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
A wise old New York merchant, long ago himself mouldered into dust, used
"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
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
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.