Chamberlain, Mellen (1821-1900) Collection of Autographs

(Rare Books & Manuscripts) Judge Mellen Chamberlain, who was Librarian of the Boston Public Library from 1878-1890, donated his extensive collection of manuscripts in 1893. As both a serious collector and writer, Chamberlain’s interest in American and European history and culture is reflected in the wide scope of this collection. The collection forms the nucleus of the Library’s extensive manuscript holdings, with 20,000 letters, documents, portraits, and engravings relating to American and European history, culture, and literature from the end of the 15th century through the middle of the 19th century. The American section is divided into three sections: Colonial, Revolutionary, and Culture. There are three European sections: Royalty, Culture, and Shakespeare. Additionally, the collection contains a small number of books.

Among the highlights in the Colonial section are documents that record the persecution of the Quakers in Boston in 1660. Of special significance is the letter William Dyer wrote to the Court of Assistants pleading for the life of his wife Mary, as well as the warning written by Margaret Smith while she was in the Boston House of Correction. Also of special interest are the legal documents and correspondence related to the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. Included in these papers is the execution order for Bridget Bishop, the first person executed as a witch in Massachusetts Bay Colony. There are a number of sermons in the collection, one by Jeremiah Shepard to the Church of Christ at Rawley dated 1674. Shepard was an important figure in the founding generation of New England Puritanism. Other noteworthy documents in this section are acts, laws, and writs that were issued by the early courts that governed the colony.

From the protest against the Stamp Act in 1765 through the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the papers in the Revolutionary section document the governing of Boston, the actions citizens took against the increased tightening of British occupation and rule, the events that led up to the war, and the unfolding of military and naval campaigns. For example, there are eyewitness accounts of the Boston Massacre, letters from Richard Clarke & Sons regarding the cargo of tea that was consigned to them (and subsequently thrown into Boston Harbor), and orders to issue rum to soldiers during the Siege of Boston. One of the highlights of the collection is Paul Revere’s sketch of the Boston Massacre. In addition, the roles that patriots such as John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere played in the fight for independence are also documented. The logistical and strategic planning of battles and troop movements are recorded in the correspondence of generals George Washington, Henry Knox, and Artemas Ward, while documents from the Massachusetts General Court cover legal aspects. The majority of the correspondence and documents in this section provide insight into the day-to-day workings of the military, public opinion, foreign alliances, and economic aspects of the war.

The third section, American Culture, consists of letters and manuscripts by such authors as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Phillis Wheatley, and John Singleton Copley. Also included are the papers of Theophilus Parsons, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and Silas Lee.

The three European sections are made up of correspondence and documents by kings, queens, philosophers, artists, and scholars. For example, all the rulers of England from Henry VII to Victoria, with the exception of Edward IV, are represented, as are the French kings from Louis VII to Louis XVI. Ferdinand and Isabella, Frederick the Great, and Maria Theresa are among the other European royalty who are included. 

The European Culture section can be divided into two parts: philosophers and artists. Among the 18th-century philosophers are Denis Diderot, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, and Adam Smith. Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and Arthur Shopenhauer are a few of the philosophers from the 19th century. Artists represented by either signed or attributed works are Correggio, Rembrandt, Hogarth, and George Cruikshank.

Finally, the Shakespeare section consists of correspondence by several 18th- and 19th-century scholars and editors of Shakespeare, including Edmund Malone, Elizabeth Montagu, Thomas Bowdler, and George Steevens.

Books about Boston and United States history and American literature are some of the subjects that are included in Chamberlain’s print collection.

Online access: A digitized version of the printed description for this collection is available through Internet Archive, opens a new window. (Rare Books & Manuscripts)