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Lot 4: Adams, John. Book signed (8 ¼ x 5 in.; 210 x 127 mm.)

The Property of a Distinguished American Private Collector

by Profiles in History

December 18, 2012

Calabasas Hills, CA, USA

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Past Lot
  • Adams, John. Book signed (8 ¼ x 5 in.; 210 x 127 mm.)
  • Adams, John. Book signed (8 ¼ x 5 in.; 210 x 127 mm.)
  • Adams, John. Book signed (8 ¼ x 5 in.; 210 x 127 mm.)
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Description:

4. Adams, John. Book signed:  A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, London, 1787. (8 ¼ x 5 in.; 210 x 127 mm.). Original boards, blank interleaves; general wear to boards.

First edition, presentation copy inscribed and signed by John Adams to Richard Henry Lee and also signed by John Quincy Adams.

Adams inscribes the blank leaf just before the title page: “Mr. Lee’s acceptance of this is requested.  It is sent him in Boards interleaved that at his Leisure Mr. Lee may make his Remarks in it, and communicate them if he will be so good to the Author.”  Also signing the blank leaf is “John Quincy Adams”.  The title page contains the bold signature of “Ludwell Lee.”

Adams’ book A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America was to contain Adams’ defense of the constitutions of the various American states, and was to clarify the true and proper basis of sound government.  It was Adams’ hope that the work would establish beyond question the principle of separate and balanced branches by using the lessons of history and the writings of philosophers to defend his arguments.  It was his major work - an anthology or disquisition on the nature of true government.  Adams’ wife, Abigail, wrote to her son John Quincy, that the work was “an investigation into the different forms of government both ancient and modern - monarchal, aristocratical, democratical, and republican - pointing out their happiness or misery in proportion to their different balances.”

Feeling the need to finish the work as soon as possible, Adams, in London as Minister to Great Britain, completed the work in a few short weeks, but due to his haste, the finished product was haphazard, disorganized, and filled with errors.  Nonetheless, Adams had effectively stated his main theme.  He wrote: “Without three orders and an effectual balance between them in every American constitution, it must be destined to frequent, unavoidable revolutions; though they are delayed a few years they must come in time.”  Adams supported a free government with a solid democratic base in the form of a popular assembly responsive to the people.  He asserted the need for “democratical branches” or popular assemblies in government that represented the mass of the citizens of the state.  The response to the book was favorable - and considerable.  It sold very well, and appeared in a number of editions, which were widely read and hotly debated.  It was the first extensive examination by an American of the nature of government.  The book was Adams’ longest work, and his only multi-volume work - as long as all the other published works in his lifetime.  It was also the last great statement of a certain political school of thought - the classical Republican.

In January of 1787, Adams sent off a rough manuscript copy of his Defense to the printer for a limited printing.  When the printer returned printed copies, Adams discovered many typesetting errors, but proceeded, in any case, to get copies off to Jefferson and Lafayette, as well as a number of close friends in America, including Cotton Tufts, President Willard of Harvard, Professor Williams, Tristram Dalton, Richard Cranch, John Thaxter, General Warren, Samuel Adams, and Francis Dana.  He also sent copies to each of his sons, and 30 volumes to a Boston bookseller chosen by Tufts.  The blank sheets in the present volume were probably purposely inserted by the book binder, as Adams puts it in his inscription to Lee: “It is sent him in boards interleaved that at his Leisure Mr. Lee may make his Remarks in it, and communicate them if he will be so good to the Author.”

This particular volume is the first edition of Adams’ London edition, and appears to be the actual copy that Adams personally gave to Richard Henry Lee (1732-94) - a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress (1774-79) and a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence - and a man whom Adams had pronounced to be “a masterly man” when the two first met at the Congress of 1775 in Philadelphia.  At that time, Lee and Adams agreed that it was time that the colonies adopt their own governments.  [At Lee’s suggestion, Adams was encouraged to draw up his Thoughts on Government (1776).]  Lee was instrumental in urging the resolution (formally presented on June 7, 1776 - then adopted on July 2, 1776 and formally endorsed on July 4, 1776) that became known as the Declaration of Independence - the manifesto in which the representatives of the 13 American colonies asserted their independence and explained their reasons for their break with Britain, with the words: “...these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

The date when Lee received the book from Adams is probably April or May, 1787, when copies of the work first reached Philadelphia, though there is a slight chance that it might have been later - between 1789 and 1792 - when Adams and Lee were together on virtually a daily basis - Adams serving as Vice-President and Lee as a member of the Senate.  (Lee wrote to Adams in September, 1787 from New York that Adams’ book was “here”, though he may not have been referring to this particular presentation copy, but to the fact that the book was now in this country.)

Ludwell Lee (1760-1836), son of Richard Henry, has signed the book across the title page.  Apparently, the book passed down from Richard Henry to his son.  It is interesting to note that Ludwell’s son, also named Richard Henry (1802-65), carried on a sizeable correspondence with John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) during the years 1824-43.  The book is not only signed by John Adams (signing as “the Author”), but is also signed by his son John Quincy Adams.  It is highly likely that, at some time c. 1830-40, Ludwell’s son Richard Henry, who received the book from his father, asked John Adams’ son John Quincy to sign the book (note John Quincy’s shakey hand).  The book has gone “full-circle”, so to speak, “signed” by both Adams (first by the father and then, much later, by the son), inscribed to Richard Henry Lee (the father), signed by his son Ludwell Lee, and passed on to his son Richard Henry.

The book is also signed and dated 1846 (beneath John Adams’ inscription and John Quincy Adams’ signature) by John Strohm (1793-1884), a Pennsylvania congressman (March, 1845 - March, 1849).  The route of the book from the Lees to Strohm is undetermined, though the book was either acquired directly from Richard Henry Lee (or his heirs) or perhaps, from John Quincy Adams (who would have received the book from either Ludwell Lee or his son, Richard Henry Lee).  There is also no available information on specifically why the volume passed out of the hands of the Lee family. 

There is some additional handwritten content in the volume.  On a blank leaf bound between the Table of Contents and the first page of text, there is a quotation (in French) in an unidentified hand taken from and attributed to Memoires de Commines, regarded as one of the classics of medieval history, written by the French chronicler Philippe de Commines.  The passage states: “Entre toutes les Seigneuries du monde dans j’ai connaissance, ou la choice publique est mieux trait,e, & ou regne moins de violence sur le peuple - c’est l”Angleterre”.

Excessively rare in original boards and the associations with two generations of the Adams and Lee families is nothing short of extraordinary.

Provenance: Francis K. Gaskell (bookplate).

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