A Colonial Bookshelf of 1761

 When thinking about William Dawson, his wife Frances, and their children (Joseph and William Jr., and Jonathan) this small personal library helps to reveal some of the thinking and discussions that probably occurred in their home. This list of books is from the estate inventory of William Dawson, Esquire, presented by his wife Frances Dawson to the Cumberland County Court during the August session of 1761. I am not an expert on personal libraries of the colonial period but these seven entries seem like a substantial collection for a family living on the frontier of North Carolina.

The first book was Sherlock’s Discourse on Death. The full title was A Practical Discourse Concerning Death by Dr. William Sherlock. The book was written in 1690 and according to a paper written by Walter B. Edgar on common books found in Southern Carolina libraries it was a fairly common volume found in a Colonial period library. The best way I found to describe the work is from a quote by Sherlock himself:

“I know no other Preparation for Death, but living well: And thus we must every Day prepare for Death, and then we shall be well prepared when Death comes; that is, we shall be able to give a good account of our lives, and of the Improvements of our Talents; and he who can do this, is well prepared to die.”

The next book listed was the Duty of Man. The full title of this book is The Whole Duty of Man, Laid Down in a Plain and Familiar Way by Richard Allestree. Again, according to Edgar’s work, this is one of the most popular books found in libraries in South Carolina. It was widely used in the education of children on the Colonial frontier and it rivaled even the Bible in popularity. I even found it mentioned by Benjamin Franklin in a letter he wrote to his wife:

“I hope she [Franklin’s daughter Sally] continues to love going to church, and would have her read over and over again the Whole Duty of Man…”

In an interesting note, when I was reading up on these books I happened upon a quote from the poet, historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay (1800 – 1859). He was discussing Sherlock’s Treatise on Death when he wrote:

“During many years, [Treatise on Death] stood next to The Whole Duty of Man in the bookcases of serious Arminians.”

This certainly suggests William Dawson had Arminian leanings if he wasn’t actively of that religious school of thought. Arminianism was a type of Baptist that opposed the predestination concepts of Calvinists. From what I have read the Arminian doctrine holds the individual is responsible for their own salvation. Some notable Colonial Arminians were: William Smith (father of Abigail Adams), Jonathan Mayhew, and Charles Chauncy.   There was a strong Arminiain movement in the Colonies prior to the Revolution and it appears that William Dawson may have been part of it.

Webb’s Virginia Justice was the next book. Written by George Webb, it was first published in the 1730’s and was a detailed manual on being a Justice of the Peace. As William Dawson served as a Cumberland County Justice it is not surprising that this was in his collection.

The next book was only listed as a “Testament” and it was probably a New Testament printed in England as these weren’t printed in the Colonies until 1782. As he appears to have been actively interested in religious thinking it is not surprising he had this in his collection.

A Psalter, or book of Psalms, was also listed. Edgar’s work mentioned that this was a common book in Colonial libraries in the south so like the Testament it is not surprising this was in his collection.

At this point in the inventory there is a fraying of the paper so that the quantities of items below the previous entry were lost. This is unfortunate as the next item listed was only recorded as “Spelling Books”. There were certainly more than one but there is no way to know how many of these the Dawson family actually owned. I would guess though that it may have meant he had several of these spelling books. This leads me to think that William Dawson may have acted as a schoolmaster of sorts in his community. This is just speculation on my part as he was never listed as such on any documents.

The last book is simply listed as an “Old Bible”.  Of William’s books this is the one I would certainly love to see as it may have contained notes about the early history of his family. It is impossible to know if this Bible was lucky enough to have survived the last few hundred years and even if it did, where it ultimately ended up. The fact that he had both this book and a new testament suggests this “Old Bible” was not for everyday use. In all likelihood it was something of significance to him and may have been passed down from his father Geoffrey.

Taken as a whole, William Dawson seems to have been a fairly progressive thinker. It also seems that he took his duties seriously as he kept books that corresponded to his roles as a Justice, Vestryman and perhaps that of a school teacher as well. I feel extremely fortunate that this document survived and that I had even this small window into what he may have thought and believed.



Filed under Dawson, Historical Notes

3 responses to “A Colonial Bookshelf of 1761

  1. i have done a dna on this dawson family but so far haven’t got much on the dawsons-I am from joseph dawson and elizabeth kimball–I also have jerry’s book on the dawsons-if you wanta copy let me know-have you found a copy of joseph w dawsonjs manscript?-

    • Dev

      I sent you an email earlier today and I would love to see the Jerry Dawson book. I still haven’t done a DNA test but hope to sometime this year. Thanks for your message!

      • Dev

        I should also mentinio here that I have never seen the Jerry Dawson book before, although I have heard of it. I’m very curious to see what it covers.

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