First US census counts up to $122,500

A library of rare books and valuable manuscripts, the James S Copley collection, which we profiled in a recent newsletter, would probably be impossible to match today by any private collector.

Particularly fine were the Presidential autographs, which had Americana collectors barely able to contain their excitement in the run- up to the first of eight auctions, which took place yesterday at Sotheby's, New York.

Although highly rated, one of the top lots was a slight surprise: it was a first edition of the first American census, issued by then secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, listing all people across the then 13 states of American, and South-West Territory, by both state and county.

People are divided into four categories of free people adult and juvenile males, females and others, whilst there is just one category for slaves.

As few as 200 copies of the 1791 document may have been printed, according to Sotheby's Books and Manuscripts expert Selby Kiffer. The census was treated as a document for viewing by the political class, not the public.

First US census signed by Thomas Jefferson
First US census signed by Thomas Jefferson
(Click to enlarge)

Given a guide price of $50,000-70,000, the collectible piece sparked some frenetic bidding, finally selling for $122,500. It is only the third copy of the 1791 census to sell at auction since 1975, and the other two brought only $85,000 (Christie's) and $47,000 (Sotheby's), perhaps showing an increasing value for top end autographs and Americana.

This was not the only Jeffersonian document in the collection, of course. There were several others, of which the most interesting was probably a one-and-a-half page letter to Judge Spencer Roane.

This touches on several matters concerning the now third President, one being his worries about the judiciary subtly drawing power in to themselves.

"The great object of my fear is the federal judciary. that body, like Gravity, ever acting, with noiseless foot, & unalarming advance, gaining ground step by step, and holding what it gains, is ingulphing insidiously the special government into the jaws of that which feeds them."

Jefferson also touches on the question of Missouri, which was being admitted to the Union despite being a slave-owning state. Jefferson held an anti-slavery position in general, but was worried about the effects imposing special limits on the Missouri's self-control in order to phase out slavery would threaten the Union.

The intriguing piece easily beat its $25,000-35,000 guide price to be taken home for $56,250 by a happy bidder. Collectors interested in classic Americana may wish to take a look at our American Presidents Portfolio.


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