One of the interesting sights of the city of Washington used to be the library of „Old Peter Force,” as he was familiarly called, – Colonel Peter Force, as he was more properly styled. He was one of the few colonels of that day who had actually held a colonel’s command, having been regularly commissioned by the President of the United States as a colonel of artillery in the District of Columbia. He might, indeed, have been called major-general, for in his old age he held that rank in the militia of the district. And a very fine-looking soldier he must have been in his prime, judging from the portrait which used to hang in the library, representing a full-formed man, tall and erect, his handsome and benevolent countenance set off by an abundance of curly hair.
His library had about the roughest furniture ever seen in an apartment containing so much that was valuable. As I remember it, it was a long, low room, with streets and cross-streets of pine book-shelves, unpainted, all filled with books to their utmost capacity – a wilderness of books, in print and in manuscript, mostly old and dingy, and almost all of them relating in some way to American history. The place had a very musty smell; and as most of its treasures were in the original bindings, or without bindings, few persons would have suspected the priceless value of the collection. I am acquainted with a certain library in New York of several thousand volumes, most of which are bound resplendently in calf and gold, and the room in which they are kept is „as splendid as a steamboat,” but old Peter Force could show you single alcoves of his library which, at a fair valuation, would buy out all that mass of sumptuosity.
It was not always easy to find the old gentleman in his dusty, dingy wilderness; but when you had discovered him in some remote recess he would take pleasure in exhibiting his treasures. He would take down his excellent copy of Eliot’s Indian Bible, a book so faithfully made in every respect that I question if, as a mere piece of book-making, it could now be matched in the United States. He lived to see this rarity command in New York the price of fourteen hundred and fifty dollars. He would show you forty-one works, in the original editions, of Increase and Cotton Mather, the most recent of which was published in 1735. He possessed a large number of books printed and bound by Benjamin Franklin. He had two hundred volumes of the records of Colonial legislatures. He could show you a newspaper of almost every month – nay, almost every week, since newspapers were first published in America. He had in all nine hundred and fifty bound volumes of newspapers, of which two hundred and forty-five volumes were published before the year 1800. He would show you a collection of more than thirty-nine thousand pamphlets, of which eight thousand were printed before the year 1800. His collection of maps relating to America was truly wonderful. Besides all the early atlases of any note, he had over a thousand detached maps illustrative both of the geography and history of America; for many of them were maps and plans drawn for military purposes. He would show you, perhaps, a pen-drawing of date 1779, by a British officer, upon which was written: „Plan of the rebel works at West Point.” He had also several plans by British officers of „the rebel works” around Boston during the revolution.
Besides such things (and he had over three hundred plans and maps of which there was no other copy in existence), he possessed a surprising number of books printed in the infancy of the printer’s art; among them specimens representing every year from 1467 onward. He had more than two hundred and fifty books printed before the year 1600, so arranged that a student could trace the progress of the art of printing from the days of Caxton. He had also a vast collection of manuscripts, numbering four hundred and twenty-nine volumes, many of which were of particular interest. The whole number of volumes in the library was 22,529, and the number of pamphlets nearly 40,000.
The reader, perhaps, imagines that the collector of such a library must have been a very rich man, and that he traveled far and wide in search of these precious objects. Not at all. He never was a rich man, and I believe he rarely traveled beyond the sight of the dome of the Capitol. Indeed, the most wonderful thing about his collection was that he, who began life a journeyman printer, and was never in the receipt of a large income, should have been able to get together so vast an amount of valuable material. Part of the secret was that when he began to make his collection these things were not valued, and he obtained many of his most precious relics by merely taking the trouble to carry them away from the garrets in which they were mouldering into dust, unprized and unknown.
A wise old New York merchant, long ago himself mouldered into dust, used to say: –
„Men generally get in this world exactly what they want.”
„How can that be?” asked a youngster one day. „Almost everybody in New York wants to be rich, but very few of them ever will be. I want a million or so myself.”
„Ah, boy,” the old man replied, „you want a million; but you don’t want it enough. What you want at present is pleasure, and you want it so much that you are willing to spend all your surplus force, time, and revenue to get it. If you wanted your million as much as you want pleasure, by and by, when you have a bald head like mine, you would have your million.”
Peter Force was a very good illustration of the old merchant’s doctrine. He got all these precious things because he wanted them with a sustained passion of desire for half a century. There never was a time when he would not have gladly got up in the middle of the night and walked ten miles, in the face of a northeasterly storm, to get a rare pamphlet of four pages. He was a miser of such things. But, no; that word does not describe him; for one of the greatest pleasures of his life was to communicate his treasures to others; and he communicated to the whole American people the best of his collections in massive volumes of American Archives. He was a miser only in the strength of his desire.
„More than once,” he said to Mr. George W. Greene, „did I hesitate between a barrel of flour and a rare book; but the book always got the upper hand.”
To the same friend he made a remark which shows that his desire to communicate was quite as strong as his desire to obtain.
„Whenever,” said he, „I found a little more money in my purse than I absolutely needed, I published a volume of historical tracts.”
It was interesting to hear the old man relate how this taste for the treasures of history was formed in his mind. His father, who served, during the revolution, in a New Jersey regiment, retired after the war to the city of New York, and at his house the Jersey veterans liked to meet and talk over the incidents of the campaigns they had made together. Peter, as a boy, loved to hear them tell their stories, and, as he listened, the thought occurred to him one evening, Why should all this be forgotten? Boy as he was, he began to write them down, under the title of „The Unwritten History of the War in New Jersey.” He made considerable progress in it, but unfortunately the manuscript was lost. The taste then formed grew with his growth and strengthened with his strength. At ten he left school forever, and went into a printing office, which has proved an excellent school to more than one valuable American mind. He became an accomplished printer, and at twenty-two was elected president of the New York Typographical Society, an organization which still exists.
Then the war of 1812 began. Like his father before him, he served in the army, first as private, then as sergeant, then as sergeant-major, then as ensign, finally as lieutenant. The war ended. He went to Washington as foreman of a printing office, and at Washington, as printer, editor, publisher and collector, he lived the rest of his long and honorable life; never rich, as I have before remarked, though never without a share of reasonable prosperity. The most important work of his life was the publication of the American Archives, in which he was aided by Congress; he furnishing the documents and the labor, and Congress paying the cost of publication. Through the nine volumes of this work a great number of the most curious and interesting records and memorials of American history are not only preserved, but made accessible to all students who can get near a library. He had all the state-houses of the country ransacked for documents, and a room was assigned him in the Department of State in which his clerks could conveniently copy them.
All went well with the work until William Marcy became Secretary of State, whose duty it was to examine and approve each volume before it went to the printer. When Peter Force presented the manuscript of the tenth volume to Secretary Marcy he received a rebuff which threw a cloud over several years of his life.
„I don’t believe in your work, sir,” said the secretary. „It is of no use to anybody. I never read a page of it, and never expect to.”
„But,” said Mr. Force, „the work is published in virtue of a contract with the government. Here is the manuscript of the tenth volume. If there is anything there which you think ought not to be there, have the goodness to point it out to me.”
„You may leave the papers, sir,” said the secretary.
He left the papers; but neither Marcy nor his successors ever found time to examine that tenth volume, though on the first day of every official year the compiler called their attention to it. For seven years he was a suitor on behalf of his beloved tenth volume, and then the war occurred and all such matters were necessarily put aside. He was now seventy-one years of age, and his great desire was to dispose of his library in such a way that its treasures would not be scattered abroad, and perhaps lost forever to the country. At length, Congress having sanctioned the enlargement of their own library, their librarian, Mr. Spofford, induced them to purchase the whole mass, just as it stood, for one hundred thousand dollars, and the collection now forms part of the Congressional library.
Colonel Force lived to the year 1868, when he died at Washington, universally beloved and lamented, in the seventy-eighth year of his age, enjoying almost to the last two of the things he loved best – his books and his flowers.