Not Waiting Like A Bed of Oysters: The American Historical Society

When the founders of the American Historical Society discussed their plans in 1791, writes Elisabeth Linscott, they determined ‘to seek and find, to preserve and communicate’, the precious records of their country’s past.

George Washington had been President for only a year when five men in Boston were brought together by the Reverend Jeremy Belknap to discuss the formation of the United States’ first Historical Society. Belknap believed that historical records, sermons and artefacts were of the utmost importance; and he came from New Hampshire, where he had worked for a quarter of a century on a history of that State.

Now he approached the Boston scene with a more dramatic project. He envisaged not simply the publication of a state history, but an attempt to assemble contemporary material, search out forgotten writings, establish a magazine, found what he called a ‘Cabinet’ of rare items, and enlist, say, thirty persons, who would hold regular meetings.

The fact that minutes of such meetings were kept and printed enables us to build up a picture of serious men, who, although they had other demanding pursuits, braved even cold winter nights to meet and carry on their work.

At a preliminary meeting, the chief discussion concerned ‘multiplying’ valuable items, lest the originals should be destroyed by fire, as had happened in the past. The earliest regular meeting, however, was held in Boston on January 24th, 1791. At first, membership was limited to thirty. James Sullivan was the first president; Belknap was secretary; and he then wrote to those whom his fellow-members thought would be interested:

We intend (he explained) to be an active not a passive literary body; not to lie waiting like a bed of oysters for the tide to flow in upon us, but to seek and find, to preserve and communicate, literary intelligence, especially in the historical way.

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