio public libraries.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


What makes being a librarian so exciting (particularly when it involves historical research) is coming across information which connects little known or forgotten items to notable events or people of the past. Just such a thing happened to me last month while sleuthing about trying to track down the provenance of a series of books for a presentation I was doing. I checked the State Library’s old accession books and did not find the needed volume. So I decided to try the library’s Annual Reports, which often contain acquisitions for a given year. Once again, I was disappointed while searching a conglomerated volume of Reports for 1846-60. However, while paging through this bound together, I came across a section in the Thirteenth Annual Report entitled “A Historical Sketch, by the Librarian.” The librarian at this time was William Coggeshall (1824-1867), a man of many talents, including service as a diplomat, a bodyguard and security agent (in which it is claimed he saved President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s life in 1861), and a writer.

In the past, while having retrieved items requested by patrons in the State Library’s Rare Book Room, I have noticed books by authors who were highly celebrated in their time but now forgotten or ignored. One of these was the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a social reformer so universally renown in his time, that the French Revolutionaries made him an honorary French citizen in 1789 with the likes of George Washington, James Madison, and William Wilberforce. It is generally acknowledged that he was founder of the utilitarian school of thought, which argued, “It is the great good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.”

According to Coggeshall’s account, “The first gift to the Library, on record, was by Jeremy Bentham and Robert Owen, through John Quincy Adams, Minister to England.” Among the “books presented by Jeremy Bentham” were the Essay on political tactics (1791), Draught of a new plan for the organization of the judicial establishment in France (1790), Chrestomathia (1816), Panopticon (1791), Panopticon—postscript or additions (1791), Plan of Parliamentary Reform (1817), and View of the Hard Labor Bill (1778). All of these are today in the Rare Book Room. Robert Owen (1771-1858) is better known for being a founder of socialism and supporting utopian communities like New Harmony in Indiana. Yellow Springs Community (1825) and Kendal (now part of Massillon) Community or “Friendly Association for Mutual Interests at Kendal” (1826) were Owenite communities established in Ohio. Unfortunately, the two books donated by him are no longer part of the collection.

What makes these gifts even more interesting is that they were distributed by none other than John Quincy Adams, the future president of the United States. Fortunately, there is correspondence from him while serving as American Minister to England in the Writings of John Quincy Adams (now available on Google Books). Adams, who composed a letter from England to President James Madison in Washington on December 15, 1817, writes: “In the summer of 1816 I received under cover from you a letter addressed to Jeremy Bentham, of Queen Square Place, Westminster, a person then known to me only by reputation. I called at his house to deliver the letter, but he was then absent in the country and I left the letter to be forwarded to him.” The letter continues: “A few weeks afterwards a friend of his who resides with him, a Mr. Koe, came to my residence which was a few miles out of the city, with the compliments of Mr. Bentham who was still absent, and a packet addressed to you, containing the first and second parts of a work which he was then publishing entitled Chrestomathia, which packet I soon after forwarded with my dispatches to the Department of State; and which was I hope duly received by you.” Chrestomanthia is the name of one of the gifts to the State Library “by Jeremy Bentham…through John Quincy Adams, Minister to England.”

I can only surmise that this is probably the copy of Chrestomanthia which now resides in the State Library’s rare book collection. But our story continues as Adams finally gets to meet the man he has known only by “reputation.” “I heard no more of Mr. Bentham until last spring [1817], when about two months before I left England, I found it necessary to remove into London to make the preparations for my departure. Mr. Bentham, who had in the meantime returned to his town residence, then called upon me, and from that time I saw him three or four times a week, and had frequent conversations with him upon the subjects of political economy, legislation, Chrestomathic instruction and other topics, with which his mind was over occupied, but upon which the singularity of his humor, and the cheerful benevolence of his disposition, afforded an inexhaustible fund of entertainment, as the accumulated mass of knowledge furnished a store no less copious of instruction.” While Adams’ picture of Bentham was hardly that of Dickens’ fictional utilitarian Thomas Gradgrind of Hard Times—who saw life as “a case of simple arithmetic”—his philosophy was found a bit too rigoristic for many Anglo-Americans. As the 19th century progressed, utilitarianism’s influence correspondingly waned. Perhaps Adams was foreshadowing its demise when he had to inform poor Bentham, “with regret,” that his reform proposal to President Madison in “his letter of 1811” was “an impracticable undertaking.”

NOTE. The State Library of Ohio was established as the “Ohio State Library” in 1817. The name was later changed to avoid any with confusion with The Ohio State University Libraries.