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.