Pet Book Project #4: Use of “The Federalist: On the New Constitution”

­­­            Before one even opens The Federalist: On the New Constitution, the signs of its use are not hard to find. The corners of the front cover are heavily scuffed and the point where the spine of the book meets the front cover has a couple small tears. The back cover is entirely separated from spine, slowly worn down over the years until it just fell off. Opening the book, more examples of heavy use are evident. While the text of the Federalist papers themselves are in pretty good condition, the first couple pages and last couple page of the book are in poor shape. These pages are torn at the edges and some are barely hanging on to the spine. Marginalia is found throughout the text, particularly at the start where various names and figures are written down. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, there are also library cards with names of students that have used the book. The book paints a pretty clear picture: it was used by Colby students for many years until it was no longer physically fit enough to do so. At that point, it was placed in special collection and it has stayed there ever since. But what about the period from when it was printed (1817) to when it got to the Colby library?

To answer this question, the first step was to try and find some dates and names. According to the Colby College special collection website, this book was acquired by the school some time from 1821 to 1867. There is also an inscription in the book that says it was purchased for the Maine Baptist Education… on June 30th, 1837. This is followed by the name S.L Caldwell. This range of 1821 to 1867 is broad, but it gives us a starting point. 1821 would mean that it only took four years for this book to wind up at Colby, but 1867 is 50 years after it was published. This wide range means the path this book took to get to Colby could be very simple or very complicated.

If the turnover was only four years, the most realistic timeline would be that either somebody bought it to give to the school or it didn’t sell and was donated. This leads us to the question: who would buy this book? It would most likely be either a student or someone involved in politics, maybe a congressman or lawyer. We know that the publisher, Benjamin Warner, had a long history of publishing books for students. On the other hand, the printer, William Greer, was located in Harrisburg and worked at the Senate of Harrisburg so this book very easily could have been purchased by a professional. Either way, why would they give up the book? For the student, maybe they bought it while they were going through school at Colby and upon graduation decided to donate it to the library. For a professional who bought it, they may have exhausted their use for it and felt that a college library would benefit from having it on their shelves.

The four-year turnover could also mean that it never sold, but then why would it end up at Colby College? As mentioned in a previous blog post, Warner passed away in 1821 and following his death his executors sold everything in his shop. This book could have been in his shop and purchased by Colby. While the timing of this works out very nicely, it does not make a lot of sense logistically. Colby is very far from Pennsylvania so it is unrealistic that they would ever know that the book was on the market. Furthermore, the Federalist Papers were a very controversial subject at the time so it unlikely the book would have trouble selling for four years. This is not an impossible scenario but there are other clues that lead to much more realistic solutions.

The major mystery and what may hold the key to this books life before Colby is the fact that it was purchased by the Maine Baptist Education… in 1837. The full name is cut off so we cannot say for certain what this organization was, however is most likely the Maine Baptist Education Society. This group is still around today and they offer scholarship money to students studying to become Baptist ministers. The book was purchased by S.L Caldwell for the Maine Baptist Education Society. The text says he purchased the book for the society, so he was most likely a supporter of the program and decided to help out by donating the book.  Upon some research, S.L Caldwell was a preacher associated with Colby College. This solidifies the assumption that he donated the book.

The next step is to look at the connection between the Education Society and Colby. We know the group gave scholarships to undergraduate students and many undergraduate students at Colby went on to became Baptist ministers so it is very probable that the two institutions had strong ties to one another. Most likely, this book was given to Colby from the Maine Baptist Education Society as a useful book to add to their library, where it has remained ever since.

Lots of different people have used this book and we can never be certain who those people were. However, the evidence within the book points to the Maine Baptist Education Society as being the middleman between our publisher, Benjamin Warner, and the Colby Library.


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