William Buell Sprague and the Trouble with Antiquarianism in the Early U.S.

“I have not heard from you for a long time. I fear you are buried under an avalanche of autographs.”
 -Jared Sparks to William Buell Sprague (1845)[1]

William Buell Sprague, 1834

In 1834, the American Antiquarian Society’s tireless librarian, Christopher Columbus Baldwin (1800-1835), exhaled that he was “heartily glad [William Buell Sprague] has left New England.” A Presbyterian minister in Albany, New York, Sprague (1795-1877) had swept through Connecticut snatching up the choicest historical documents in the region. These included “several bundles of manuscripts” left by Samuel Huntington (1731-1795), a revolutionary who signed the Declaration of Independence and later governed Connecticut. “I fear he has taken the meat and left me the shell,” Baldwin lamented, “for he has so much fury about him in collecting autographs that he would carry off everything that had a name attached to it.”[2] Those documents, Baldwin and his institution believed, belonged on their library’s shelves, rather than in the shifty hands of an individual.

For two decades, members of the American Antiquarian Society had hoped to preserve the documents, artifacts, and information essential for the study of American history, spanning from the architectural ruins of Indigenous civilization through the most recent laws passed by state legislatures. More than any other antebellum historical society, the AAS envisioned itself as a “National Depository” for this story.[3] Emulating European antiquarian societies, it sought both private sponsors and government patronage. But it was markedly American in casting this as a civic mission that its network of collectors, “residing in various sections of this vast continent,” had a responsibility to perform.[4]  Members would ferry historical papers toward a centralized library and museum in Worcester–“a handsome, commodious, and substantial building,” where the scattered, vulnerable historical materials held by countless individuals could be secured in one place.[5]

As Baldwin worked to “entice” materials into the physical space of this depository, the AAS imagined historians inscribing these records within the narrative of American history. Upon the dedication of their Antiquarian Hall in 1820, the orator mused that, “while we behold around [its] walls the relicks of ancient greatness, the memorials of past ages, as well as the germs of future glory, let us be deeply impressed with a proper sense of our obligation to transmit this, and all our Institutions, as a magnificent legacy unimpaired to the remotest posterity.”[6] Such language echoed in historical societies throughout the antebellum. But in contrast with this image of records physically safeguarded and then rhetorically enshrined within the upward arc of American history, Sprague’s “fury” was troubling. Charming New England families into opening their doors, perusing neglected manuscripts in their garrets, stuffing papers under his cloak as he made off–as Baldwin imagined it– Sprague extracted precious materials from both that grand space and narrative for his own purposes.

Sprague was an antiquary, in particular a collector of autographs.  In the larger history of archives, museums, and other institutions of memory, the antiquary cuts an odd figure. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century European and American audiences snickered at antiquaries hungrily gathering natural specimens, artifacts, and papers.  Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel, The Antiquary, is the best-known caricature. Peering into Jonathan Oldenbuck’s study, set in late eighteenth-century Scotland, the reader gapes at a “wreck of ancient books and utensils,” a room “overflowed by the same mare magnum of miscellaneous trumpery, where it would have been as impossible to find any individual article as to put it to any use when discovered.”[7] Across the Atlantic, Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809) set his comic avatar Diedrich Knickerbocker to work rifling “among the family chests and lumber garrets of our respectable Dutch citizens.” Though the busy, bumbling Knickerbocker fashions himself as New York’s Edward Gibbon, he is revealed to be a poor historian, hoarding materials to tell a dubious history of the Dutch-American colony, New Netherland. His quarters, like Oldenbuck’s, are “always covered with scraps of paper and old mouldy books, laying about at sixes and sevens.”[8] Unlike Oldenbuck, he arranges and narrates this. But what emerges is a burlesque compilation of episodes in the short-lived Dutch-American colony. It could not contain “the germs of future glory”–to borrow a turn of phrase from the AAS –that bound the past and the present in one progressive story. In both the British or American case, a lone bachelor wanders through space, stockpiling historical materials that did not yield a meaningful narrative.

But it was often such unflagging collectors who gathered the materials that undergird the modern historical discipline. As the preeminent scholar of antiquarianism, Arnaldo Momigliano, has argued, the eighteenth-century antiquarian’s and historian’s interests and methods regularly aligned, and antiquarianism was essential to the emergence of  the historical discipline in the nineteenth century.[9] And if it seems difficult to extract an intelligible narrative from Oldenbuck’s messy office, Philippa Levine reminds us that the “historical communities” of antiquarians, archaeologists, and historians in Victorian Britain were united by “a strong sense of national duty and of national pride, reveling in the bygone feats of their country.”[10] In other words, we can see that rampant antiquarian collecting in this period, however ridiculous, was often bound up with the crafting of a nation-state’s unifying historical narrative, however serious.

From the vantage point of many nineteenth-century Americans, Sprague nonetheless remained peculiar. Taking this prodigious autograph collector as a case study of American antiquarianism, this short essay asks why his decades-long collection of tens of thousands of original manuscripts irked such contemporaries as Baldwin and Jared Sparks.[11] An autograph collection, to use a contemporary classification, was “a mass of manuscripts from the pens of great personages characteristic of them, and illustrative, to a greater or less extent, of their modes of thought and graces of style.”[12] By this definition, a writer’s literal autograph was a synecdoche for the full manuscript it was traced upon, and that manuscript in turn was a metonymy for the mind and character of the individual who produced it. But, as Baldwin suggested above, the trouble with Sprague’s autograph collection was that this masses of papers might fail to coalesce into a larger story. Indeed, the hoarding of papers in private collections might only detract from the narratives that historical societies such as the AAS intended. Contemporaries drew a line between how they perceived Sprague’s collection and what they wanted from the American historical record writ large. Looking more closely at that line can show us the assumptions that nineteenth-century Americans made about what the nation’s historical repositories–which we have inherited–were supposed to do.

Over four decades, Sprague collected perhaps 40,000 autographic “specimens”[13]  In addition to his own travels throughout New England, he cultivated a network of fellow collectors in the U.S. and western Europe to build this personal collection. As a young pastor in the 1820s, he struck up a transatlantic epistolary exchange with the Reverend Thomas Raffles, the most notable English autograph collector of the time. This began as an exchange of religious pamphlets between fellow Congregationalist pastors. The tens of thousands that Sprague gradually compiled would be channeled into his major historical work, the nine-volume Annals of the American Pulpit (1857-1862). Consuming 15 years’ of labor, these biographical accounts of ministers were arranged in mammoth tomes, separated by denomination, each ordered chronologically.

But Sprague’s early theological exchange with Raffles soon lapsed into a demand for the wider field of autographs. To speak of such collecting as a “mania”, “fury”, or “craze” (as familiar then as now) suggests that it is a pathology, perhaps contagious.[14] By the late 1820s, Sprague admitted to having become “quite an enthusiast in the business of collecting autographs,” terms that implied excess: of either religious fervor or financial speculation, two metaphors that would have resonated in the 1820s U.S.[15] Whatever it was, it dilated. From Raffles he requested European poets, statesmen, bishops and clergymen, historians—truly, any distinguished person enticed him. In turn, the Englishman sought America’s colonial clergy, its Revolutionary leaders, the presidents of its colleges. These men corresponded through the 1830s and 1840s, Sprague hectoring the Englishman when he delayed shipments.

As Sprague emerged as a nationally respected preacher, he situated himself at the center of an epistolary network of historical collectors who traded autographs constantly with one another. He exchanged lists of “desiderata” with his more avid correspondents, who shared their own must-have lists with him. Writing in the summer of 1845 to Eliza Allen, he offered one of Joseph Hewes, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from North Carolina. “If you have already a specimen of this I will ask you to retain it,” he explained, “as I have two or three other friends who are very desirous of obtaining it, but I much prefer you should have it, unless you are already supplied.” [emphasis added][16]

What did this collegial, papery mania–alongside his God the most abiding commitment of his life–mean to Sprague? The brief exchange above with Allen used the metaphors of both science and commerce: autographs as specimens; autographs as products. They served too as a sort of reliable commodity, a uniform currency in a period of rampant financial speculation and recurrent economic crashes, mediating among individuals across state and national boundaries. This seems in contrast to the fascinating analysis of contemporary American handwriting by Tamara Plakins Thornton, who argues that in this period, “Romantic readers of handwriting… seized up the script as a whole, then provided a pithy but sweeping characterization of the writer in question…less an analysis of handwriting than an intuitive apprehension of the essence of another human being…an intimate rendez-vous of one soul with another.”[17] This was demonstrably true of some enthusiasts of chirography, such as Edgar Allen Poe, who published and commented on notable figures’ handwriting in this period.

In contrast to Poe, though, it seems that Sprague did not see signatures as a portal to peer into souls. Sprague, like other avid collectors, left little written reflection on his own internal life. Tellingly, for an epic compiler of paper, he kept no lasting personal records, and his letters were never collected in one place and are now scattered between archives. With his death Sprague’s vast collection went to auction–a literal market at the far end of an arc from the informal economy he had manipulated to build it. Though Sprague’s explicit comments on the nature of autographs is sparse, for a man obsessed with these documents, he had nothing to say about their physical features. He cared about the historical association of the author and the context in which he (almost always he) produced it. But the autograph’s particular aesthetic features did not engage him. It seems that to Sprague a given autograph was indeed as a specimen or commodity: interchangeable rather than containing distinctive meaning, requiring deeper analysis, or revealing a larger story in itself.

It was the comprehensive ownership of autographs within a given category–the signers of canonical American documents or German professors in Gottingen–that moved him, rather than close observation of any one. He simply wanted them all. While antebellum historical societies clearly defined their collecting interests within the boundaries of their state or the nation, Sprague’s collection grew, encompassing far more than America and Americans. Now held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, one of Sprague’s hefty indexes of foreign autographs shows this cosmopolitan compendium. It organizes thousands of from British, French, German, and other sundry Europeans, Latin Americans, a smattering of “Asiatics”, and a few Africans.[18]  Many are compiled by alphabetical “class”: British Admirals follow Authors, Judges precede Ladies of the Nobility, Sculptors and Secretaries to the Nobility are ranged one on top of the next.

This acquisitive autographic gaze epitomized by Sprague was in sharp contrast with the collecting practices adopted by historical societies and leading collectors throughout the U.S. in these years. A prime example is Jared Sparks (1789-1866). Throughout the last four decades of his life, Sparks labored to gather a comprehensive record of George Washington’s writings, the American Revolution he led, and the Atlantic diplomatic context in which it triumphed. He saw this as a national record, which would be published by the federal government, serving the nation, and ultimately preserved in the national capitol.

Sprague and Sparks made first acquaintance as religious rivals of sorts in the 1820s: Sprague emerging as a leading Congregationalist pastor in West Springfield and then Presbyterian leader in Albany, Sparks at the vanguard Unitarianism in Baltimore, before he abandoned the pulpit. “The most active and powerful of all the Unitarians in this country, at the present time,” Sprague commiserated with Raffles in 1822, “probably is Mr. Sparks of Baltimore. Have no doubt on the whole that this heresy is increasing among us.”[19] But their early theological debates on the merits of Unitarianism shifted to their shared obsessions with collecting original manuscripts: Sparks, the writings of Washington and a range of other Revolutionary figures; Sprague, a far wider temporal and geographic ambit of autographs.

Sparks found Sprague’s collecting habits weird, but valuable. “But go on, thou pamphleteer,” Sparks wrote him, “and astonish the world with the novelty, as well as the extent of thy labor.”[20] Sprague helped Sparks obtain original letters that made their way into his own publications; in return Sparks offered autographs of French nobles, “scraps of Franklin”, “Lafayette a plenty.”[21] The two men played the collecting game for different stakes: Sparks was constructing a political and military collection that would enable historians to tell the nation’s unifying revolutionary story; Sprague was making an Atlantic corpus of distinguished nationals, without clear chronology or narrative bounds.

This could strain Sparks’s patience. In 1832 he exclaimed to Sprague, “You autograph maniacs are the most ravenous animals, that I have ever heard of, not excepting sharks and alligators…you are all-devouring. Old papers, the scorn of moths and mice, seem to be your most precious morsel. But I will help you as much as I can.”[22] This specter of decay or destruction was a familiar call to action, and few historical society publications or lectures on history omitted these tropes.  Sparks himself used them to win access to forgotten family records throughout the U.S. But here, Sparks inverts those metaphors, making Sprague the natural predator of manuscripts, rather than their preserver. Although Sparks endorsed Sprague’s collection of autographs of Revolutionary leaders, he worried that by detaching these papers from their rightful place in a historical society for his own private collection, Sprague consumed rather than preserved them. Although Sprague donated over the years to archives, he was as likely to disassemble as contribute to the sort of historical record that Sparks and the Historical Societies desired. Years later as Sparks completed his mammoth project to publish the writings of Washington, Sprague managed to pick through those papers for more autographs of Washington before they were transmitted to the State Department to be archived.[23]

Over the years, Sparks hoped to channel Sprague’s collecting energies toward clearer historiographical ends. Sprague’s interests sprawled far beyond the Revolutionary period to which Sparks devoted decades of study. But Sparks convinced Sprague about the importance of gathering a comprehensive autograph collection around crucial events from the Revolution and founding. For instance, in 1831 Sparks explained how and why Sprague should seek out an autograph of Button Gwinnett, the lone signer of the Declaration of Independence that Sprague’s collection of signers lacked at that point. “This is a matter of great importance, since no other name remains to make your set complete,” he emphasized. After that, Sparks dictated, Sprague could move forward through the national narrative to the signers of the Articles of Confederation and of the Constitution.[24] When a decade later Sprague considered publishing the revolutionary and early national portion of his autographs, Sparks eagerly mused about possible orderings, whether by type of individual, or alphabetically, or by date. These must include the signers of the Constitution, as well as colonial governors and governors during the Revolution, all generals and a selection of lower and some foreign officers, perhaps accompanied by short biographies.[25] No such work appeared.

Through Raffles, Sparks, and an array of other correspondents, Sprague built an unprecedented personal collection of autographs. But in neither donating them nor crafting them into a narrative account, he went off script in a sense. The antebellum collectors and writers most influential in compiling, writing, and announcing a narrative of American history depicted it as the progressive unfurling of a divine plan, a narrative encompassed in George Bancroft’s monolithic History of the United States (1834-1874), for instance. But this belief in the providential story of American history was also the very essence of every historical society founded in the first half of the century. So too was the insistence that citizens had a responsibility to preserve the documentary record that testified to this history. To draw an example from one of the many historical societies at which Sprague was chosen an honorary member, the Connecticut Historical Society announced at its inaugural address in 1839 that,

There is not a nation on earth that has existed two hundred years, the sources of whose history are more abundant and authentic than those of our own. Its origin was not in a barbarous age; its first settlers were not savage and ignorant men; the monuments of their liberties were not merely traditions and customs. The very foundations of our civil polity and the framework of the superstructure rest on enduring records.[26]

Desired records, the Society prompted its members, should document the early settlement of the region, including orations and sermons that marked the colony’s major events; members could contribute information on the treaties with Indians transferring these lands and missionary accounts of the efforts to civilize them; topographical surveys would show the state’s natural wealth, and data on commerce, manufacturing, and agriculture demonstrate their ability to use it.

Against such a scripted use of historical materials, the autograph collector appeared an eccentric figure. “Few pursuits of elegant leisure to which men are addicted,” the Southern Literary Messenger noted in 1856, “are regarded with so little sympathy by mankind at large as the collection of autographs, and none are followed by their votaries with a keener interest and more passionate ardor.[27] Despite this bias, in Sprague’s later life and afterlife, critics tended to redeem his expansive collection by zooming in one portion of it. One apologist for Sprague’s “autographomania” pointed out in 1869 that, “all honor and gratitude are due him for his enterprise in rescuing” colonial and revolutionary documents, “molding in old family attics and cellars.” However, it admitted, “it would be preposterous to particularize among his countless treasures. Renowned names of four centuries are represented,” which cut across national, denominational, political, and chronological lines.[28] Beyond his death, however, Sprague’s autograph collection was increasingly recognized for documenting the master narrative of the nation’s revolution and founding. When Sprague died in 1877, he was still remembered with a blend of bemusement at his catholic collecting practices and selective reverence for the small portion of his autographs touching the nation’s revolution and founding. “The reverend Doctor seems to have had quite an amiable craze for original letters from great, good, infamous, notorious, or popular men,” the New York Times grinned. “His collection is therefore eminently miscellaneous in its character, although it includes a great many valuable historical documents, which have never been given to the public.”[29] This obituary emphasized that his autographs’ value derived “more so from the light they throw upon the history of the great struggle.”  These included a full list of the 105 generals from the Revolution; two complete sets of Declaration of Independence signers; autographs from all members of the Constitutional Convention, as well as all the presidents and vice-presidents, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, and ministers from Washington’s through John Quincy Adams’s administrations.

More meta still, in 1889, the century’s seminal manuscript collector of the American West, Lyman Draper, emphasized this component of Sprague’s much larger collection when he published a history of complete autograph sets of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Draper had just completed his own set and wished to place it within “the slow but steady growth in this country, of this beautiful and inspiring employment.” Though he hoped to make “a just comparison of [these sets’] relative strength, historic importance, and intrinsic value,”  he admitted that any archival project to gather the signers’ autographs was an emotional and psychic experience, too. “In examining any array of autographs of the Fathers of the Revolution, one cannot but feel in his heart a kindling of patriotism, and cherish a sense of sympathy, as though he lived and shared with those noble patriots in their trials and sufferings, hopes and fears…”[30] Sprague, Draper believed, was the first American to attempt this, which he would complete three times over, several dozen leaves of paper among his estimated 40,000 “specimens.”[31] These documentary eulogies echoed Sparks’s attempts during Sprague’s life to fashion his collection into a comprehensible and indelible project, sustaining a triumphant narrative of the nation-state that should also trigger a certain emotional bond between living and departed.

Sprague did not repudiate his contemporaries’ confidence that American history–and its Revolution in particular–was aligned with providence. Yet, his cosmopolitan collecting habits may have reflected a personal historical consciousness that simply encompassed more than America’s special trajectory. This is not to argue that in Sprague’s vast and diverse autograph collection he transcended his devotion to his nation-state. Though he collected European authors and royalty, he of course worked diligently to encompass the American Revolution, Constitution, and formative national period in his search. But during his life he remained somewhat outside the social world of historical societies and their repositories, not conforming to the accepted patterns of collection, compilation, and publication that antiquarians and historians such as Baldwin, Sparks, or the Connecticut Historical Society advocated. In their context–and perhaps from our own vantage point–Sprague’s desire to seek and keep the autograph of a famous European author, for instance, might seem quaint. Whereas, a donation of a document to a historical society–perhaps of a genealogical record of a town’s early settlers, traces of Indian negotiations, or an account of a state’s agricultural yield–would appear as civic engagement with an institution of learning, and not quaint. But it might also cast into relief some of the ideological and narrative biases at work in the construction U.S. archives, which in their claims to comprehensively gather America’s past, often imposed notions of what that story was.


Warm thanks to Houghton Library for their generous support of this research, and to Brendan Mackie for his thoughtful readings of this essay.

Derek Kane O’Leary is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at UC Berkeley, where he is the 2019-2020 AHA Career Diversity Fellow.



[1] Jared Sparks to William Buell Sprague, 6 February 1845, MS Sparks 147a, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[2] Diary of Christopher Columbus Baldwin (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1901), 297-8.

[3] “Of the Committee, chosen by the Government of the Americas’ Antiquarian Society, to exhibit an Account of the PROGRESS and PRESENT STATE of the Institution, at the Annual Meeting in Boston,” 23 October 1819, in Archaeologia Americana (Worcester, MA, 1820), 47-48.

[4] “Abstract of an Address to the Members of the American Antiquarian Society,” in Archaeologia Americana, 43.

[5] “Of the Committee, chosen by the Government of the Americas’ Antiquarian Society, to exhibit an Account of the PROGRESS and PRESENT STATE of the Institution, at the Annual Meeting in Boston,” 23 October 1819, in Archaeologia Americana (Worcester, MA, 1820), 47-48.

[6] Isaac Goodwin, An Address delivered at Worcester, August 24, 1820, before the American Antiquarian Society, at the opening of the Antiquarian Hall (Worcester, MA 1820), 17-18.

[7] Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1898 reprint), 21.

[8] Washington Irving, A History of New York, By Diedrich Knickerbocker (London, 1836 reprint), xvi; x.

[9] Arnaldo Momigliano, “Ancient History and the Antiquarian,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 13, no. 3/4 (1950): 285-315.

[10] Philippa Levine, The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquities, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England, 1838-1886 (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 4.

[11] John M. Mulder and Isabelle Stouffer, “William Buell Sprague: Patriarch of American Collectors,” American Presbyterians 64, no. 1 (Spring, 1986): 1-17, is the most reliable discussion of Sprague’s life. They place his collection as high as 100,000 pieces.

[12] “Pickings of a Portfolio of Autographs.”

[13] Lyman Draper, An Essay on the Collections of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution, vol. X of Wisconsin Historical Society Collections (New York, 1889), 15.

[14] Werner Muensterberger, Collecting: An Unruly Passion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014) is an extended recent example of this bias to pathologize the collector, which ironically turns the collector of curiosities into a curiosity.

[15] William Buell Sprague to Thomas Raffles, 15 October 1828, Joseph E. Field collection of letters by autograph collectors, MS Am 1630, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[16] William Buell Sprague to Eliza Allen, 18 July 1845, Joseph E. Field collection of letters by autograph collectors, MS Am 1630, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[17] Tamara Plakins Thornton, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 81.

[18] “Catalogue of Autographs in Possession of WB Sprague,” Collection 623, Sprague Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.

[19] Sprague to Raffles, 3 June 1822.

[20] Sparks to Sprague, 26 October 1826, MS Sparks 147a.

[21] Sparks to Sprague, 18 March 1838, MS Sparks 147.

[22] Sparks to Sprague, 15 April 1832, MS Sparks, 147a.

[23] Sparks to Forsyth, 13 January 1839, MS Sparks 147g. Charles Moore, A Biographical Sketch of the Rev. William Buell Sprague (New York, 1877), 5

[24] Sparks to Sprague, 25 July 1831, MS Sparks 147a.

[25] Sparks to Sprague, 4 October 1841.

[26] The Charter of Incorporation and By-Laws of the Connecticut Historical Society (Hartford, 1839), 3.

[27] “Pickings from a Portfolio of Autographs,” Southern Literary Messenger, 18 November 1856, Proquest American Periodicals.

[28] “Autographomania,” Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine October 1869, Proquest American Periodicals.

[29] New York Times, 24 September 1873, Proquest American Periodicals.

[30] Draper, An Essay on the Collections of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution, 3.

[31] Ibid., 15.

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