The Spirit of 1776: An American Copy Book Older than This Country (Slightly)


34370, front wrapper with an engraving illustrating a fable.

Since we are inaugurating a long weekend celebrating Independence Day today (huzzah for a holiday on Monday!), I thought it might be appropriate to share an equally important contemporaneous manuscript to the Declaration of Independence from the Cotsen collection.

The above image is the front wrapper of Samuel Holbrook’s copy book. Composed between June and September 1776 in  Hartford, Connecticut and Boston, Massachusetts, this copy book is a rare written artifact that has survived from the time of the founding of this country. A copy book (or copybook) is an educational practice book in which a pupil practices penmanship and the basics of reading (and often arithmetic) by copying as closely as possible passages from an engraved instruction manual. So of course, they often contained alphabets of Roman and italic letters, upper and lower case to copy.

page [8]

page [8]

Sam Holbrook’s copy book happens to have an entry that is a day earlier than a very auspicious date for this country:


page [1]. Notice that Sam is using red ink for the headings and black for the precepts.

As you might have guessed, besides learning the rudiments of penmanship, copy books were often meant to be morally instructive  by providing life advice. These kinds of proverbial couplets pictured above, and other aphorisms, are typical  fodder for copy books and other forms of moral instruction throughout the  eighteenth century (think of the various kinds of “sayings” from the wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanac).

page [11]

page [11]. Notice that Sam used red, blue, and black ink on this page.

 Either Samuel Holbrook hadn’t heard the recent news about independence or had (Gasp!) Tory sympathies. In the image below, Sam has copied out an extensive praise of British merchants and their far-reaching benefits:

page [13]

page [13]. Sam was probably using a British copy book, which might also explain all the pro-English sentiments.

 If you want to read more about how this Cotsen copy book has been featured in our public outreach program, Cotsen in the Classroom, check out this blog post by Dr. Dana on her blog: Pop Goes the Page.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!