Boston College Libraries Faculty Newsletter


FALL 2010

Recent Discovery of Early U.S. Congressional Reports in Burns Library

Recently Burns student Tom Fraatzhe, whilst accessioning folio-sized uncataloged books in the Burns Library, discovered a large (41 documents-long) bound-with that had a blue library binding. A "bound-with" is simply a collection of works – usually pertaining to the same topic – that the owner has had bound together in the same binding.


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As it turned out, the contents of this binding contained United States Congressional reports from the first few sessions of the U.S. Congress in the early 1790's! The majority of these reports, which are typically 2-8 pages long – a few, though, are closer to 40-50 pages – were from the Dept. of the Treasury, which is to say Alexander Hamilton, but there are a smattering of other worthies amongst this group: Thomas Jefferson, David Rittenhouse, Henry Knox, Tench Coxe, and George Washington. So these are the official documents of the 1st President of the United States, the 1st Secretary of State, the 1st Secretary of the Treasury, the 1st Secretary of War, the 1st Attorney General, the 1st Postmaster General, etc.


Interestingly, this compilation of some of the most important documents in our nation's history has been in the BC collections for years. The first item in the volume bears a black ink stamp that identifies the book as belonging to “Boston College Library, Chestnut Hill, Mass.” Even more interesting is the original provenance of the book: these documents were compiled and bound together subsequent to publication by one Jeremiah Smith (1759-1842), a member of the House of Representatives from March 4, 1791 – July 26, 1797. Smith represented New Hampshire's at-large district and later became New Hampshire's 9th governor, from June 8, 1809 – June 5, 1810. His hand is present in the form of a manuscript table of contents that spans 3 pages as well as an essay on “Free Trade” towards the back of the book. Smith's hand was quite beautiful; his essay is very easy to read.


As I went through each of these reports I could literally see a nation being built: the methods devised to derive revenue to pay off the debt our ancestors had incurred fighting a war of independence, arguments concerning standards for weights and measures, the plans for setting up a national defense force, the establishment of a national postal system, investigations into allegations of election fraud, etc. etc. For example, in Report of the Secretary of State, on the subject of establishing a uniformity in the weights, measures and coins of the United States. Published by order of the House of Representatives (1790) we learn that Thomas Jefferson had advised the government to adopt the following measures of length (and I quote here from p. 17 of that document):

Let the Foot be divided into 10 inches;
the Inch into 10 lines;
the Line into 10 points;

Let 10 feet make a decad;
10 Decads a rood;
10 Roods a furlong;
10 Furlongs a mile.

So Jefferson, evidently influenced by the advanced thinking of the metric system, had decided to stick with the measures of length that everybody already knew (i.e. the old Imperial system) but had cleverly changed the unit of measure from base 12 to base 10. Obviously this didn't take any more than the revolutionaries in France could make a 10-day week stick (who wanted to work 9 days to get a day off when you formerly only had to work 6!), but right in front of me was the evidence that we had tried a pseudo-metrification from the inception of the country. This brought to mind the failed Metric Conversion Act of 1975, but until I saw this document I had no idea that we had tried this so early in our nation's history.


Or consider the importance of a 13-page document that lacked even the dignity of a title (the title in the Quest record being the first few lines at the head of the main body of text). This document, In the House of Representatives of the United States, Tuesday the 8th of May, 1792 : Mr. Fitzsimmons, from the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the Causes of the Failure of the Late Expedition under Major General St. Clair, reported, that the Committee had, according to order, proceeded to examine all the papers furnished by the Executive department relative thereto, sundry papers and accounts furnished by the Treasury and War departments, with explanations of the same by the heads of those departments in person, to hear the testimony of witnesses upon oath, and written remarks by General St. Clair …, was produced by the very first Congressional investigation!

The general mentioned in the title, Arthur St. Clair, had been tasked with subduing the native Americans in the Old Northwest (what is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota) and had failed miserably. The Treaty of Paris had ceded to the new nation all of the territory east of the Mississippi River and west of the Appalachians, and the United States quickly formed a legal entity called the Northwest Territory – the area south of the Great Lakes and north of the Ohio River – with the goal of settlement. Unfortunately, however, the people who actually resided in that territory were not represented during any of the treaty or territorial proceedings. Further, though British forces had been decisively defeated at the Battle of Yorktown, their forces and allies in the Old Northwest were basically left unscathed, and British outposts remained in this area until 1815.


St. Clair's expedition set out in the summer of 1791 to rectify the losses suffered by General Josiah Harmar at the hands of one of the leaders of the Western Confederacy of Nations, Little Turtle.  The Confederacy's goal was to keep the Ohio River as the boundary between the United States and Indian lands. St. Clair, who was governor of the territory, had succeeded Harmar as the senior general of the U.S. Army. His poorly-supplied force of around 3,000 suffered straggling throughout the campaign, and when he met the combined forces of the Confederacy along the Wabash River in November of 1791 he was quickly surrounded. Around 600 U.S. soldiers were killed, along with scores of camp followers.  


This battle, called the “Battle of the Wabash” or “St. Clair's Defeat,” represented proportionally the worst defeat U.S. forces had suffered in battle in any of the Indian Wars. For this performance President Washington sacked St. Clair (who had performed credibly during the Revolution), and the House of Representatives decided to investigate the proceedings that had caused such a dismal defeat. This was the first such investigation by Congress in history. In performing the investigation the House determined that it needed certain documents from the War Department. The Secretary of War, Henry Knox, brought this to President Washington's attention, who, recognizing a major separation of powers issue, convened all of his department heads. Some historians consider this to be the beginnings of the U.S. Cabinet.


During this and subsequent meetings Washington and his advisors proposed a doctrine that the executive branch did not have to hand over papers if the public safety required them to be kept secret. This doctrine, vastly strengthened since the end of WWII due to the unprecedented destructive powers of atomic weapons, has been an issue in separation of powers cases ever since; for examples think of the issues surrounding  the Iran-Contra affair and Watergate. In the end President Washington did authorize handing over the papers to the House, which essentially sided with and exonerated St. Clair.

These are just a few of the amazing stories to be found in this collection. The Quest record for this collection is found here, and hours for the Burns Library can be found here. Please come by to view for yourself these seminal documents in our nation's history!


David Richtmyer
Senior Cataloger, Burns Library