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Van Ness, William Peter (1778-1826), 1819 April 21
Collection Description & Creator Information
This collection represents the American history-related collecting activities of Andre De Coppet (Princeton Class of 1915), one of the foremost American collectors of his generation. Ranging in period from the Spanish colonization of Florida (1566) to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first term, the collection is comprised of letters, documents, manuscripts, and printed materials from hundreds of important American historical figures. Though it spans centuries, the collection has three major foci in American history: the Revolutionary War, the Federal Period, and the Civil War. Most prominently represented are the presidents of the United States, including all from Washington through Truman. The amount of material affiliated with each individual or subject varies widely, though there are a number significant larger groups:
A group of letters and documents written by George Washington (1732-1799) spans his entire adult life and includes over 150 items. The earliest items are Virginia land surveys conducted in the 1750s. The bulk of the material dates from the years of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Many of the letters detail the countless important decisions Washington was forced to make as commander of America's revolutionary forces, from issues of staffing and rank to how to adequately provision soldiers with clothing and food. Also included are letters and documents from Washington's time as president, including two and a half pages of an undelivered inaugural address, and letters debating the extent of constitutional and congressional powers.
The collection includes an equally rich group of personal and professional correspondence from Washington's trusted general Nathanael Greene (1742-1786). The Greene correspondence, dating from 1775-1785, is primarily focused on his service in the Revolutionary War, from the difficulties he experienced as quartermaster general to his appointment as commander of the Southern Army. His letters to Washington and other army officers communicate troop locations and various successes and failures of the war. In addition, they highlight the difficult conditions experienced by many Continental soldiers who lacked appropriate shoes, clothing, and food. Personal correspondence between Nathanael and his wife, brothers, and cousin reveal the family's investment in multiple privateering ventures, as well as the family ironworks, which was occasionally commissioned to make weapons for the war.
Additional materials related to the Revolutionary War abound. Correspondence and documents from dozens of American officers are filed under their respective names. A United States Continental Army file includes official muster rolls, payrolls, warrants, and ration receipts from various New England companies. A general American Revolutionary War file includes correspondence from unknown or lesser known individuals who were involved in the war or lived during the time period, as well as two lengthy manuscripts written by unidentified Englishmen, one in favor of the revolution and the other opposed.
The Asa Waterman correspondence chronicles the failures of the early commissariat system, which was established during (and in response to) the Revolutionary War. Waterman (1743-1789), originally a ship merchant, served as assistant commissary in Rhode Island from 1777 to 1780. Comprised of approximately 100 items, his correspondence highlights the difficulty of provisioning the troops with adequate, nutritious food due to a scarcity of staples (most often flour) and the problem of shipping goods at the risk of enemy seizure. His letters also address the frequent reorganization of the commissariat system and its negative effect on both the commissary officers and the troops they served.
In addition to papers of various official military officers, the collection includes the business papers of Samuel White and John Cushing, merchants and privateers during the American Revolutionary War. Privateers were sanctioned by the government to aid in the war effort by capturing enemy ships, known as "prizes." Privateers played a significant role in the war, outnumbering government-owned vessels by more than ten to one and capturing nearly 600 British ships over the course of the war. Cushing & White invested in multiple vessels that sailed along the North American coast and to the West Indies throughout the course of the war.
The collection also contains significant holdings from the post-war Federal period. Correspondence from John Adams (1735-1826) is largely focused on his role as diplomat for the newly formed American nation in the years before he became second president of the United States. His letters include strong viewpoints on the American government and his role within it. He laments the "insignificance" of his position as vice president (under George Washington), discusses the growth of democracy in various states, and complains that the American people have little tolerance for hardship.
Third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson has over 100 items in the collection. His correspondents are a veritable who's who of early American leaders. Topics range from subjects of personal interest (e.g., what materials should be used to decorate Monticello, his Virginia estate) to American agriculture, foreign diplomacy, and relations with Native Americans. Not one to mince words, Jefferson strongly states his opinions on political rivalries, government policies, and international relations, often touching on multiple issues within single letters. The letters also provide a glimpse of his scientific and inventive pursuits including a diagram for an improved water wheel and his establishment of a nail manufactory.
The collection also contains significant holdings from the American Civil War. Correspondence from Union general (and eighteenth U.S. President) Ulysses S. Grant Grant dates from 1858-1884. Many of the letters were sent directly from the battlefields of the Civil War. His correspondence with other generals and army officers captures the fevered pace and constant strategizing of the war. The progression of certain battles can be traced through the many notes he sent throughout the same day, week, or month. Telegraph notes marked "cipher" highlight the threat of enemy interception. Many of his letters in this collection were written from City Point, Virginia, the Union headquarters and base of supplies during 1864 and 1865.
Additional Civil War materials include select letters and documents from other prominent Civil War officers including Union general William T. Sherman and Confederate general Robert E. Lee, as well as a large group of official papers from the United States Army of the Potomac consisting of orders, regulations, appointments, and official correspondence. A general American Civil War file contains items relating to relatively unknown men who served in the war and wrote about their experiences; collectively, they provide a glimpse of the impact of the war on average soldiers and their families. The Frederic A. Waterhouse correspondence, between a young Union soldier and his family in Pennsylvania, vividly traces one family's experience of the war and follows Frederic through battles, injury, and eventually death in the field.
The papers of sixteenth President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) form one of the largest groups in the collection. The earliest items date from Lincoln's time as a lawyer. Included are legal briefs from all three of his formal law partnerships as well as cases from his time on the Illinois judicial circuit. Correspondence includes letters both to and from Lincoln; a handful of letters deal specifically with the Civil War. Documents from his time as president mainly consist of memoranda, discharges, pardons, commissions, and orders.
Other well-represented American presidents include Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), whose letters reflect many of the positions he held before being elected president, and Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), whose correspondence demonstrates his lifelong passion for the study of government and history.
Hundreds of other American individuals and subjects are covered by the collection. There are significant letters from Americans of the stature of Samuel Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Benjamin Franklin, and Patrick Henry, and informative and characteristic ones of such diverse personages as John Wilkes Booth, Robert Fulton, and Thomas Paine. A large group of papers from eighteenth and nineteenth-century Massachusetts is filed by town and contains many legal documents in the form of land deeds, writs, and tax forms.
Researchers should note that Andre De Coppet saved many clippings from the auctions and dealers where he purchased the items in this collection. These clippings and provenance files are available in Boxes 43 and 44.
- Archival Appraisal Information:
No appraisal information is available.
Access & Use
- Access Restrictions:
The collection is open for research.
- Conditions for Reproduction and Use:
Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. No further photoduplication of copies of material in the collection can be made when Princeton University Library does not own the original. Inquiries regarding publishing material from the collection should be directed to RBSC Public Services staff through the Ask Us! form. The library has no information on the status of literary rights in the collection and researchers are responsible for determining any questions of copyright.
- Credit this material:
Van Ness, William Peter (1778-1826); Andre De Coppet Collection Concerning United States History, C0063, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library
- Firestone LibraryOne Washington RoadPrinceton, NJ 08544, USA(609) 258-3184
- United States. Army of the Potomac
United States. Continental Army
United States. Continental Army. Commissary General's Dept
Grant, Ulysses S., 1852-1929
Greene, Nathanael, 1742-1786
Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.
Roosevelt, Théodore, 1858-1919
Washington, George, 1732-1799.