On 24 January 1791, the Reverend Jeremy Belknap invited nine like-minded Bostonians to join him in creating what they would call simply, "The Historical Society," now the Massachusetts Historical Society—the oldest organization in the United States devoted to collecting materials for the study of American history. Ten months later, on 1 November 1791, Belknap drafted the Circular Letter, of the Historical Society, in which he announced the new Society’s formation and its objectives, as well as soliciting donations for its library. The "mission statement" (although Belknap would not have used that term) that he set forth in the Circular Letter, "to collect, preserve, and communicate, materials for a complete history of this country," has remained essentially unchanged for more than two centuries.
The Circular Letter, of the Historical Society
The Circular Letter, a three-page pamphlet on a single folded sheet, announces the creation of the Historical Society, defines its function, and solicits contributions of historical, ethnographic, and statistical information from the public divided into fourteen categories: town histories, the devastations of war, the development of new towns, the history of local churches, biographical anecdotes, topographical data, the state of agriculture and civic improvements, historic evidence of Native Americans and their present state, vital statistics, metrological records, bills of mortality, the development of commerce, modes of education, and, as a catch-all, remarkable events. As a postscript, Belknap requested "any books, pamphlets, manuscripts, maps or plans which may conduce to the accomplishment of the views of the Society; and any natural or artificial productions which may enlarge its museum."
In the Circular Letter, Belknap also announced that the American Apollo, a Boston weekly newspaper, would publish the results of the Society’s inquiries. Publication would remain central to the Society’s mission to document American history, both for communicating "accounts of all valuable efforts of human ingenuity and industry, from the beginning of its settlement," but also for preservation; as Belknap noted in his founding address to his fellow members, "there is no sure way of preserving historical records and materials, but by multiplying the copies."
Who Was Jeremy Belknap?
Jeremy Belknap was born in Boston in 1744, and educated at Harvard College. He became a Congregational clergyman and settled 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 dogged determination to examine primary sources. 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 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, Belknap set out to apply the concepts and procedures for historical research that he had developed in New Hampshire on a wider stage. As he wrote to Ebenezer Hazard in 1795, in what has become a catch phrase for the Massachusetts Historical Society: "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." Before his death in 1798, through his own contributions and the gifts that he solicited, 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 revised and expanded editions of the Circular Letter, 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.”
After 219 years, the Massachusetts Historical Society remains faithful to the mission set forth by its founder: "to collect, preserve, and communicate materials that promote the study of the history of Massachusetts and the nation."
Massachusetts Historical Society "Object of the Month" Reaches a Milestone
The Circular Letter, of the Historical Society marks the 100th “Object of the Month” presented at the MHS website, www.masshist.org. To browse a list of previous objects, please see the Object of the Month Archive. Every month since August 2001, with the exception of a two-month hiatus in 2007, MHS staff members and, occasionally, "guest presenters" have selected a manuscript or artifact from the collection for online exhibition. While some "Objects" are celebrated historical documents or works of art, others demonstrate the range of materials in the Society’s collections; call attention to an exhibition or program to be held at the Society; or highlight a recent acquisition. At the time of the founding of the MHS, Jeremy Belknap also was interested in developing a "cabinet of curiosities" to inform the public about American history through the presentation of unusual or "curious" manmade and natural history objects. The Objects of the Month have remained faithful to this purpose as well—the original title of the virtual exhibition of artifacts at the MHS website was "From Our Cabinet" and occasionally the selection of Objects reflects this original purpose through the display of exotic or even whimsical items from the collection.
Sources for Further Reading
Belknap, Jeremy. "Introductory Address from the Historical Society to the Public." Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Ser. 1, vol. 1 (1792), 2-4.
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.