"There is nothing like having a good repository and keeping a good look out, not waiting at home for things to fall into the lap, but prowling about like a wolf for the prey."
--The Rev. Jeremy Belknap, the principal founder and first corresponding secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society, in a letter to fellow antiquarian Ebenezer Hazard, 21 August 1795.
The Founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society
In 1790, Boston minister Jeremy Belknap proposed a "Plan for an Antiquarian Society" that would actively collect materials to document the history of the new nation. A year later, on 24 January 1791, Belknap's "Antiquarian Society" became the "Historical Society" when he invited nine like-minded Bostonians to join him in creating what would become the Massachusetts Historical Society, the oldest organization in the United States devoted to collecting materials for the study of American history. Later the same year, Belknap drafted a Circular Letter, of the Historical Society, in which he announced the Historical Society's formation and purpose: "to collect, preserve, and communicate, materials for a complete history of this country"--a mission that has remained essentially unchanged for more than two centuries.
Who was Jeremy Belknap?
The Rev. Jeremy Belknap was born in Boston in 1744, and educated at Harvard College. He became a Congregational clergyman, settled first in Dover, New Hampshire, in 1767, where during nineteen years of service, he found time to write a three-volume History of New Hampshire. In his research, Belknap demonstrated a fixed determination to examine primary sources, and working in relative isolation in rural New Hampshire, he relied heavily on the collaboration of a wide-ranging network of correspondents to locate and verify information for his History that covered not only exploration, and military and political history, but also the geography and natural history of the Granite State, and the manners and customs of the inhabitants, including Native Americans. After the outbreak of the American Revolution, Belknap traveled to the siege lines around Boston to interview participants and gather information about how the fighting began.
Jeremy Belknap returned to Boston in 1787, where he became pastor of the Church in Long Lane-now the Arlington Street Church. In the metropolis of New England, among men who shared his antiquarian interests, he set out to apply the concepts and procedures for historical research that he had developed in New Hampshire on a wider stage. As he indicated in his letter to Ebenezer Hazard, Belknap acted upon his principles; in what has become a catch phrase for the Historical Society, "keeping a good look-out, not waiting at home for things to fall into the lap, but prowling about like a wolf for the prey." In his letter, Belknap recounts how he had traveled to Connecticut to collect the manuscripts and pamphlets of Governor Jonathan Trumbull, who had died in 1785. Belknap had no way of knowing that in saving Trumbull's papers from becoming "food for worms," he had set the stage for what would become an epic, seventy-seven-year battle between the MHS and the state of Connecticut over whether the manuscripts were Trumbull's personal papers or official Connecticut records. The Historical Society finally-and grudgingly-returned the papers to the Connecticut State Library in 1921. Belknap's vulpine avarice for documents occasionally borders on the unseemly: he greedily anticipates seeing the head of "our old patriot, S[amuel] A[dams]" laid low, so that the Historical Society can get more manuscripts.
Ebenezer Hazard (1744-1817) was a Princeton-educated New York City printer and post office surveyor, who had returned to Philadelphia in 1782 to become the first postmaster general of the United States under the Constitution. Belknap described him as his "guide, philosopher, and friend." Hazard shared Belknap's intense interest in history and historical documents, and, in 1792, was the first person elected a corresponding (non-resident) member of the Historical Society.
Before his death in 1798, through his own contributions and the gifts that he solicited, Jeremy Belknap had developed a substantial base for the Historical Society's extraordinary present-day collections. He also served as the first corresponding secretary of the MHS, and through a series of published circular letters and notices, and his own personal correspondence, attempted to convey news of the founding of the new organization and its purpose "to every gentleman of Science in the Continent and Islands of America."
A new exhibition celebrates the founding of the Historical Society and its early collections
The model for the organization that the founders of the MHS envisioned was the Society of Antiquaries of London, already more than eighty years old in 1791, with well-established membership meetings, publications, and a library and cabinet for its collections. Between 7 September 2011 and March 2012, the Massachusetts Historical Society will celebrate its founding and the tercentenary of the Society of Antiquaries with an exhibition, "'Like a Wolf for the Prey': The Massachusetts Historical Society Collection Begins," at the Historical Society's 1154 Boylston Street headquarters building in Boston. The exhibition consists of treasures and "curiosities" donated to the Historical Society during its first decade and includes manuscripts, newspapers, maps, engravings, coins and medals, and artifacts, along with portraits of Jeremy Belknap and other MHS founders. The exhibition is free and open to the public, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM.
Sources for Further Reading
Making History: Antiquaries in Britain 1701-2007. London: Royal Academy of Arts; New York: Distributed in the United States and Canada by Harry N. Abrams, 2007.
Massachusetts Historical Society. Circular Letter, of the Historical Society. Boston: Belknap and Young, 1791. The Historical Society featured Jeremy Belknap's Circular Letter as the one hundredth Object of the Month in January 2010.
Mayo, Lawrence S. "Jeremy Belknap and Ebenezer Hazard, 1782-84." The New England Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 2 (April 1929), 183-198.
Tucker, Louis Leonard. Clio's Consort: Jeremy Belknap and the Founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1990.
Tucker, Louis Leonard. The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791-1991. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1996.
Witness to America's Past: Two Centuries of Collecting by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1991.