Laws of the Territory of the United States North-West of the Ohio: Adopted and made by the Governour and Judges, in their Legislative capacity, at a Session begun on Friday, the xxix day of May, one thousand, seven hundred and ninety-five, and ending on Tuesday the twenty-fifth day of August following: With an Appendix of Resolutions and the Ordnance for the Government of the Territory. By Authority Cincinnati: Printed by W. Maxwell. M,DCC,XCVI. Page size 7 x 6.9", printed on laid paper, with chain lines one inch apart. With original brown stiff paper boards, inked manuscript inscription on cover upper right, Laws of the (illegible) Territory, and about the midpoint of the cover, (illegible) Jefferson County, State of Ohio. Inscribed on the inside of the front cover Robert McCleary, Esq., with the additional names of Peter M. Wilson on the title page above “Laws”; and across the right edge of the title page Francis Douglas’ Book May 16 ‘98. With the bookplate of former owner Robert Aitchison of Wichita, Kansas, pasted down on the rear inside cover.
Collation: p(1), title page; (2), blank; (iii) to xiii, Ordnance of 1787; (xiv), blank; (15) to 221, text; 222-223, appendix; 224 to 225, Table of Laws.
Perhaps the most storied book of the first American “West,” the Maxwell Code was printed in the Ohio River settlement of Cincinnati, in 1796, at a time when the village was little more than a collection of rude log buildings serving as shelter for 200 inhabitants surrounding the government outpost of Fort Washington. With the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 marking the end of the Indian Wars, the government permitted, and actually encouraged, settlement of the Territory. As settler began to make their way into the Territory, the need for a printing of civil and criminal laws required for regulating behavior soon became apparent. While the ordinance establishing the Northwest Territory of what is now Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota had been established in 1787, when Arthur St. Clair was appointed the Governor, there was no body of written law that could be called upon in the event of legal disputes.
During the late spring and summer of 1795, St. Clair met in Cincinnati with judges John Cleves Symmes and George Turner to formulate such a body of law. Congress had directed them to codify the law for the new Territory by utilizing statutes already passed by the legislative bodies of the thirteen original colonies. The resulting 37 laws which they adopted represented the first civil and criminal code for the new American frontier, or the "West," as it then existed.
St. Clair and his colleagues turned to the printer William Maxwell to produce a volume containing the new laws. Born in either New York or New Jersey, Maxwell had emigrated to Cincinnati in 1793 after a failed attempt to establish himself in Lexington, Kentucky, some 80 miles south across the Ohio River. His newspaper, The Centinel of the North-Western Territory, began its run in November of that same year. By the summer of 1796 his shop was run by himself, an assistant and his wife. Whether historically accurate, or merely an apocryphal tale, Maxwell’s wife, Nancy Robbins Maxwell, has always been given credit for hand-sewing the signatures of the Code.
The exact number of copies printed is unknown. Announcing his proposal for the publication of the new laws, he used the The Centinel as his trumpet:
W. Maxwell being appointed by the legislature to print for them 200 copies of their laws, he thinks it would be greatly conducive towards the instruction and common benefit of all citizens to extend the impression to 1000 copies…The price in boards, to subscribers, will be at the rate of nineteen cents for every 50 pages, and to non-subscribers, thirty cents.
Rather than adopting its lengthy title, the legal practitioners who used the new volume coined a vernacular name that honored its printer: “Maxwell’s Code.”
It hardly seems necessary to relate the importance of this volume. It was the first book printed in the Northwest Territory, the first printing of the Northwest Ordinance in the Territory, and the first book printed in what was at the time already known as Ohio. Not only did it serve as the legal code for the frontier, it also established precedent that would reach far into the future when the Territory would finally be divided into states. As more states were added, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska, for example, its antislavery clause would become the touchstone of the major political arguments of the 1830-50s. In the run-up to the Civil War, the Maxwell Code would be cited by legal and political figures as proof that slavery was never meant to be allowed to take root in the territories or new states of the Union.
Given the exceptional rarity of the Maxwell Code, this copy has a well-documented chain of ownership that is worth relating here.
While there may not be many living collectors or dealers who personally knew Ernest J. Wessen (1887-1974) of Mansfield, Ohio, his legacy as one of America’s greatest book dealers is legendary. Through a legion of “pickers” located throughout the United States, Wessen probably handled as much great printed Americana as any of his peers during his active career. His periodically issued, mimeographed catalogs, under the title Midland Notes were eagerly awaited by both private and institutional collectors, and today are considered collectible imprints themselves. Scanning the yellowed pages of any of the issues of the catalogs makes it immediately apparent that Wessen routinely handled great printed treasures. This copy of the Maxwell Code was, by Wessen’s own accounting, his greatest find.
Wessen purchased the present copy of the Maxwell Code in the spring of 1963 from Mr. Robert Aitchison (1887-1964) of Wichita, Kansas. Aitchison was a successful commercial artist, printer and businessman by trade, and a mapmaker, historian and collector of early printing by avocation. Wessen learned of Aitchison’s copy of the Code through Paul Arthur Lundgren, a Kansas bookscout.
Wessen owned the book only a short time; in June 1963, just a few months after acquiring it from Aitchison, he sold it to his long-time customer and close friend, Joseph Dush, a lawyer in Willard, Ohio. Dush was counsel for the R. R. Donnelley plant in Willard and an avid collector of Northwest Territory and Ohio imprints and Americana. At his death, his extensive collection of imprints relating to Ohio local history along with his collection of William Henry Harrison campaign ephemera was sold by Cowan’s in 1997. His collection of Northwest Territory material, including the present copy of the Maxwell Code, by then well known for its provenance, condition and contemporary binding, was sold in that same year by the Baltimore Book Auction Company. This copy was acquired by the present owner at that important auction.
Over the course of his long career, Wessen handled at least three other copies of the Code (see Matthews 1992: 223.) It is clear, however, that he considered all inferior to the copy offered here. In a June 9, 1963, letter to Dush, Wessen wrote glowingly to his old friend and customer:
Dear Joe – I can’t tell you how very happy I am that you have this book. It will always remain the greatest item to have passed through my hands. It was not enough that we got this fine copy in what is the earliest binding, but with its superb provenance so beautifully tied up…it is without a peer.
Later, writing to Yeatman Anderson, curator of Rare Books at the Cincinnati Public Library, Wessen described the other copies that had passed through his hands, and stressed:
And here’s what I’m leading up to….our FOURTH COPY; the finest in existence….a copy which for all time will remain a standard for comparison…THIS IS IN THE ORIGINAL BOARD BINDINGS…Of course, it is untrimmed. It is in the possession of a great collector and fine gentleman…JOSEPH F. DUSH… (Matthews 1992: 224).
While the 20th century owners of this copy of the Maxwell Code are well-documented, the inked signatures on the book provide important clues about its earliest owners. The names of Robert McCleary, Esq., Francis Douglas and Peter Wilson are all inscribed either on the title page or inside cover. Not surprisingly, Wessen was successful in discovering much about these apparent owners.
In a June 8, 1963, letter to Dush, Wessen gives proper credit to his wife for successfully tracking down these signersSay what you will, I think Yetta makes a darned good wheel-horse for this team. Give her a load to carry, and she sticks with it until she has delivered the goods. Her research is extracted below:
The first owner of the book was Robert McCleary who settled in Warren Township, Jefferson County, Ohio in 1790, and was the first Justice of the Peace for the county. He signed the inside cover of the book, “Robert McCleary Esqr.” The second owner was Francis Douglas, sheriff of Jefferson County from 1794-1804. He signed and dated the title page, “May 16, 1798.” The third owner was Peter Wilson who came to Jefferson County around 1800. Wilson signed the book at the top of the title page.
The signature of Robert McCleary on the pasteboard covers is essential to the provenance and binding of this copy. As Wessen related in his June 9, 1963, letter to Dush: …the signature of McCleary (no doubt the original owner) on the pasteboard covers, along with the signature of Douglas… is evidence that those covers are contemporary (original) beyond a reasonable doubt.
With that same letter, Wessen enclosed a card with a full collation of the book and suggested to Dush that: As my own contribution, I enclose a card with, I think, the first full bibliographical description of this book ever made. And…less I not make myself clear…I say this is the finest copy of the Maxwell Code in existence…Hastily (5:30 p.m.).
Just how rare this copy of the Maxwell Code is, is made apparent by an examination of the few surviving institutional copies. The following census here should be considered a “work in progress.” Several factors contribute to making this a challenging undertaking.
There have been two realistic facsimiles produced, one in 1890 by the Robert Clarke Company of Cincinnati, and a second in 1891 by the T. L. Cole Company, of Washington, D.C. It is unknown how large the print runs for these facsimiles were, but the “remainder” of the Robert Clarke production was sold to the Anderson Company of Cincinnati in 1897, and Anderson sold these well into the 1920s. While the Clarke facsimile included an intentional typo on the title page (line 7 reads “one thousand eleven hundred ninety five,” rather than “one thousand seven hundred,”) over the years the facsimile has fooled many an experienced eye.
The OCLC database and the English Short Title Catalogue both identify many institutions as holding “original” editions when they in fact have only facsimile copies. In the case of OCLC, these facsimile editions (identified as original printings) are held by the following institutions:
Indiana State University
The University of Michigan
University of California
Ohio Northern University
University of Akron
Wisconsin State Law Library
University of Oxford Bodleian Library
University of North Carolina
Cleveland Law Library Association
Northern Kentucky University
In a similar fashion, the ESTC identifies 14 institutions as owning original editions. However, six of the institutions listed, Los Angeles County Law Library, California State Library, University of California (Berkeley), Allegheny County Law Library, Columbia University Law Library, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, do not, in fact, own originals but facsimiles.
Lest these mistakes be attributed only to the “electronic age,” earlier examples of misattribution are frequently encountered. No less an authority than Wright Howes listed the Maxwell Code as O-50 in his landmark USiana and cited 3 institutional holdings as examples “of 5 perfect copies known:”
Indiana Historical Society
New York Public Library
The John Carter Brown Library
The Indiana Historical Society actually owns two originals, but both are imperfect; New York Public Library reports no original copy; and the Brown original lacks pages 203 through 225.
The following major institutional libraries, which have at times been referred to as owning original Maxwell Codes, do not:
New York Public Library
Columbia University Law Library
University of Michigan, Clements Library
Yale University Library
Pennsylvania Historical Society Library
University of California, Bancroft Library
Known Complete Original Editions, Rebound
Based upon recent research, it appears that there are at least 18 original copies of the Maxwell Code extant. The majority of them are imperfect, and in many cases, seriously defective. The following chart lists confirmed original editions, with a statement of condition when it is available.
• Cincinnati Public Library – some pages closely trimmed, but a handsome copy, rebound early in the 19th Century; belonged to Ohio’s second governor, Thomas Kirker.
• American Antiquarian Society – formerly the “second copy” of the N.Y. Historical Society, sold at auction in 1944 ($900 to Eberstadt for Thomas Streeter) and then sold in 1967 in the Streeter Sale ($10,000). Rebound in red library buckram in the 1940s. Bears the bookplate of Thomas Streeter, and several pages bear the signature “James M’Bride.”
• New York Historical Society – modern rebinding; described as “uncut and unusually tall copy;” with the name,“Robert McClure” written on the title page.
• Harvard Law School Library – early 19th century rebinding, now lacking covers and spine, text block intact and with marbled papers present. Two early ownership inscriptions not yet identified, and one other.
Known Original Editions, Incomplete or Otherwise Imperfect
• Huntington Library – lacks several pages.
• Library of Congress, 2 copies – both defective, one unlocated.
• Cincinnati Historial Society Library - 2 copies, both with extensive sections in facsimile.
• Ohio Historical Society – bound with other territorial laws, trimmed extremely closely, with loss of some printed annotations.
• Indiana Historical Society, 2 copies: one with title leaf and 2 pages in facsimile; the other with title leaf, pp. (iii) – iv, 225 missing.
• Lilly Library – never bound, and with wide, untrimmed margins; portion of title page and last leaf in facsimile. Bears early signature of “Ezra Freeman.”
• John Carter Brown Library – lacks pp. 203–225.
• Miami University, Oxford – lacks page 225; title page inscription: “David Wade’s book.”
• University of Toledo Law Library – title and final leaf restored.
• Western Reserve Historical Society – rebound in black buckram; title page in facsimile; lacks 219–225.
• Chicago Historical Society – last page in facsimile.
• There is also one known original copy in private hands, incomplete.
Condition of the Book
While this is the finest original copy of the Maxwell Code in existence, there are slight defects, which should be noted. The most serious is a small corner chip to leaf C4, with the loss of the letter “w” from the word “when,” and the word “made” in the printed margin notes on page 18. The full note reads, “Proceedings in mortgages when default made.” The text on page 17 is not affected and the book is otherwise textually complete. In addition, there is occasional old staining along a few of the gutters and some modest wear and cracking to the pasteboard covers. There are a couple of pages with early ink manuscript “X’s” to note apparent later legal changes to the original Code. Notwithstanding these minor defects and some general toning and wear, this copy of the Maxwell Code is completely without equal. The printing is strong and deeply pressed, the margins are wide and only minimally trimmed, and, of course, the contemporary binding is unique.
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