Collection Description

J. W. Watts, Reading the Emancipation Proclamation, 1864. Engraving.

Cornell's Anti-Slavery and Civil War Collections

The Cornell University Library owns one of the richest collections of anti-slavery and Civil War materials in the world, thanks in large part to Cornell's first President, Andrew Dickson White, who developed an early interest in both fostering, and documenting the abolitionist movement and the Civil War. Even before his arrival at Cornell, White used his lectures at the University of Michigan to respond to the issues of the War by pointing out to his students as many examples as he could of societies that valued the rights of free men over the shallow benefits of slavery. A.D. White also invited abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass to lecture on the Michigan campus. Although White himself did not qualify for military service, he rallied his students and Michigan units with his lectures on duty and individual rights.

The May Anti-Slavery Collection

In 1870, White was instrumental in bringing an extensive collection of slavery and abolitionist materials gathered by his close friend, Reverend Samuel Joseph May, to the Cornell Library. Numbering over 10,000 titles, May's pamphlets and leaflets document the anti-slavery struggle at the local, regional, and national levels. Much of the May Anti-Slavery Collection was considered ephemeral or fugitive, and today many of these pamphlets are scarce. Sermons, position papers, offprints, local Anti-Slavery Society newsletters, poetry anthologies, freedmen's testimonies, broadsides, and Anti-Slavery Fair keepsakes all document the social and political implications of the abolitionist movement.

"Stowage of the British Slave Ship Brookes" From: Regulated Slave Trade: From the Evidence of Robert Stokes, Esq., given before the Select Committee of the House of Lords. London: J. Ridgway, 1851.

News of the arrival of Samuel May's collection at Cornell spread, and in 1874 the abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Gerrit Smith, wrote, signed, and circulated an appeal to their friends and supporters in America and Great Britain, urging that it was of "great importance that the literature of the Anti-Slavery preserved and handed down, that the purposes and the spirit, the methods and the aims of the Abolitionists should be clearly known and understood by future generations." The effort was successful, bringing in further scarce and original manuscripts and publications, allowing the Cornell Library to develop an Anti-Slavery collection that is unique for its depth and coverage.

Andrew Dickson White also developed his own collection of documents, pamphlets, and letters on the progress of the Civil War. He saved the letters his students sent him from the battlefield, and gathered maps, newspapers, prints, clippings, and other ephemera. When White's library was transferred to Cornell in 1891, his Civil War collection contained hundreds of bound volumes of pamphlets, documenting all aspects of the War-social, political, and religious. The pamphlets in Samuel J. May's great Anti-Slavery library are now available as electronic searchable text for the first time. The May Anti-Slavery pamphlets can be accessed through Cornell's catalog, and by searching the collection from this Web site.

Continue to Samuel J. May Biography