At the age of 17 years, convinced of the inestimable benefits of reading useful books, I anxiously desired that they might, if possible, be extended to the great mass of the human family; and endeavored to discover some effective plan for this purpose. . . . Hence the suggestion occurred that governments, or associations of individuals, might promote the object, by establishing in various districts, free circulating libraries, to be equally accessible to all classes and sexes without discrimination.
– Dr. Jesse Torrey, Jr., The Intellectual Torch (1817)
In 1815 a young physician named Jesse Torrey made his way from his home in New Lebanon, NY through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, and finally to Washington, D.C. Torrey’s mission was to raise support (and funding) for a radical new project: the creation of free, government-supported public libraries.
One of Torrey’s stops along the way was Montpelier, the Virginia estate of President James Madison. There he met with the President, who “expressed his approbation” for the project.
The enthusiastic Torrey continued on to Washington to begin lobbying Congress for his cause. But soon after his arrival in the new nation’s capital, Torrey witnessed a horrifying sight: a column of manacled African-Americans—men, women, and children—being led through the streets to be sold into slavery in Georgia. Appalled, Torrey immediately wrote a lengthy remonstrance on the injustice of slavery in the American republic. Like many abolitionists of the time, he wrote at length about the common practice of kidnapping free blacks to be sold into slavery. He also emphasized the need for education of all races.
His pamphlet, titled A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery in the United States, was published in 1817 with five engraved illustrations based on the work of Alexander Rider.
It was an inexpensive publication, bound in green printed paper boards with an excerpt from Joel Barlow’s Columbiad on the back cover.
ZSR Special Collections owns a copy of Torrey’s work, with an intriguing inscription on its title page: “James Madison, Esq. and his Lady.”
Was this copy of an abolitionist tract owned by James and Dolley Madison?
The inscription is not an exact match for other James Madison autographs (it’s a bit inconclusive, since the “James” part has been overwritten by a later owner). It is perhaps more plausible that the volume was inscribed by Torrey himself and presented to the Madisons as a gift.
After his initial introduction in 1815 Torrey kept up his acquaintance with the Madisons, visiting them at least one more time and corresponding with the former President in the 1820s and 30s. He is known to have given them a copy of one of his later works, The Moral Instructor.
If the Madisons did own ZSR’s copy of Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, it’s impossible to know what they thought of it. James Madison, like many of the founding fathers, was conflicted about slavery—but not enough so to free the hundreds of enslaved people at Montpelier. Dolley Madison, though raised in an abolitionist Quaker home, nonetheless sold many of the Montpelier slaves to pay debts after James’s death.
In an 1822 letter James Madison refers to an apology proferred by Torrey after a recent visit, assuring him that he and Mrs. Madison had not noticed the unspecified offense. Did Torrey fear that he’d been too outspoken in his abolitionist view? It’s possible, but we can only speculate.
For the rest of his life Jesse Torrey remained active in abolitionist circles but devoted most of his time to his original passions—public education and free libraries. He did not live to see any of these causes fully realized. But the unassuming volume in ZSR Special Collections bears witness to the importance of Torrey, and thousands like him, in arguing for education and against discrimination, and in holding American leaders accountable for the values they are supposed to represent.