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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · July 06, 2018

Lester J. Cappon and the history of the OI

5 min read

July 6, 2018

As Ben Franklin’s World fans already know, a special additional episode of the show downloaded today just for subscribers. In this special episode, the history of the Omohundro Institute is brought to life through a look at the work of former OI Director and William and Mary Quarterly Editor Lester J. Cappon. (You can still catch the bonus show by subscribing to our free podcast via your favorite provider. Just look for Ben Franklin’s World in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast provider. You could also download the free custom app we have for the show. It’s available in your favorite app store for both iOS and Android devices.)

The OI is the product of discussions that took place in the early 20th century among a group of historians who thought that American History was overly concerned with the post-Civil War period. The roster of founding Council members includes numerous leading historians of the day and, in keeping with its aim to support historical scholarship, leading archivists as well.

Part of that generation of scholars who were trained simultaneously as historians and archivists, Lester Cappon shared many interests and beliefs with these scholars. After he received his PhD in History from Harvard in 1928, he went on to become a history professor and the director of multiple archives, including Special Collections at the University of Virginia, before joining the OI in 1954. His work included road trips throughout the Commonwealth, attempts to locate and acquire manuscript materials that often required convincing people to let go of documents for the sake of the materials’ preservation and the benefit of the wider world.

As an archivist, Cappon believed that producing strong documentary editions was an important way to share the early American past with a broader public as well as to make more information available for historians. As an editor, he worked to convey the humanity behind the letters and papers by taking care to replicate the writer’s choices of annotation and to consider their editorial decisions as well as the stories each writer told when grouping work into volumes or folios. He was the driving force behind The Adams–Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson & Abigail & John Adams. Through his work, we get the back and forth between the Adamses and Jefferson and this, along with their lively writing styles, helps make them human to us. It is no wonder then perhaps that the book remains one of the OI’s most popular publications even now, nearly six decades after its debut.

Even after Lester Cappon left the OI (to become Editor-in-Chief of the Atlas of Early American History at the Newberry Library in 1969), the OI remained a passionate producer of documentary editions and continues to publish collections of great use to the public and historians alike.

Since publishing its first documentary edition in 1947—Robert Beverley’s 1705 work The History and Present State of Virginia (ed. Louis Wright)—the OI has published 26 different documentary projects. These include a second edition of Beverly published in 2013 with an introduction by Susan Scott Parrish, 2012’s The Memoir of Lieutenant Dumont, 1715–1747 (Gordon M. Sayre and Carla Zecher, editors) and multiple multi-volume works spanning decades, such as The Papers of John Marshall (Charles F. Hobson and Joan S. Lovelace, editors).

Now in its 75th year, the OI’s interest in documentary editing has expanded to include a number of digital projects, as well as an ever-broadening conversation about those whose lives and voices elude easy documentation, including early American women, enslaved people, and Native Americans.


Just to make an obvious point, look at the importance of the Newberry Library in all this. Its longtime director, Bill Towner, edited the Quarterly when Lester directed the Institute, his successor, Charles Cullen, was part of the editorial team of the Marshall Papers and responsible for the volume on the XYZ affair, Al Young was a senior fellow there after his retirement, and most recently Carla Zecher directed its Renaissance Center until she became director of the Renaissance Society of America. "Doing history" depends upon institutions--universities of course but other types as well.
Stephen Foster  •  July 06, 2018
Lester and Bill Towner took the Institute Road Show to Princeton, and gave me the courage to try sending an article. Great editing from Bill Abbot merging my writing and Alan Kreiders, and it was an article! Then when Bill came up to the Newberry, Lester "retired" to Chicago, pure heaven for me. Years later Al Young ran the seminar there. You could say that, to the extent that I could, I became an Institute product, thanks to them. Their skill, honesty, and kind friendship saw me through. Bless their memories all. Ken Lockridge
Ken Lockridge  •  July 06, 2018

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