Number of Books: 750
Collecting Since: 1979
First Book: The Beale Papers, Lynchburg, Virginia, 1885
Rare Book He'd Like to Own: Journals and proceedings of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Best Bargain: The Constitution of Vermont. Montpelier: Printed by Wright & Sibley for Justin Hinds, 1811
Highest Price Paid for a Book: $3,750. The constitutions of the several independent states of America. Philadelphia, 1781
Top 3 Books in Collection:
- The constitutions of the several independent states of America. Philadelphia, 1781. Very Good
- The constitutions of the several independent states of America. London, 1782. Very Good
- The constitution of the state of New-York. Fish-Kill: Samuel Loudon, 1777. Good
I collect books dated 1776-1825 that reprint the full text of the Declaration of Independence (DOI). At first, I limited the collection to books dated pre-1900, later to books pre-1850, and eventually to pre-1826. Limiting the collection to "The first 50 years" prevented it from becoming too large, and unmanageable. Yet, it provided a large enough number of books (approximately 300), so that many were conveniently accessible and reasonably priced. While, a fewer number were of sufficient scarcity, or rarity, to make "the hunt" challenging and improbable that any one person could assemble, or "build," a collection deemed complete.
Even more improbable, was the reason for beginning collecting in the first place: I started collecting because of a treasure story! The first 'book' in my collection was, in fact, a photocopy of a 23-page pamphlet published in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1885, entitled The Beale Papers, containing authentic statements regarding the treasure buried in 1819 and 1821, near Bufords, in Bedford Country, Virginia, and which has never been recovered." Many years passed before I was able to locate and purchase an original copy of this scarce pamphlet.
The pamphlet describes three numerical ciphers, one of which allegedly gives the location of a buried treasure of gold and silver estimated to be worth over $30 million. The other two cipher texts allegedly describe the contents of the treasure, and a list of names of the treasure's owners and their next of kin. The cipher describing the contents of the treasure was deciphered by numbering the words in the DOI and replacing each cipher number by the first letter of the corresponding numbered word. Following the publication of the pamphlet, a number of attempts were made to decode the two remaining cipher texts, but none met with success.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the Beale treasure story affected the course of my life in several ways. While in graduate school I wrote a thesis on cryptanalysis, inspired to a large extent by the Beale ciphers. This led to a position, and life-long career, in IBM's Cryptography Center of Competency and co-authorship of a book Cryptography - a new dimension in computer data security that won the American Association of Publishers "Best Book in Technology" award. I joined the Beale Cypher Association, wrote programs trying to break the ciphers, published papers on the subject, made trips to the treasure site, was interviewed for newspaper articles, and appeared on Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious Universe TV program.
I recall thinking about the fascinating problem posed by the ciphers. At length, I concluded the following: First, the DOI, which Beale used to encipher one of his messages, was probably taken from a book. Second, Beale's other two messages were probably enciphered with a like method, using two key texts taken from a book. Third, there was a good chance that all three key texts were taken from the same book. Thus, a book dated before 1823, reprinting the DOI, might very well contain the two wanted key texts. So, I began collecting books that reprinted the DOI, hoping to find the missing key texts and break the remaining two ciphers.
At first, I browsed through books in dealer's shops looking for the DOI. I found only a small number of books this way. Then, I subscribed to AB Bookman's Weekly. I found that dealers' listings sometimes carried words like "includes the Declaration of Independence." I recall waiting patiently for my weekly AB Bookman magazine to arrive so that I could search through the "Books for Sale" section. I managed to purchase a fair number of books using this method.
After a time, I realized that better success could be had by producing a 'want list' circulated to book dealers. However, producing a meaningful want list was no simple matter, as there was no bibliography or checklist of books reprinting the DOI that could be consulted. Such a list simply didn't exist. This meant that I would have to construct the want list from scratch. Here's how I did it.
On the basis of just a few number of books collected thus far, I was able to infer or predict the type of book that would likely reprint the DOI. So, I purchased copies of Evans' American Bibliography (1639-1800)," Shaw and Shoemaker's American Bibliography (1801-1819), Shoemaker's American Imprints (1820-1825), and Sabin's Dictionary of books relating to America. I searched these bibliographies, identifying books that were "good candidates." In some cases, a book's title mentioned that it reprinted the DOI. That was easy. But, in most cases there was no way to tell whether a book reprinted the DOI except by searching the book, page by page. I was granted permission to use the Cadet Library at West Point, and most of the "good candidates" were searched there using their Readex Collection (Evans Series and Shaw Series) on microcard. West Point also had a set of the National Union Catalog, pre-1956 imprints, which I searched diligently, as well, which was especially helpful for identifying "good candidates" printed outside the U.S.
Of the some 100,000 possible books published from 1776 to 1825, I narrowed the search to roughly 6,000 'good candidates.' These were searched over a two-and-a-half-year period. Most of the work was conducted at West Point. Those not accessible via the Readex Collection were searched at major libraries, like the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. The search netted about 300 different books containing the DOI (less the 50 or so that I had located previously). The 'list of 300,' as I termed it, was used to prepare the 'want list' sent to dealers.
But, even before the 'list of 300' had been completed, a subtle change took place: I got hooked on collecting. The initial purpose for collecting was wholly replaced by a genuine desire to build a collection, mostly for shear enjoyment, but one I could be proud of - a collection of value, which I reasoned would be unique, focused and meaningful.
Using a list of dealers obtained from one of AB Bookman's yearly publications, I sent a prepared 'want list' to some 150 to 200 book dealers. A flood of responses was received, some of which included the titles of books containing the DOI that I was not yet aware of. My collection grew dramatically over a period of a few more years. I managed to purchase a copy of The Constitution of state of New-York, Fish-kill, Samuel Loudon, 1777, a copy of The constitutions of the several independent states of America, Philadelphia, 1781. Although much time and resource was expended in preparing the "list of 300," the list was crucial to the collection; without it, the collection could never have been "built."
In 1999, I gave up the old ways of collecting, and shifted my collecting efforts to the Internet, nowadays the preferred method, with access to several million books and several thousand book sellers. I use a list of "wants" posted on AbeBooks, and occasionally bid on select books on eBay. And, I now look forward to receiving my daily messages: "AbeBooks has found the book you want." For all practical purposes, online book purchasing is the only way I am able to continue adding books of quality and value to my collection. Incidentally, online purchasing has allowed me to add three unrecorded books to the collection. The DOI collection is now a mature collection, although many books can still be added.
If asked what the collection represents, and what I've learned from it, I'd respond this way. Firstly, the collection is a reflection of the way our early citizens felt about their new freedom. Even the pirate Jean Laffite, who aided Gen. Andrew Jackson (later President Jackson) during the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans, referred to the DOI as that "sacred document."— "The Journal of Jean Laffite," 1958. Secondly, the books "tell" the following story: At first, the DOI was new, and it was printed hurriedly with little or no comment. We find two American book printings in July, 1776. This was followed by at least 13 British periodical printings in August and September. British printings with scathing rebuttals came later. The DOI was reprinted in The Remembrancer, 1776, and the following year in the Annual Register — both British works, and the most reliable sources of information regarding the Revolution. In fact, the DOI was reprinted three times in different volumes of The Remembrancer. Because of its historic significance, the DOI was afterwards reprinted many times in both American and British histories on the American Revolution, and likewise in U.S. histories. In 1781, the DOI was reprinted together with the Articles of Confederation and the different state constitutions, in a small book entitled The constitutions of the several independent states of America. After all, the DOI was one of the founding documents.
Although, one British author commented that he couldn't understand why the Congress directed only 200 copies of such an important book to be printed. In any case, the book was thereafter reprinted in Britain and America many times under similar titles, later adding the US Constitution, and new state constitutions, as they became available. Similar books also appeared under different titles: The American's guide, The Freeman's guide, and The American citizen's sure guide. The DOI was also reprinted in collections of both state laws and U.S. laws, and also together with individual state constitutions. It was also reprinted in many works for purely patriotic reasons — the most noteworthy being Alexander Macwhorter's A festival discourse, 1793, and Gabriel Nourse's The glorious spirit of '76, 1806. Eventually, a sort of symbiotic relationship seems to have developed between the public and book publishers. Patriotic citizens welcomed publication of the DOI, and book publishers were eager to issue new and improved editions, often accommodated by adding the DOI and other documents to these works.
Some interesting things were also learned, although not "earth shattering." A few are worth mentioning here. Early on, I learned that the DOI was reprinted in the preamble of the 1777 constitution of the state of New York, and not changed until 1821 - a fact that few people probably know. One of the curiosities in the "list of 300" was a 37-page pamphlet The Declaration of Independence, printed by John Bull, 1796.This pamphlet reprints the DOI twice: once as a separate document, and a second time within the preamble to the constitution of the state of New York. Moreover, the wording in the two Declarations differs slightly. In fact, a personal collection such as the DOI collection permits books to be examined on a scale not possible using most library collections. The convenience of immediate access to personal copies cannot be overstated. Individual books can be easily examined, and books can be laid side by side for purposes of easy comparison. Using this simple technique, I discovered that there were virtually no two books in which the respective DOIs were exactly the same, except where the sheets were obviously printed from the same setting of type. Apparently, in these early times, publishers resorted to copying the text of the DOI from some other book, resulting in a copy of a copy of a copy, etc., thus propagating errors from one copy to the next. Some errors were so prevalent that they could be considered major variations, e.g., using the word "inalienable" in place of "unalienable" or using the phrase "institute a new government" in place of "institute new government."
On August 15th, 2006, a house fire nearly consumed my collection. Fire, water and smoke destroyed or damaged most of the house. But the collection, which was housed in book case along an outside wall, was luckily constructed with protective 6 mil plastic sheeting installed in the top of the case, which could be easily drawn down over the books, preventing any water or smoke damage. Due to the quick reacting firemen, the collection was spared. A few un-shelved books wound up in the water-soaked, charred rubble, but were retrieved. Some of these were washed, dried, and later rebound, while a few others that fared better were put in an ozone chamber in order to de-smoke them. Every effort was made to restore the collection to its original state.
In many respects, it seems unlikely that a collection of this sort would ever exist. The initial reason for collecting, the work to compile the 'want list', and the survival from fire, all seem improbable. Yet life is full of improbable events, and surprises. Take for example, the deaths of the last two surviving signers to the DOI, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Both ex-presidents died on July 4th, 1826, exactly 50 years, to the day, after the DOI had been adopted by Congress (July 4th, 1776).
(Stephen is currently working on a checklist of books that reprint the Declaration of Independence 1776-1825, developed from his 'list of 300', which he intends to make available to collectors and other interested parties.)
Start your own Declaration of Independence collection.