Unexpected Sources: Slave Cloth in the Richard Henry Lee Letters

By Mark Boonshoft
September 3, 2015
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Archival research is always surprising. No matter how much I think I know about a given set of archival sources, I am never quite sure what I will find. Over the last decade, databases have made it increasingly easy for research to mine printed books, newspapers, and even transcribed manuscript sources through keyword searches. This has made research easier and more efficient. But the better databases get, the more often researchers find exactly what they are looking for, which means sources surprise them less frequently. In an odd way, then, the easier it is to find sources, the more we might miss. The rise of databases has made archival research all the more important for challenging historians’ assumptions and working hypotheses.

Richard Henry Lee Portrait. Image ID: 1553467

One of the most surprising letters I have recently come across is held in a small group of Richard Henry Lee correspondence. The Virginian is probably most famous for introducing the resolution on June 7, 1776 “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown,” which the Continental Congress officially adopted on July 2nd. Lee continued to serve in Congress during much of the Revolutionary War and again during the 1780s. In 1787, he was elected to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, but he declined the appointment and became an outspoken Anti-Federalist. Though he opposed the new Constitution, when it went into operation in 1789 Lee served as a United States senator.

That June, Lee wrote a letter to his son-in-law and cousin, Charles Lee. Most of the letter is about senatorial machinations over a bill regulating customs duties and creating the various offices—“Collectors, Controllers, naval officers, surveyors”—to enforce them. The Constitution had created a skeleton of the national government, but the first Congress still needed to establish executive departments—Treasury, State, and War—and a judicial system. Charles Lee wanted one of these new jobs. Having spoken to President Washington about the bill, Richard Henry Lee assured his son-in-law that “it seems probably your wishes for any one of them will be gratified.” It was somewhat surprising to find Lee so readily trying to garner patronage appointments so soon after his opposing the Constitution, without which these offices would not have existed. We sometimes imagine the whole revolutionary period appears as an extended constitutional crisis, when statesmen debated philosophical principles about government. The letter is a good reminder that the founders were, at a basic level, all politicians, and the Constitution created a bevy of new opportunities to hand out patronage.

But the letter gets interesting near its end. Turning away from politics, Lee wrote that “I find here [Philadelphia], linens for shirting negroes, of two kinds; & much cheaper than any thing of the kind in Virg[inia].” One option was brown linen made in Connecticut. The “best bargain,” though, was “thick strong white German linen.” He “got 250 yds of it for my people.”

Richard Henry Lee to Charles Lee, Jun 7, 1789. Image ID: 5247933

It is no secret that the North played a major role in the broader slave economy. Yet historians have only recently begun to systematically demonstrate the degree to which the entire American economy revolved around slavery. As they have, slavery has appeared less like the South’s peculiar institution, than the nation’s foundational institution. Northern factories not only turned southern cotton into finished goods, they also made the clothes and shoes slaves wore, and many of the tools they used on plantations. Slave labor and capital from the slave economy even undergirded the rise of elite northern universities. Slavery’s economic influence was felt everywhere.

On its own, this letter does not tell us much that we did not already know. That said, it is a bit jarring given when and where it was written: Lee headed north to the nation’s capital as part of a grand experiment in republican self-government, and in the process created new connections that made his plantation more efficient and profitable. Certainly some collections document the slave economy in detail, but many others, like Lee’s letter, contain only passing references. Most of these passing references are not findable through keyword searches in the online catalog. No amount of digitization will change that. There are simply too many collections and too many pieces of paper to even conceive of describing the Library’s holdings at the item level.

Digitization will, however, make these sources more widely available and aid historians in reconstructing some long hidden sinews of the slave economy. Evidence, like this letter, about the interregional connections fostered by slavery is probably strewn throughout the NYPL’s early American manuscript collections. Historians who were not looking for evidence on this topic will undoubtedly find it anyway. In turn, these references will illuminate the relevance of the inter-regional slave economy to other issues that otherwise might have remained disconnected.

The best history reveals paradoxes. It unearths counterintuitive patterns. Unexpected sources should continue to drive historical writing. And so historical research needs to retain its ability to surprise researchers. As text-searchable printed sources continue to proliferate, the temptation will grow to forego more cumbersome archival work, and the travel that often comes with it. Digitized manuscript sources preserve the air of mystery and uncertainty that is central to archival research, but allow researchers to experience it in their bedroom, their office, or their local coffee shop. In the end, perhaps the perceived weaknesses of manuscript digitization—that it just beams sources out into cyberspace—are actually its strengths.

About the Early American Manuscripts Project

With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present on-line for the first time high quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Drawing on the full breadth of the Library’s manuscript collections, it will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at the Library, will be made freely available through nypl.org.