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This Library Has Books Checked Out by Hamilton and Burr

The New York Society Library was wide enough for both men

The library's current location isn't where Hamilton and Burr read books, but the membership library still owns books that they checked out. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

What was on the bookshelves of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr? Historians know that at least some of the treatises on both of their shelves came from New York’s oldest cultural institution—a library that, as Adam Gopnik writes for The New Yorker, still keeps records of all of the books the famously divided duelists checked out.

Founded in 1754, the New York Society Library has fascinating collections (and connections to Revolutionary America). Today it’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but when six New Yorkers decided their city needed a library, they successfully petitioned New York’s Governor to give them the old City Hall on the Lower East Side for their project. (The building later became the first United States Capitol.)

Driven in part by what they saw as the moral shortcomings of the prosperous city—one prominent New Yorker, William Livingson, complained that in New York, “sensuality has devoured the soul and scarce one in a thousand is even disposed to talk serious”—a subscription library was formed and books ordered straight from Europe. The collection of books became known as City Library and became a place for New York’s educated citizens to rub shoulders and check out books.

But this library wasn’t destined to be a quiet one. New York became a target of British troops during the Revolutionary War and was occupied by an army of 25,000. Though the library closed during the war, it was considered fair game by British troops, who apparently stole books and sold them in exchange for alcohol. Given the precious nature of books at the time—large books were expensive and a the typical American home library had fewer than ten books—it makes sense that the library’s books became a wartime commodity.

Both Burr and Hamilton used the library. But what did they read? Luckily, the library survived long after the war and is still alive in the information era—and it offers graphs and records of both men’s reading habits for people curious about their bookish proclivities. Hamilton didn’t use the library as much as Burr (though he may have borrowed more during a period of time when library records were lost). He was apparently into sexy gossip, writes Gopnik…while Burr borrowed far more books than the average and read widely on things like the French Revolution, history and religion.

But if you’re really curious about what both men read, don’t rely on mere graphs and records. As Gopnik reports, it’s possible to hold the books that they read in your own hands at the library—and take a look at documents about the duel itself. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? It turns out that the remnants of the lives of two of America’s most fascinating men are closer than you might think.

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