Sir William Johnson’s Bookshelf: Millenium Hall

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Sir William Johnson’s 1774 inventory of his New York western frontier estate, Johnson Hall, revealed a superb collection of books and other reading material.

Books were a bit more difficult to acquire in 18th century Johnstown than at present, so one could presume that selecting titles was considered, even more precisely than today, by recommended taste, by familiarity with an author, or perhaps from curiosity after having read a report of the book in the newspapers that arrived from New York City or from England via a New York City agent.

Sir William was also aware of peer importance in ordering the latest novel or work of non-fiction, and he preferred the good services of well-known New York City book-seller James Rivington. Rivington knew Sir William’s tastes so thoroughly that he often placed new pieces in the shipment bundles bound for Johnson Hall by special arrangements with Johnson’s agents; or he included newspapers and books, hot off the press, in special orders placed by Johnson’s local tenant and merchant, Robert Adems.

One of the books listed in the 1774 inventory of Johnson’s furnishings and collections was Milllenium Hall, a book written by Sarah Scott in 1762 in the same year materials were being acquired for the building of Johnson Hall.  I skipped past the title over and over again, assuming it was another popular novel of the day like The Adventures of Roderick Random, which sat close by on the shelves. Further investigation proved it to be unique for its day and a book that would not have made its way to Johnson Hall without some investigation and/or recommendation.

The writer –Sarah Scott – pursued the controversial issues of male subjugation and created quite a stir in her day. Although Sarah’s lifestyle and passions challenged the sex-gender system of 18th century society, her characters were not liberated. They became mired in their own emancipation. However, Sarah Scott’s book may not have been a surprising book to find on the bookshelves of a man who appreciated women who were willing to take a risk in their life choices.

Johnson established a friendship with Lady Susan O’Brien, who had created a stir when her well-placed English family banished her after her controversial marriage to the New York actor William O’Brien. The Johnson family embraced Lady Susan with gusto and entertained her at Johnson Hall. Johnson himself had created a stir among those who printed coffee house gossip and became a thinly disguised character in a popular novel, Crysal or the Adventures of a Guinea.

His interaction with the Six Nations and frontier lifestyle excited the imaginations of many, most particularly in his choice of Molly Brant as his Mohawk wife. Molly provided a strong politically important liaison to the Six Nations and played hostess to men who held powerful 18th century connections in the New York business and political community. Sarah Scott was born in Yorkshire, England in 1723, and began writing when she was a young woman. Her sister, Elizabeth Robinson became the “bluestocking” Elizabeth Montague. The “Bluestockings” were reform-minded individuals, who supported female equality, education, and self-reliance. They were also active in prison and health care reform. Sarah married. For reasons never revealed, her family intervened shortly after the marriage and arranged for an annulment. Her father forbade her mother to help with her support and Sarah was cut out of the family with only a small stipend. Sarah met Lady Barbara Montague – not related to her sister – in 1748 and maintained an intimate relationship with her until Lady Barbara’s death in 1765.

Sarah and Lady Barbara helped the poor, particularly poor women, and initiated cottage industries for those who were “disgraced.” Sarah continued to write and found minor publishing success with a series of novels focused on pious women, servant girls and idealistic virtue. Millenium Hall, published in 1762, was a popular success, its fourth edition printed in 1778. It portrayed a female utopia with the characters each sharing the story of how they arrived at Millenium Hall.

Divine Providence played a major role, and God miraculously intervened in these tales – the wicked were found before their deeds were accomplished and the young women were saved and protected from shame and disgrace. They made their way to the communal environment of Millenium Hall where they found other women with like ideals and where they continued to be protected from poverty and a male-driven world. There is a lack of romance – of any kind – in Sarah’s rather forced environment of industry and good deeds; and there is a savage repulsion for all things male. However, the book struck a chord in a society where women – no matter what their birth – were treated as less valued than men and whose property became that of their husband’s upon marriage.

A year after Lady Barbara’s death in 1765, Sarah attempted to establish a real Millenium Hall in Buckinghamshire. She invited female novelist Sarah Fielding and others to join her venture. She purchased livestock, land, and hired staff; but the project failed in just a matter of months. Sarah then wrote several biographies and a novel “The test of filial duty, in a series of letters between Miss Emilia Leonard, and Miss Charlotte Arlington,” an epistle proclaiming the right of a daughter to choose her husband. Sarah’s father died, and Sarah was able to claim rights to a slightly larger income, which was then supplemented by a small stipend from her sister. Sarah ceased writing and died almost unknown in 1795.

Sir William Johnson’s inventory does not share Johnson’s opinion of the books he owned. We know he loved satire and he believed humanity lay somewhere between the magnanimity of a gifted position in life and the hard working ability of one man to create his own world which could then provide benefit to himself as well as to those around him. He would not have approved of such a harsh condemnation of men as Sarah delivered, but he would have admired her stand and would have admired her acting on her values and beliefs.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “Sir William Johnson’s Bookshelf: Millenium Hall

  1. Kathleen Hulser

    This is fascinating. I wonder if Molly Brant browsed her husband’s bookshelves and found this unusual piece by the obscure Sarah Scott? I love the fact that she wrote it, and then tried it out herself, even if the utopian venture did not last long.

  2. Daniel Weaver

    I have been troubled by this blog post since I first read it a few years ago. As a bookseller who lives near Old Fort Johnson and Johnson Hall, I started researching and writing an article on Sir William Johnson’s library many years ago and am attempting to finish it now. According to my research, there was never a list or inventory of Johnson’s books. The 1774 inventory states that there were nine volumes of little worth. It does not even list their titles.

    I have been going through Johnson’s Papers and other historical documents to create a list of the books that were in Johnson’s library at one time or another. However, a final list will still be somewhat speculative as we cannot be certain that every book that Johnson owned was mentioned in his papers.

    What we do know is that not every book that James Rivington sent him or mentioned in his papers was for him. For example from Johnson’s Papers Volume 4, page 89 we learn that the book, Millennium Hall, mentioned in the above blog post, was not purchased for Johnson but for the women who were residing with him. It is highly unlikely that Johnson read this book or that it ever became part of his library. In his book, White Savage William Johnson and the Invention of America, Fintan O’Toole says that Johnson preferred non-fiction to fiction. My research leads me to the same conclusion, although Johnson may have read Chrysal or the Adventures of a Guinea because he was loosely portrayed in it.

    The above post also states that “Sir William Johnson’s inventory does not share Johnson’s opinion of the books he owned.” Leaving aside the fact that Johnson’s inventory does not inventory his books, it would appear from a letter that James Rivington sent to Johnson that Johnson did state his opinion about some of the books Rivington sent him. In Volume 6, page 733 of Johnson’s Papers, Rivington writes the following to Johnson: “[Mr] 0 brien told me you were disgusted [wit] h my sending
    too many of the literary [pu]blications from England;…”.

    While the above post was interesting, it contains too much speculation and not enough fact.


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