Interesting background on Chapin Library.

Clearly, George Mason had his issues.

The Virginia statesman helped draft the U.S. Constitution, but refused to sign it because he was concerned the final version gave the government too much power and didn’t do enough to protect individual rights.

He objected to a lack of “substance” in its establishment of the House of Representatives and called the concept of a vice president “unnecessary,” arguing that whoever holds that office “for want of other employment, is made president of the Senate, thereby dangerously blending the executive and legislative powers.”

While his signature is missing from the final document with its “We the people” preamble, Mason’s handwritten objections are neatly preserved on a draft displayed at the Chapin Library of Rare Books. It’s one of only 14 copies of the Constitution known to survive since 1787.

“This government will set out a moderate aristocracy: it is at present impossible to foresee whether it will, in its operation, produce a monarchy, or a corrupt tyrannical aristocracy,” he scribbled on the back of his copy of the Constitution. “It will most probably vibrate some years between the two, and then terminate in the one or the other.”

Mason’s objections became the basis for the Bill of Rights, a draft of which the Chapin also shows off in the center of it’s reading room on the second floor of Williams College’s Stetson Hall.

For a library its size — a repository of 50,000 volumes — displaying those two documents is impressive enough.

But there’s more: original printings of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation are encased in glass, and the library boasts that it’s the only institution other than the National Archives to possess all four of the country’s so-called founding documents.

“Seeing them together puts you right in that moment of history,” said Wayne Hammond, the Chapin’s assistant librarian and one of its three staff members since 1976.

More below.

Preserving history and making it accessible was what Alfred Clark Chapin had in mind when he organized the library in the early 1900s.

An 1869 graduate of Williams, Chapin worked as a lawyer for the Long Island Railroad before getting into New York state politics. A speaker of the legislative general assembly and state controller, the Democrat became the last mayor of Brooklyn and later served a brief stint in Congress.

But his legacy project was creating a library for his alma matter, an idea conceived in 1915 while visiting New York antiquarian bookseller James F. Drake.

The visit ended with Chapin buying a Bible printed in the Algongquin Indian dialect in 1663. It was the first Bible printed in what would become the United States.

By the time the library opened for student use in 1923, Chapin had stocked it with 9,000 volumes. He added another 3,000 works by the time he died in 1936.

His purchases line the shelves resting against the library’s walls. Leather-bound editions that creak and crackle when they’re opened. An illustrated copy of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” First editions by T.S. Elliot and Walt Whitman. Volumes of French, German, Italian and Spanish literature, all available to Williams students and the general public.

“The library was established as a teaching collection, not just a research collection and that makes it different from other rare book collections at colleges and universities,” said Richard Wendorf, director of the Boston Athenaeum and a 1970 Williams graduate. “And for that material to be made readily available to undergraduates is unique.”

Back in the day, not many (any?) undergraduates took advantage of that access. Has that changed much?

But for all the thousands of books, no matter their historical or literary significance, it’s hard to outdo the impressiveness of the four founding documents.

Chapin’s own contributions to that collection were the Bill of Rights, Articles of Confederation and Mason’s copy of the Constitution, which he bought at auction for less than $1,000. The library raised enough money in 1983 to buy the Declaration of Independence — one of only 26 copies known to still exist — for $412,500. The last copy to come up for auction a few years ago sold for about $8 million.

Chapin, Hammond said, “believed in a thorough study of the history of America. He wanted to have something that documented our civilization.”

Who will write a senior thesis about Alfred Chapin? Although every Eph has the inalienable right to choose her own thesis topic, the more that you focus on Williams, the more likely your thesis is to be interesting, original and widely read. More people (non-professors/non-family) have read Robinson Sawyer’s ’03 thesis on the end of the fraternity era than will read in aggregate the theses written this year, as worthy as they may otherwise be.

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