Collections employees Gayle Cooper and Edward Gaynor display
an 1855 lithograph of Commander Perry's expedition to Japan.
It is one of the items in the Mellon collection, a recent
gift to the University. The entire collection is now being
gift enriches U.Va. holdings
who has been in Charlottesville for a couple of weeks and paying
attention knows that Thomas Jefferson was a man of letters. Many,
many letters. He wrote prolifically -- to friends, foes, well-wishers
and merchants, usually penning duplicates at the same time with
his famous copying machine.
how many of us have actually had the chance to view, and even
touch, one of Jefferson's originals?
of Jefferson's letters have long been available to the public
in the University Library's Special
Collections Department. Now, thanks to the generosity of the
late philanthropist and collector Paul Mellon, library-goers have
access to perhaps the most famous Jefferson letter of all, one
item in a trove of Virginiana and Americana recently dispersed
from Mellon's estate to the University and two other institutions.
U.Va. received approximately 400 of the 1,700 items.
letter Jefferson wrote to former Sen. John Holmes of Maine, dated
April 22, 1820, is now "the centerpiece of our Jefferson
collection," which, at approximately 4,800 items, is the
third-largest in the world, said Michael Punkett, director of
the letter, Jefferson expresses his grave concerns about the Missouri
Compromise, which allowed states carved from the Louisiana Purchase
south of Missouri's border to enter the Union as slave states.
He presciently saw the compromise as raising the specter of secession,
a prospect that he wrote filled him with terror "like a fire-bell
in the night." Later, he offered his vivid description of
the South's dependence on slave labor: "We have the wolf
by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go."
are five other Jefferson letters in U.Va.'s allotment, along with
a copy of his only book, Notes On the State of Virginia, personally
inscribed to James Rittenhouse of Philadelphia. (The library has
two other copies of the book, printed privately in Paris, one
of which was Jefferson's own copy and another inscribed to the
Marquis de Lafayette.)
headline items in the collection include a May 20, 1797 letter
from George Washington to Revolutionary War General William Heath;
a very rare 1494 edition of a bound and illustrated letter (penned
in Latin) from Christopher Columbus describing the New World;
the second printing of one of the earliest maps of Virginia, made
in 1751 by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson; and the signed notes
that Judge Richard Parker made during the trial of abolitionist
John Brown, who led the famous raid on Harper's Ferry in October
1859, was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.
Mellon, son of Pittsburgh businessman and former Secretary of
the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, gave throughout his life to the
areas of art and culture. Aside from monetary donations to the
National Gallery, where his father donated an art collection that
became the cornerstone of the museum, Paul Mellon and his wife
gave over 900 paintings to the gallery. He also donated various
works of art, literature and historical materials to numerous
world knows Mellon as an art collector," said Plunkett, "but
for a period of time he focused on Americana and Virginiana."
the best of my knowledge, the collection of printed and manuscript
Americana formed by Mr. Mellon ... was the most important in terms
of the quality and quantity of its contents in private hands at
the time of its dispersal," said antiquarian bookseller William
Reese, appraiser of the collection and proprietor of the William
Reese Company of New Haven, Conn.
collection also includes some lower-profile, but equally fascinating
items. One example: the record of the roll-call vote from the
Virginia Convention, convened to decide the question of secession
from the Union. Debate began in February of 1861, but it wasn't
until President Lincoln called for troops to put down the rebellion
that started in Fort Sumter, S.C., that the question was decided.
The convention clerk dramatically noted that the 88-55 vote in
favor of secession was concluded on April 17, 1861, "at twenty
minutes past 4 o'clock p.m."
collected for quality," noted Heather Moore, associate director
of Special Collections. "That's what struck us all."
There was a history of interaction between the Mellon collection
and the University dating back to the 1950s. Mellon allowed U.Va.
library staff to copy several Jefferson letters for microfilm,
and staff members made several trips to the his estate in Upperville
to view the collection. In addition, Mellon's wife, Rachel "Bunny"
Mellon, has occasionally loaned items from her own, separate collection
to the University.
it still came as a surprise when, after Mellon's death in February
1999, the University learned that it would split Mellon's collection
with Yale University and the Virginia Historical Society. All
three institutions prepared surveys of their holdings for the
estate's executors, in order to minimize duplications; staff members
also surveyed the Mellon collection and prepared prioritized wish
are extremely pleased with the items we received from this historically
rich collection," Plunkett said. "In addition to being
valuable in their own right, the Mellon materials immeasurably
enrich the library's notable collections relating to America and
also bequeathed $500,000 toward construction of U.Va.'s new Mary
and David Harrison Institute of American History, Literature and
Culture, scheduled for completion in 2003, which will house the
Albert H. Small Special Collections Library along with the Mellon
staff is in the process of cataloguing the items, which are available
for public inspection. An exhibition of the collection is planned
for fall 2001.