852 RARE: Coke Upon Littleton (and Smith Upon Coke)

852 RARE: Coke Upon Littleton (and Smith Upon Coke)

While we librarians may frown on writing in library books, it’s a pleasure to stumble upon the ownership inscriptions, annotations, and occasional cheeky asides of former owners of books in Historical & Special Collections.  Whenever possible we make a note of former owners of books and manuscripts in the HOLLIS catalog records as they may be of interest to scholars now or in the future.

The Harvard Law School Library is fortunate to have in its collection several books and manuscripts owned by the highly respected New Hampshire jurist and statesman Jeremiah Smith (1759 1842). Also in the collection is this undated engraving of Smith.

Smith practiced law in Peterborough N.H. from 1786 until 1796 and between 1791 and 1820 he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, was nominated by John Adams to a federal judgeship, became chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and was governor of New Hampshire. He was also a close colleague and friend of Daniel Webster. Smith is known to have been was very well-read … and he wrote in his books.

Smith's ownership inscription on front flyleaf.

Smith’s ownership inscription on front flyleaf.

Most noticeable in Smith’s volumes is his large and elegant signature. Thankfully for historians, he also often added the date and city where he acquired it. One of Smith’s books in our collection is the fourteenth edition (1789) of The first part of the institutes of the laws of England. Or, a commentary upon Littleton, by the illustrious legal writer Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634). Smith acquired this substantial folio volume in New York in 1792, perhaps travelling between New Hampshire and Washington, DC while serving in Congress.

 

Detail of title page of 14th edition of Coke's Commentary upon Littleton (1789)

Detail of title page of 14th edition of Coke’s Commentary upon Littleton (1789)

Although he rarely annotated his books, in this case he was inspired to write a succinct line. This more informal handwriting matches other manuscripts we have in his hand, and was possibly written later in life. He wrote:

Comment on Coke

Smith’s comments on Coke upon Littleton.

“The etymologies of the great Sir Edward Coke afford a singular instance of the blunders of which men of the greatest abilities are sometimes guilty when they venture to speculate in [a science?] for which they have not been qualified by previous study.”

Words to the wise from an eminent jurist –and a choice nugget for readers intrigued by provenance!