The Rare Book Collection at Denver Public Library’s Special Collections and Archives (SCA) is packed with scarce items that put the rare in rare books. We ran across one of those items recently in the form of a very scarce 1783 publication commissioned by Ben Franklin titled, Constitutions des treize Etats-Unis de l'Amerique (Constitutions of the Thirteen United States of America).
With his keen eye for promoting U.S. interests, Franklin, who was the US Ambassador to France at the time, saw the book as a way of bolstering America’s image as a leading proponent of democracy and the rights of man. If foreign interests also saw the US as a stable trading partner when pursuing these documents, that was likely fine with Franklin, too.
Only 600 copies of this remarkable book were published in 1783, four years before the US Constitution was written, 100 of which were in a large format. (DPL’s holds one of the 500 smaller copies.) While it’s unclear how many copies of Constitutions des treize Etats-Unis de l'Amerique survive to this day, Worldcat shows just 23 libraries worldwide that still hold this title.
Constitutions des treize Etats-Unis de l'Amerique is also noteworthy as it is believed to have been the first time the now ubiquitous eagle/arrow Great Seal of the United States was used in a printed publication.
A book plate inside of Constitutions des treize Etats-Unis de l'Amerique says that the book was a gift of Quigg Newton. DPL holds collections from both James Quigg Newton, Sr. (WH 1223) who was a prominent businessman, as well as his son James Quigg Newton, Jr. (WH 1327) who was Denver’s Mayor from 1947-1955. Despite the existence of extensive accession paperwork, it’s unclear which Quigg Newton actually donated the book. A bookplate, whose use was discontinued in 1951, confuses the question even further.
Constitutions des treize Etats-Unis de l'Amerique is a unique piece of American history that illustrates exactly how the US wished to present itself to a worldwide audience in its earliest days. It's also a perfect candidate for any rare book collection.
The Rare Book Collection at DPL is a catch-all for books that don't otherwise fit into collections like Western History, Conservation, or Genealogy. Constitutions des treize Etats-Unis de l'Amerique meets all the requirements for the collection which include:
Scarcity - Is the book actually rare, as in scarce and uncommon? With only 500 copies printed, this title fits the bill for scarcity.
Age - Not all old books are rare and not all rare books are old. That said, our acquisition standards give preference to publications published in North America before 1820, when mass printing started becoming the norm.
Importance - Between its role in promoting the early American government and the first use of the Great Seal, Constitutions des treize Etats-Unis de l'Amerique is definitely a significant title.
Association - Was the book owned by, or otherwise proximate to a significant historical figure? A commission from Ben Franklin easily meets this standard.
Value - Any book with a replacement value of $1000 or more is a clear candidate for Rare Books. This title sells for between $4,000 and $6,000 depending on its condition, with copies signed by Franklin commanding more than $100,000. DPL's copy is in very good shape and would likely retail for around $5,500. That said, DPL is not in the business of appraising books and uses this factor mostly to determine where the book is housed.
Constitutions des treize Etats-Unis de l'Amerique is available for public viewing at the Special Collections Reading Room at the Central Branch, Sundays from noon - 5 p.m. and Mondays through Thursdays from 1 p.m. - 6 p.m.