Lately I have been assigned to the exciting task of carefully vacuuming books and wiping the shelves clean in the Chilson collection. It is a task that would be boring if there weren’t so many interesting books on every shelf. I’ve been working my way through beautifully illustrated Native American children’s books, histories of Wounded Knee, and books about Scandinavian heritage. One particular two-volume set of books caught my eye, however. They turned out to be Sir William Russell’s books about America’s beginnings from 1778, titled The History of America, from the first Discovery by Columbus to the Conclusion of the late War. A history of America published before America had even created its final constitution? I was intrigued.
Unfortunately, finding information about the two-volume set was difficult. What I did discover was that Sir William Russell was born in 1741 at a farm in Selkirkshire to Alexander Russell and Christian Ballantyne. He first enjoyed literary success with The History of America, from the first Discovery by Columbus to the Conclusion of the late War and went on to write a history of Europe, poetry, and essays. Before this, he had been apprenticed to a printer and worked off-and-on in various printing companies until his writing career took off. He died on December 25, 1793 from paralysis.
Here is an excerpt from the preface:
“At this crisis, when new republics are forming, and new empires bursting into birth, the History of America becomes peculiarly interesting. We are naturally led to inquire, by what train of circumstances settlements so lately founded have arrived at such a degree of wealth and power as to attempt new establishments, in defiance of the arms of a great nation. Nor will the issue of the present struggle, between Great Britain and her colonies, should it ever prove in favour of the parent state, entirely subvert the order of things: it will only retard, for a few years, events that would now have taken place, unless the spirit of independency should be finally extinguished. By the assistance of foreign troops, we may possibly be able to subdue our refractory fellow subjects; but we must be able to inspire them with new sentiments, before we can hold them in subjection. The termination, however, of this contest, the most unhappy in which England ever was engaged, will mark an important era in the history of Europe, as well as of America.”
What most interested me were the lovely etchings every few dozen pages. A few of them were a sharp contrast from the proud images of Native Americans that I had been browsing through before. Here are a few examples:
You can find the full text here, complete with the above etchings, digitized by the University of Pittsburgh:
Source I used for information about Sir William Russell:
“William Russell.” Russell, William (1741-1793). 49. London: MacMillan and Co, 1885. Web. 5 Dec 2011. <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Russell,_William_(1741-1793)_(DNB00)>.