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Vol. LXIII, No. 34
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
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Born in a Bookseller’s Dusty Window: Lapidus Collection on View at Firestone

Ellen Gilbert

“My first antiquarian book was purchased in London in the summer of 1959,” writes Sidney Lapidus, Princeton ’59, in the catalog accompanying Firestone Library’s exhibition, “Liberty and the American Revolution,” based on his remarkable collection of artifacts from that era.

“I had just graduated from Princeton as an American history major,” he continues, “and I was absentmindedly scanning a bookseller’s dusty window. I noticed a small book, a 1792 edition of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. The price? About the equivalent of $5. How could I not buy it? My book collecting career had started.”

Mr. Lapidus’s collection has since grown to include some 2,500 items, most of them published before 1800. The exhibition, which runs through January 3, 2010, in Firestone’s main gallery, features 157 important books, pamphlets, and prints representing the collection’s major themes: the American Revolution and its intellectual origins; the early years of the republic; the spread of democratic ideas; and the impact of the slave trade in both Great Britain and the United States.

The books, pamphlets, and prints were presented as gifts to the library on the occasion of the exhibition, which also marks the 50th reunion of Mr. Lapidus’s class.

In his introductory essay to the 200-page catalog for the exhibition, Princeton History Professor Sean Wilentz asks about “the boundaries of American liberty. The question is no less pressing at the opening of the 21st century than it was during the Federal convention in Philadelphia in 1787.”

Mr. Wilentz suggests that each generation must figure out the answer for themselves, while “the contagion of liberty,” a phrase coined by historian Bernard Bailyn to describe the American Revolution, continues.

The books, maps, portraits, and other artifacts in the exhibit are by no means limited to products of the Revolutionary era. Precursors that helped foment the ideas that led to the Revolution, like a copy of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, published in London in 1651, are there, along with a French copy of Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Law), published anonymously in 1748. Among the more curious editions is English dissenter Henry Jessey’s A Narrative of the Late Proceeds at White-Hall Concerning the Jews, which argues that a re-gathering of the diasporic Jews was conditional for the occurrence of the millennium.

Among the more unique objects in this exhibit, which was curated by Assistant University Librarian for Rare Books and Special Collections and Curator of Rare Books Stephen Ferguson, is a handwritten ledger book documenting payments — or the lack thereof — to the British government; it was, suggests the description, “evidently compiled for official use in London in connection with ministerial discussions concerning the difficulties regarding the Stamp Act.”

Also on display is a copy of Poems on Various Subjects by Phyllis Wheatley, the first book of poems by a woman of African descent to be published in English. The poet enjoyed an audience with George Washington in March of 1776 as a result of one of the poems.

Among the visual images in the exhibit, an illustrated Description of a Slave Ship from 1789 is a chilling reminder of the harrowing conditions under which slaves were transported from Africa.

Gallery hours for “Liberty and the American Revolution” are available at, or by calling (609) 258-3184.

For notes on exhibition items and quotations from them see

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