Feb. 2-14, 2002
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Small gives rare Declaration of Independence items to library

By Melissa Cox Norris

It goes without saying that the Declaration of Independence is an American icon. But there’s more to the story than just the finished product. The University Library will now be able to tell more of that story, thanks to a gift from alumnus Albert H. Small, a former Board of Visitors member. Small has given 10 Declaration-related items to the University, including the only known letter written by a signer on the day of the signing and what amounts to an autograph book containing the signatures of many Founding Fathers.

detail from "thunder and rain" letter
A detail from Caesar Rodney’s “thunder and rain” letter, written to his brother on July 4, 1776, which describes a hurried trip to Philadelphia to “give my voice in the matter of Independence.” Caesar Rodney’s crucial vote made all 13 colonies unanimous in their decision to break free from Great Britain.

On July 4, 1776, Caesar Rodney, a delegate to the Continental Congress from Delaware, wrote to his brother Thomas describing a hurried trip to Philadelphia on horseback through “thunder and rain” in time to “give my voice in the matter of Independence.” Rodney’s crucial vote made all 13 colonies unanimous in their decision to break free from Great Britain.

The historic letter, the only one written on that momentous day by a signer of the Declaration of Independence that refers specifically to his own role in the vote, is among 10 rare Declaration-related items recently given to the University of Virginia Library by Small.

The gift is the second from Small’s personal Declaration of Independence collection, the most comprehensive in the world about the document. He has pledged the entire collection to the University.

The items in this recent gift will be on display, along with other highlights from his collection, in the Declaration of Independence Room that will be part of the new Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library soon to be under construction. Small also contributed funds for the new building.

Highlights of the new gift include:

• A broadside from June 12, 1775, in which Thomas Gage, British commander in North America, declares martial law and warns the American rebels to renounce their cause or face retribution. In this, one of only four copies known to exist, Gage offers to pardon anyone who ceases their rebellious behavior, except for Samuel Adams and John Hancock, whose offenses were considered too serious for clemency.

• An engraved Declaration of Independence printed by William J. Stone, a noted engraver of the time, in 1823 under the authority of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. By an act of Congress, two copies were given to the Marquis de Lafayette and one hung in his bedroom. Only 31 of the original 200 Stone engravings are known to exist today.

• A manuscript subscription book belonging to Benjamin Owen Tyler in which he collected signatures from such notable figures as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, John Marshall and Henry Clay as orders for his elaborately engraved facsimile of the Declaration of Independence published in 1818.

“Albert Small’s gift significantly adds to our American history materials in Special Collections,” said Michael Plunkett, director of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at U.Va. “In addition to being historically valuable, these items tell about the preparation, production and printing of the Declaration, as well as about the individuals behind this important moment in American history.”

In 2000, Small gave an important group of early printings of the Declaration from the various 13 colonies. The remainder of his collection includes similar historically important materials such as one of 25 known first-printings by John Dunlap of the Declaration of Independence, which, according to recent research, belonged to George Washington. Also in the collection are a complete set of autographed letters from all 56 signers, a majority dating from 1776, and various copies of John Trumbull’s famous painting depicting the signing.

“Albert Small has patiently and methodically amassed the most comprehensive Declaration of Independence collection possible today,” said Chris Coover, senior specialist in manuscripts and Americana at Christie’s auction house in New York, who inventoried the collection.

Small, a real-estate developer in Bethesda, Md. and major donor to the University, said that he is giving his Declaration of Independence collection so that it can be open and accessible to all.

“Albert Small joins a distinguished roster of collectors such as Tracy W. McGregor, Clifton Waller Barrett, and Paul Mellon whose gifts have strengthened immeasurably the University’s collections,” said Karin Wittenborg, University librarian.

Visit the Special Collections Web site at www.lib.virginia.edu/speccol


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