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Special 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 catalogued.

Mellon gift enriches U.Va. holdings

By Dan Heuchert

Anyone 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.

But how many of us have actually had the chance to view, and even touch, one of Jefferson's originals?

Many 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.

The 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 Special Collections.

In 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."

There 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.)

Other 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 public institutions.

"The world knows Mellon as an art collector," said Plunkett, "but for a period of time he focused on Americana and Virginiana."

"To 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.

The 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."

"[Mellon] 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.

Yet 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 lists.

"We 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 Virginia."

Mellon 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 collection.

Library 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.

 


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