The Unkempt Bibliomaniac of Tremont Street: William Shaw and the Life of Federalist Boston
In the precarious first decades of the Boston Athenæum, no one did more to keep the fledgling institution alive than its first librarian, William Smith Shaw. Slovenly in his appearance and extreme in his politics, Shaw could easily come across as disagreeable to his Boston contemporaries. Yet Shaw was much more than the prickly personality who looks disdainfully down at us from his portrait in the Athenæum Newspaper Room. His character was marked by considerable virtues as well, and it is these virtues that should inspire us today, in the troubled and perplexing twenty-first century. In telling the colorful and tragic story of Shaw's life, we will look behind the portrait to find the glowing strengths that helped preserve the Athenaeum in its infancy, strengths that may help inform the institution's work in its maturity.
Professor Daniel Breen is Senior Lecturer in Legal Studies at Brandeis University, a post he has held since 2015. In 2017, he was honored with the Louis D. Brandeis Award for Excellence in Teaching. He grew up in Atlanta, and received his law degree from the University of Georgia. In 2003, he received his doctorate in American history from Boston College. Currently, he is working with Oxford University on the "Quill Project," which is directed at digitally displaying the negotiations that produced the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.
Tracts, or pamphlets, are vital to the story of early U.S. history. The Athenæum holds a substantial collection of tracts, ranging in subject from slavery to religion, from politics to crime, thanks in large part to the voracious collecting of William Smith Shaw, the Athenæum’s first librarian. Judge William Tudor mocked Shaw for his collecting habits: “Gentlemen, said he, that dog Shaw goes everywhere. He knows everybody. Everybody knows him. If he sees a book, pamphlet, or manuscript - Oh! Sir! the Athenæum must have this. Well, have it he will and have it he must and have it he does …” (Quoted in “A Rich and Increasing Treasure: The Growth of the Book Collections of the Boston Athenæum,” by Stanley Ellis Cushing in Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum, 2007, 15-16.)