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U.Va. Library Receives Rare and Valuable Items From the Collection of Paul Mellon

June 5, 2000 -- Six letters penned by Thomas Jefferson, including one that contains his most famous quotation on the subject of slavery.

A rare edition of Christopher Columbus' first-hand account of the discovery of the New World.

The transcript of the trial of abolitionist John Brown, signed by the judge who presided over the case.

These are among the more than 400 items the University of Virginia Library received from the estate of noted American collector and philanthropist Paul Mellon. His collection of rare books, manuscripts, maps and atlases, pertaining primarily to Virginia and American history, made him "the greatest American book collector of the second half of the 20th century," according to one expert.

"This treasure-trove of historical items given to U.Va. is cause for celebration," said Peter S. Onuf, U.Va. Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History.

The Jefferson letters include one written to John Holmes, former senator from Maine, dated April 22, 1820. In it, Jefferson expresses his concerns over the Missouri Compromise, which allowed states carved from the Louisiana Purchase south of Missouri's southern border to enter the Union as slave states. Jefferson said that the prospect of this leading to states seceding filled him with terror "like a fire-bell in the night." Jefferson characterized the country's slavery crisis by writing, "we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go."

Other highlights of the items received by U.Va. include:

  • a 1494 bound edition of the Christopher Columbus letter in which he describes his discovery of the New World. The illustrations are the first attempt by European artists to depict the New World. Only a few copies survive of this extremely rare edition.
  • a personal letter written by George Washington on May 20, 1797 to Revolutionary War General William Heath, a friend who served under Washington during the Revolutionary War.
  • the second printing of one of the earliest maps of Virginia made in 1751 by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson showing the most inhabited part of Virginia and containing the whole province of Maryland, as well as parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina.
  • Judge Richard Parker's autographed manuscript record of the trial of John Brown. Judge Parker presided over the trial of the zealous abolitionist who led the famous raid on Harper's Ferry in October 1859 and was subsequently found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.

"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 William Reese, appraiser of the collection and an antiquarian bookseller and proprietor of the William Reese Company of New Haven, Connecticut.

Mellon, who died in February 1999, willed his collection of more than 1,700 items of Americana and Virginiana to the University of Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society, and Yale University. Executors of Mellon's estate established a procedure for dividing the collection among the institutions. According to Reese, the executors sought to best serve scholarship by enhancing the existing holdings of the three institutions receiving the materials. With the cooperation of the staff of each library, their collections were surveyed and works that would be duplicates were noted. The libraries were then asked to prioritize their wish lists.

Staff of U.Va.'s Special Collections Department, which will house and maintain the Mellon collection, considered the list carefully and viewed the collection before making their requests.

"We are extremely pleased with the items we received from this historically rich collection," said Michael Plunkett, director of Special Collections. "In addition to being valuable in their own right, the Mellon materials immeasurably enrich the library's notable collections relating to America and Virginia."

The Mellon collection, which also includes items from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, slavery, Lewis and Clark, Native Americans, and natural history, is available to the public now and will be fully cataloged by the end of the year. An exhibition is planned for the summer of 2001.

"With wisdom to match his generosity, Paul Mellon ensured that his treasured collections would be placed in the institutions where they most appropriately belonged," said University Librarian Karin Wittenborg. "We look forward to sharing these wonderful documents with our users from around the world."

Paul Mellon, son of Pittsburgh businessman and former Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, gave generously 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.

"Mr. Mellon was -- considering this [Americana and Virginiana collection] and his great collections of English illustrated books, atlases, works on natural history, fine press books, and more -- the greatest American book collector of the second half of the 20th century," Reese said.

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 and the Mellon collection.

"It's a great day for the library and for the community of scholars and students at the University and beyond," Onuf said.

The Library's Special Collections Department houses the University's many outstanding collections of rare books and manuscripts. The primary focus of these collections is American history and literature – in particular, the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History and the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Among the treasures to be found in Special Collections are: Thomas Jefferson papers and his architectural drawings of the University of Virginia, one of the 25 copies of the first printing of the Declaration of Independence, and the largest single collection of William Faulkner editions, manuscripts, and personal papers. To learn more about the resources found in Special Collections, visit their web site at: www.lib.virginia.edu/speccol or call (804) 924-3025.

For more information about the Mellon bequest, contact Michael Plunkett at (804) 924-3998. Photographs of the Jefferson "fire-bell" letter and the letter written by George Washington to General William Heath are available. Call Melissa Norris at (804) 924-4254 to request either a print or an electronic copy of the photographs.

Contact: Melissa Norris, (804) 924-4254

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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