Re-Founding the New York Society Library: Cultural Institutions and the Contest for the National Capital

By Rob Koehler


New York City’s oldest continuously operating library is the New York Society Library, currently located on 79th St. just east of Central Park. The Library was originally founded in 1754 but was forced to close for fourteen years during the lead up to the Revolutionary War, the British occupation of the city, and the ensuing Post-War depression.[1] It was re-founded in 1789 as part of the larger cultural revival of the city in the 1780s and has been open since. The library has always functioned on a subscription basis, with members providing the funds by which the library continues to operate and buy new books. Yet, the re-founding of the library was not just the reemergence of a lapsed cultural institution during the post-war recovery, it was also a part of larger debates about the cultural resources necessary to sustain the new national government.

By late 1789, New York had been the capital of the United States for five years. Throughout this period, the nation debated the problem of where to permanently situate the national capital; in the Continental Congress, at the Constitutional Convention, and in print.[2] New York's chances looked increasingly grim, and the re-founding of the Society Library was a part of an effort to boost its standing, particularly against the other major urban contender, Philadelphia.

After their first meeting in late December 1788, the Trustees emphasized the Library’s role in helping to keep the federal government in the city: “Nor will it be thought a trifling motive to a speedy exertion, that a useful public library will add to the inducement which Congress have to remain with us, and that the want of one has actually been advanced as one among other reasons from removing the general government from this city”.[3] Intervening in the ongoing debate, the Library moved quickly to become a stable presence in New York City and national political life. By February 1789, the Trustees had renewed their charter of incorporation through application to the New York Assembly. In April 1789 -- after gathering the scattered books of the collection together -- they applied to Congress to house the books in Federal Hall, bringing the collection into the same building as the national government.[4]

These efforts did not go unnoticed or unremarked. In February, the re-founding of the Library became front and center of the larger argument about picking a national capital. Writing as the “Town of Philadelphia”, one American commented that, “... my citizens have not built a state-house, nor founded a library, nor paved their streets for the benefit of Congress... but their ancient and convenient state-house -- their ancient and well-chosen library -- their neat and well paved streets, &c. are all at the service of Congress whenever they shall please to use them”.[5] Philadelphia’s subscription library, the Library Company of Philadelphia, had come through the Revolutionary War almost completely intact and, even before the war, it had a much larger and more impressive collection than the Society Library. New York's civic improvements were framed merely as efforts to equal what was already available there.

New Yorkers did not accept the argument. In a letter published a few days later, one anonymous writer, responding in the character of New York City, explained, “I am collecting together many thousand volumes of excellent books, and useful writings for [Congress’s] entertainment and advantage, my old library having been destroyed by thine and mine enemies”.[6] Philadelphia may trumpet its civic improvements, but it had not endured a seven year military occupation as New York had. For Philadelphia to claim preeminence in civic conveniences was to fail to recognize how much damage New York had suffered during the conflict for Independence. It was kicking a city while it was down, disrespecting its honest attempts to overcome the damage and debt it had assumed as a result of the war.

For the next year, the New York Society Library served informally as the first Library of the national government, with George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and other members of the Congress becoming members through a special arrangement. Yet, the Library’s efforts to influence the government’s choice of capital proved unsuccessful. In a backroom negotiation, Hamilton agreed with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson that the capital should be moved to a site on the Potomac River in exchange for ensuring the national government would assume the states' war debts. In June 1790, the capital left New York for a ten-year sojourn in Philadelphia, from there moving to a new city, Washington, in 1800.

However, this was not the end of the debate.[7] In 1791, a final op-ed appeared, comparing the hospitality and generousness of New York City and Philadelphia as sites for the capital. The piece's sarcasm makes it worth quoting at length.

Writing again as New York, the author reports, “During the residence of Congress in New York, the Library Society... voted that the President, Vice-President, Senators, and House of Representatives have free, and unpurchased use of the books in [the] Library.” The Library Company of Philadelphia was not so welcoming. “[I]n this self-boasted Athens of the world, where the Library is the pride of its proprietors, the President ..., the Senators and Representatives are informed, that by depositing a sum of money, double to the value of a set of books, they may have the use of one volume for a fortnight or three weeks, provided at the return of said book they will pay the Librarian one shilling for the use of it”.[8] While New York had given when it had little and expanded its cultural infrastructure to meet the needs of the government, Philadelphia, and the Library Company in particular, could not be bothered. Having criticizing New York for doing its best, Philadelphia didn’t feel obliged to even match what New York had done.

Eventually, of course, the Library Company did allow access to the Congress. And by 1800, the federal government passed a law providing the initial funding for founding a permanent Library of Congress at Washington, D.C. Despite the departure of the government from New York, the Society Library also continued to thrive, moving into its own building in 1795.[9]

But New York in the 1780s was a city on the mend, and the re-founding of the Society Library was a part of this larger recovery. It was also a moment when the opening of a single library could be imagined important enough to change the course of national politics. Over succeeding decades, Americans -- and New Yorkers in particular -- embraced a faith in libraries as institutions to support the American project, and to expand the availability of knowledge for individual and collective improvement. The re-founding of the Society Library was merely the beginning of a centuries-long development and expansion of libraries by magnates, apprentices, charitable organizations, religious groups, and eventually the city itself.

That all began in an attempt to keep New York as the capital of the new United States.[10]

Rob Koehler is a Ph.D. candidate in English at New York University. This piece is drawn from a longer essay on the re-founding of the New York Society Library, and its early practices of book collection, which will appear in Community Libraries: Connecting Readers in the Atlantic World, c. 1650­-1850, edited by Kyle Roberts and Mark Towsey (forthcoming).

[1] Austin Keep, History of the New York Society Library (New York: De Vinne Press, 1908), 123-179.

[2] Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. (Oxford University Press, 1998), 277-312.

[3] Daily Advertiser, 6 January 1789.

[4] “Proceedings of the Assembly.” Daily Advertiser, 16 February 1789. “Sketch of the Proceedings of Congress.” Federal Gazette, 22 April 1789.

[5] “From the Federal Gazette.” New-York Packet, 6 February 1789.

[6] “To the Town of Philadelphia.” New-York Packet, 10 February 1789

[7] Kenneth Bowling. “Neither in a Wigwam nor the Wilderness: Competitors for the Federal Capital, 1787-1790.” Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives 20, no. 3 (1988): 163–79.

[8] “The Contrast.” New-York Packet, 18 January 1791.

[9] Tom Glynn and Craig C. Hagensick. "Books for the Use of the United States in Congress Assembled, 1783 and 1800." Libraries & Culture 37, no. 2 (2002): 109-122. For a history of the Library Company of Philadelphia, see Edwin Wolf et al., At the Instance of Benjamin Franklin: A Brief History of the Library Company of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA: Library Company of Philadelphia, 1995). For a description of the library’s first building, see Keep, 222-257.

[10] See, for example, Thomas Augst and Kenneth E. Carpenter, Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States (Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007). Tom Glynn, Reading Publics: New York City’s Public Libraries, 1754-1911 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).