The Local History and Special Collections Department, located on the fourth floor of the downtown library, is a pretty special place. You can find all various materials to assist with historic research, house history research, and genealogy. There a lot of books on the shelves (this is a library after all!) but it’s the books that are not on the shelves that may surprise you. These belong to the Local History and Special Collections Department Rare Books Collection. Rare books are just that, rare. Due to age, historic importance, or small publication run, there just aren’t a lot of copies in existence. Even though these books are not available on our shelves you, the patron, can still access them in the library.
Recently, I was getting to know our rare book collection a little bit better when I came across a collection of abolitionist materials dating from the early to mid-nineteenth century.
There is an original publication of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case, a number of pamphlets detailing abolitionist speeches made to congress or from pulpits, and a book detailing the heroism of black soldiers during the American Revolution while also making a case for abolition. One of the most extraordinary texts is a short book written by physician Jesse Torrey in 1822 called The American Slave Trade or an Account of the Manner in which the Slave Dealers Take Free People from some of the United States of America, and Carry Them Away, and Sell them as Slaves in other States; and of the Horrible Cruelties Practised in the Carrying on of this Infamous Traffic.
Torrey was a supporter and campaigner for free public libraries and went on a tour of the South promoting the idea. He began his library tour by visiting the White House in 1814 where he saw first hand the brutality of slavery. There he saw how the slaves forced to rebuild the nation’s Capitol after the War of 1812 were treated. The irony of the abuse and enslavement of the people literally rebuilding a nation supposedly founded on freedom and the rights of every man was not lost on him. He criticized slave owners for behaving like power drunk European royalty, a damning observation in the young American republic.
He wrote, “Excess of power, like other unnatural stimulants, exerts a deleterious and an intoxicating influence upon the human mind, which but few possess the capacity and firmness to withstand.” While slave apologist were attempting to make the argument that slave owners were like stern fathers to their child-like slaves, Torrey likened the slave owners to the insane Roman Emperor Nero, so drunk on power over other human lives as to be brutal with no conscious or consequence.
His book carries five illustrations depicting African Americans running for their lives and escaping, or failing to escape, would be enslavers. He makes his case for the abolition of slavery using a Christian philosophy based on empathy, non-violence, and charity. Not only does he argue for abolition, he does history a great service by capturing the oral histories of people caught in a fight for human dignity, freedom, and survival in the face of overwhelming odds and a seemingly hopeless uphill battle.
If you’d like to view any of the materials mentioned in this post, or would like help with history research, please come up to the Local History and Special Collections Department on the fourth floor of the Main downtown branch of the Grand Rapids Public Library. There are many treasures waiting to be discovered.