Last week I wandered into a used bookstore and peered into the glass case containing the rare books. The case included several first editions of twentieth century works; I recall seeing a faded copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which I read with some interest back in college. There were also two very old-looking items that caught my eye. One was a German-language volume with a price tag of $1,000 adoring its protective plastic cover. Achtung! The other one was much more reasonable, just a few dozen dollars, but if the description attached to it was to be believed, it seemed to be the most valuable item in the case.
The hand-sized work bore the title Histoire de Louis XIV, the first of two volumes. Published in 1749, one must assume—for the complete loss of my high school French prevents me from confirming this directly—that it describes King Louis XIV and his Grand Siècle just thirty-four years after his death. While the volume was something that would look nice on a bookshelf, it was the note written inside that made it a must-have.
This book from library
of Robt R Livingston, the
Chancellor of administered
oath of office to George
Washington when made
president of U.S.
Apart from the use of “of” as a conjunction, the note tells a compelling story. Assuming for the moment that people never write lies in books, the comment identifies Robert R. Livingston as the once owner of this very same item. Born in 1746—about the same time the book was being written—Livingston was America’s Minister to France during the early years of the nineteenth century (1801-1804). Even more significant, Livingston served as a member of the Committee of Five, the small group charged with writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Other committee members included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Roger Sherman. You might have heard of them.
Livingston spent more than two decades as the first Chancellor of New York, where he earned his lifelong nickname “The Chancellor.” He also served as America’s first Secretary of Foreign Affairs, an office that George Washington would later rename as “Secretary of State.” As Minister to France, Livingston negotiated the Louisiana Purchase on behalf of the Jefferson administration. Although I didn’t recall his name from my history courses, he was clearly numbered among the Founding Fathers, and he had in his personal library a book that I am now able to call my own!
I still need to do some research to confirm the provenance of the book. Someone named John Woods published, in 1800, a catalog of the items in Livingston’s personal library. Hopefully Woods mentions the book I purchased, although his list predates Livingston’s stint in France during its First Republic. It’s entirely possible that the used bookstore I visited perpetrated some elaborate ruse just to get this ancient boat anchor off their hands. But for now, I will put Histoire de Louis XIV in a place of honor in my book collection.