Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

On the Streets of Philadelphia: Annotations and Marginalia in a Philadelphian Political Pamphlet

Fittingly, my brief tour of American subscription libraries finished where it all began, in Philadelphia and the Library Company of Philadelphia. Founded in 1731, it is America’s oldest subscription library and cultural institution. Foremost amongst the Library Company’s founders was the polymath, and future Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin. Together, Franklin and forty-nine fellow shareholders chose to pool their resources together, the better to afford a general library of books that all could benefit from. The collective manner and method they chose to administer the library, established a precedent for a kind of library association that would be repeated elsewhere across the English-speaking world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a legacy that Franklin partly recognised in his description of the Library Company as ‘the Mother of all American Subscription Libraries’.[1] Today, the Library Company operates as an independent research library with a huge collection of rare books, manuscripts, prints and photographs.

Whereas my previous blog posts, on the Charleston Library Society and the New York Society Library, focused more squarely on the histories of both libraries, in today’s blog I’ll shift focus from institutional politics to the direct evidence of reading and a heavily annotated political pamphlet held in the Library Company’s collection. This pamphlet is significant for the various ways it has been read and interpreted by both modern scholars and a historical reader.

Titled The Collected Wisdom of Ages, the Most Stupendous Fabric of Human Invention, the English Constitution (1799), the pamphlet is a sarcastic attack upon the English Constitution, John Adams and Federalist politics in the run up to the divisive United States presidential election in 1800.[2] Published in Philadelphia in 1799 and authored anonymously by a ‘Timothy Telltruth’, the pamphlet had been attributed as being the work of its printer James Carey.[3] However, more recent scholarship has suggested John Lithgow as the pamphlet’s more likely author, in part because Lithgow claimed authorship of Collected Wisdom, along with two other anonymously printed works, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in December 1804.[4] Lithgow, a former loom builder in Scotland, was an active writer and pamphleteer in Philadelphian politics in the 1790s and his politics has been described as both ‘Jacobin’ and Jeffersonian Republican.[5] Lithgow’s work has primarily been analysed for its commentary upon the economics of the early American Republic and it has been depicted variously, and sometimes contradictorily, as ‘socialist’, ‘liberal capitalist’ or ‘anticapitalist’.[6]

Library Hall, Philadelphia, the home of the Library Company between 1790 and 1880. This is a modern reproduction (constructed 1959) of the original Library Hall which stood on the same site. It is now a part of the American Philosophical Society.

In his analysis of Lithgow’s Collected Wisdom, Michael Durey describes it as a work of ‘classical English Jacobinism’, an assault upon the government of William Pitt which criticised the established church, the high burden of taxation, the national debt and national corruption.[7] Lithgow’s critique that Pitt had destroyed England’s ‘ancient constitution’ did not centre primarily on the issue of political rights, but rather on changes made to Britain’s political economy occasioned by war with France from 1793 and a move away from a mercantilist policy.[8] Modern scholarship has been more likely to focus upon this ‘reading’ of Lithgow’s pamphlet.[9] However, the annotation and marginalia replete within the Library Company’s copy of Collected Wisdom points to another reading of Lithgow’s pamphlet, one that centred on the political context in which the pamphlet was published.

Fortunately, because the first page of the pamphlet has been signed, we know that the identity of the Philadelphian annotator was Daniel de Benneville.[10] At least from the evidence of Collected Wisdom, Benneville was an active writer in print, underlining numerous passages, regularly drawing manicules (little hands) to point towards significant sections of the text, crossing through and replacing text and writing his own lines of commentary on the page. The main body of Collected Wisdom is filled with a farcical reproduction of the ‘English constitution’ in which the meaning of every article is inverted in order to construct a Jacobin critique of it. Benneville clearly shared Lithgow’s politics and he frequently used his marginalia to undo Lithgow’s satire and change the articles of the constitution to what he considered should be their proper meaning. For example, article three, which originally read, ‘As men are not equal by nature, neither are they considered equal by the Law’ is changed to read ‘As men are not equal by nature, neither are they ought to be considered equal by the Law’.[11]

Critical references made elsewhere to both George Washington (‘the Virginia Slaveholder!!!!!!!!’) and ‘Johny Adams’, further reveal that Benneville read Lithgow’s pamphlet with the fractious political context of 1799 on his mind.[12] Lithgow certainly encouraged such a reading and Collected Wisdom constituted an attack upon Federalist politics and certainly John Adams himself. Both the pamphlet’s title (the Most Stupendous Fabric of Human Invention) and its opening epigraph are direct quotations of John Adams’s praise for the English constitution, taken directly from the first part of his A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787).[13] Moreover, Lithgow openly stated that his ‘explanation’ of England’s constitution was in direct response to the ‘three large volumes’ by Adams, who he mocked as ‘the most exalted man in America’.[14] Benneville clearly shared Lithgow’s view of the Adams administration (‘this infernal Government’), but his marginalia and annotations in Collected Wisdom may also have played a more practical purpose.[15] Underlined sentences and hand-drawn manicules were used to point towards passages of significance, as annotations in the pamphlet’s margins made by Benneville repeatedly exhorted that ‘americans open Yr Eyes’ to the potential threats to the people’s rights and liberties.[16] As the pamphlet progresses, these annotations became more and more frenzied, Benneville’s use of exclamation marks more and more frequent, until he concluded with a final call on the last page of the pamphlet to his fellow citizens: ‘american’s for the sake of your posterity Open Your Eyes’.[17]

Plaque of the Library Company of Philadelphia outside its current location at 1314 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

It may be that Benneville’s notations were intended for his eyes only, an aide to his own reading or a result of his reading process and engagement with a political text that had a profound impression upon him. On the other hand, if he intended to circulate his pamphlet further, his annotations become, not only a potential reading aid to others, but also a political call to arms to his fellow Americans to be aware and take action against the threats posed by the ‘Tyrants of america’.[18] In either respect, Benneville’s annotations demonstrate that the political context in which he read Lithgow’s pamphlet were central to the manner in which he read the text as well as the meanings he drew from it.

[1] “At the Instance of Benjamin Franklin”: A Brief History of the Library Company of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 2015), p.5. There are estimated to have been over 350 subscription libraries active across North America and the British Isles by 1800. Max Skjönsberg and Mark Towsey, ‘Introduction’, in The Minute Book of the Bristol Library Society, 1771-1801 (Bristol: Bristol Record Society, 2022), p.xii. For an overview of the growth of the subscription library movement in Britain, see variously David Allan, A Nation of Readers: The Lending Library in Georgian England (London: The British Library, 2008), pp.63-77; William St Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp.246-54; K.A. Manley, Books, Borrowers, and Shareholders. Scottish Circulating and Subscription Libraries before 1825 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, 2012), pp.17-45.

[2] [John Lithgow], The Collected Wisdom of Ages, the Most Stupendous Fabric of Human Invention, the English Constitution. (Philadelphia: James Carey, 1799), Library Company of Philadelphia copy, Am 1799 Car 78666.0.

[3] Pierce Welch Gaines, Political Works of Concealed Authorship Relating to the United States, 1789-1810, 3rd edn. (Hamden, Connecticut: Shoe String Press, 1972), p.90. The Library Company of Philadelphia’s catalogue also credits Carey with the authorship of Collected Wisdom.

[4] Michael Durey, ‘John Lithgow’s Lithconia: The Making and Meaning of America’s First “Utopian Socialist” Tract’, William and Mary Quarterly, 49.4 (October, 1992), p.677; John Mac Kilgore, ‘John Lithgow’s Real Utopia and the Anticapitalist Romance of the Early Republic’, Early American Literature, 54.1 (2019), p.98.

[5] Durey, ‘John Lithgow’s Lithconia’, pp.678-80; Kilgore, ‘John Lithgow’s Real Utopia’, p.98.

[6] Durey, ‘John Lithgow’s Lithconia’, pp.676-77, 685; Kilgore, ‘John Lithgow’s Real Utopia’, p.99.

[7] Durey, ‘John Lithgow’s Lithconia’, p.679.

[8] Ibid, p.680.

[9] See also Kilgore, ‘John Lithgow’s Real Utopia’, p.99.

[10] Benneville was a physician who served as Surgeon-in-chief of the Flying Hospital of the Continental Army. John C. Morgan and Nelson C. Simonson, ‘de Benneville, George’, Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography (August, 2003), <>, [accessed 28/07/23].

[11] Italics are Benneville’s additions. Underlined as in original. Daniel de Benneville’s notes in [John Lithgow], The Collected Wisdom of Ages, the Most Stupendous Fabric of Human Invention, the English Constitution. (Philadelphia: James Carey, 1799), p.1. Library Company of Philadelphia copy, Am 1799 Car 78666.0.

[12] Benneville’s notes in [Lithgow], The Collected Wisdom of Ages, pp.v, xi.

[13] David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), pp.374-75.

[14] [Lithgow], The Collected Wisdom of Ages,

[15] Benneville’s notes in [Lithgow], The Collected Wisdom of Ages, p.15.

[16] Ibid, p.xi.

[17] Ibid, p.47.

[18] Ibid, p.14.