The Beckley-Lincoln Book

Debates, Resolutions & Other Proceedings, of The Convention of the
Commonwealth of MA to Which the Federal Constitution is Prefixed
The 1789 title page inscribed by the owner,
John James Beckley
Once in a while. Once in a while you see a book that is so much more than a book. More than a leather binding and all the wear of the dirty fingertips over tallow candles. Sometimes you find a book that talks and breathes, that lives its history and the history of our nation with it. I want to tell you about John Beckley's book. It almost certainly wasn't his only book. He was a learned man. The largest collection of books in the country at that time was probably Thomas Jefferson-- some 6,500 volumes. More typically, people owned a few volumes and the very wealthy maybe owned a few dozen. As Brian Hoey once said, "Some studies suggest that as many 60 percent of colonial households owned at least one book". And more to the point, "..while many people owned a few books, few people owned many books." Even among those who did, every book was priceless.

When at first I spotted this copy of, Debates, Resolutions & Other Proceedings, of The Convention of the Commonwealth of MA to Which the Federal Constitution is Prefixed, I was thrilled. It's an exceptionally scarce and important book of its own right. This book provides the official record of the debates that occurred in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts prior to the founding of our country with the later adoption of The Constitution. It was during these debates that the first amendments were proposed. 

Then I noted Beckley's signature on the title page and began to research the man. John Beckley, a personal friend of Thomas Jefferson, was appointed to become the first librarian, establishing the Library of Congress among his many other roles in our young nation's history. That is a stunning ownership history for a book related to the establishment of our nation from the personal collection of the man who started our nation's collection of knowledge!

Known signature of Levi Lincoln, Sr.

I've learned as a collector and a researcher, though, that you have to pay careful attention to the smallest details and to piece together as much of the story as you can from the details. You never know where it may lead. And you have to understand with books just how precious they were. A gifted book would often be noted 'from' and 'to'. It was a significant contribution to a man's estate to give him a book. And so it was that another significant owner of this book was identified. On a page that was sadly torn, I found the gift inscription which today only retains the words, "L. Lincoln to.. John..." I knew the John was obviously John James Beckley, but I wondered, who could L. Lincoln be. Such a fragment of a name that it seemed like it might be impossible to identify this person. With a bit of brute force research, I realized it must have been Levi Lincoln who was the Attorney General of Thomas Jefferson. And, luckily for me, the inscription is a dead match to that of the known signature of Levi Lincoln. Consider for a moment this book on Lincoln's office shelf as Jefferson strode in to discuss the legal concerns of the day. Some of our nation's most important founders have almost surely shared the room with this small volume. It's an astonishing find. Scarce, historic, and important book capturing the conversations at the founding of the United States of America bound in leather by Adams and Norse, Boston, 1788.

The book was later owned by early settler, Henry S. Baird of Green Bay. Then the book has a stamp from Casper, Krueger, Dory, & Co. of Milwaukee. Finally, in 1939, F H Taylor acquired the book in Milwaukee. Most recently, the book was auctioned in Ohio and purchased by

This exceedingly scarce book (Jefferson's copy is in the Library of Congress for example) is in fair shape with wear. One of many rare books offered for sale at


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