U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A New Intellectual History Exhibit At Stanford University

On February 7, the Green Library at Stanford University opened an exhibit on the American Enlightenment. An online version of the exhibit is available, and here is a short story on the exhibit’s conception and creation. Below is the library’s press release on the event.


On February 7th, 2011 a new exhibit of rare books and art will go on display in the Green Library at Stanford. “The American Enlightenment: Treasures from the Stanford University Libraries” features books from a collection that have never been viewed by the public.

The exhibit features over 40 books and paintings from Stanford’s collections relating to the founding era of American history in the 18th century. Many books are unique “association copies”; books owned and signed by famous Americans.

For example, we have the only known book to bear the signatures of both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Many of the works also contain fascinating marginalia, comments written in the margins by some very noteworthy readers.

This exhibit is especially noteworthy because it helps to illustrate how Stanford is emerging as a top-tier institution for studying early American history as our holdings of important works from this period begin to rival collections at peer universities on the east coast. It may seem incongruous, but scholars of American history are traveling west to study the nation’s east coast roots.

The Enlightenment, the age of intellectual inquiry and discovery that stretched from roughly 1680 to 1820, drew fundamentally from the European colonization of the Americas. This exhibition tells the story of how New World discoveries and ideas contributed to the Enlightenment and illustrates the transatlantic debates over issues of government, science, religion, and individual rights that shaped it. The exhibit will be on display through May 15, 2011.

American Enlightenment Exhibit Highlights:

* The only known book to have been signed both by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost)

* Two books signed by John Hancock when he was still developing his flamboyant and now famous personal signature

* Nicholas Biddle’s account of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s History of the Expedition . . . to the Sources of the Missouri (1814) which contains the celebrated map drawn by Clark that provided the first accurate depiction of the sources of the Columbia and Missouri rivers

* A rare example of a book that illustrates “Egyptomania” in early America

* A vermin-chewed copy of a republican tract read by the major American revolutionary Henry Laurens while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London on suspicion of high treason

* Two of the most famous written entries about the slavery debate

* An anthology of British play extracts that belonged to the Boston slave and poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784), the first African-American poet to be published

* An unpublished letter penned by Benjamin Franklin to Scottish immigrant physician John Lining on their mutual interest in how the human body makes heat

* A well-worn copy of Webster’s American Spelling Book, which helped to standardize spellings of distinctly New World, native place names, such as Kentucky and Catawba

* One of the most magnificent color books about New World animals and plants, Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands

* Two copies of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776), from the original year of publication. One was published in Philadelphia, the other in London, where it was partially censored by the Crown and so is missing critical chunks that defame the king, “the royal brute of Britain.”

High resolution images of many of the exhibit items are available.


Contact Corrie Goldman (corrieg-at-stanford dot edu) or Christina Farr (cfarr-at-stanford dot edu) if you have any questions. – TL