Ephraim Williams Jr.'s Library

"He had a taste for books; and often lamented his want of a liberal education."

So Ebenezer Fitch wrote in his biographical sketch of Ephraim Williams, a sketch based on the memories of his half-sister's husband long after the fact. Fitch also wrote, perhaps with more enthusiasm than accuracy:

... his politeness and address procured him a greater influence at the General Court than any other person at that day possessed. He was attentive and polite to all descriptions of men, but especially to gentlemen of dignified characters; and sought the company and conversation of men of letters.

To a great extent, Ephraim Williams's personal library resembled those of other North American colonists of means. On trips to Boston or Hatfield he could easily have discussed with the people he saw--those "gentlemen of dignified characters" Fitch referred to--Locke's political philosophy, Sir Roger de Coverley's latest observations of early eighteenth-century London, the adventures of Lord Anson's squadron as it approached the stormy southern tip of Africa, or the mythical republic of Oceana with its attendant political theories of power-sharing among the landed gentry.

Williams was also very much a practical man of affairs, and his library reflected that fact. The only sermon he owned was a gift from a Deerfield kinsman. He owned no novels; the only poetry in his collection was Pope's Works . Still, his library was by no means wholly practical. He had no books on agriculture or building--subjects commonly found in private collections in America--possibly because he never owned a home of his own. Many of his books, too, were on travel and history. And even more striking are the Whiggish tracts promoting "country" opposition to "court" rule. The presence of those volumes in the collection may indeed have bespoken a more speculative turn of mind. The Williams family was and would remain decidedly Tory. Yet Ephraim Jr. seems to have had different inclinations, joining in spirit--through the works of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon--the radical Whigs of the London clubs, and perhaps applying their discontents to his own situation on the frontier. Or else why, one is tempted to ask, would he have carefully selected Cato's Letters and The Independent Whig to carry with him on the march to Lake George shortly before his death during the ill-fated Crown Point campaign?

In any case, books were important to him--important enough to order them from a London bookseller such as "John Noon in Cheapside near the Poultry," whose name appears on one list of Williams's books. In the eighteenth century, London was the publishing center for English-language works. It alone had the concentration of skills, facilities, and capital to enable books to be published and distributed on a large scale. Colonists ordering books from London had to arrange payment beforehand, since there was no centralized banking system. With his family connections, Ephraim Williams would have had no difficulty making such arrangements.

It is also interesting to note Williams's care in providing for the deposition of his library. While for the most part it was to be divided between his brothers Thomas and Elijah, some works were singled out and bequeathed to others. Chambers's Cyclopaedia , a popular science dictionary in two massive volumes, and Pope's Works went to John Worthington of Springfield, a close friend who served as one of two executors of the will. Anson's A Voyage Around the World , an exciting narrative of a trip around Cape Horn to China and back, was given to Ephraim's cousin William Williams, who had just graduated from Yale. Apparently Ephraim felt that young William was especially interested in reading, for the will further stipulates that he was to "have the perusal of the books given to my brother's Thomas & Elijah, any reasonable time upon his desire." William Williams later helped organize the free school in Williamstown and was elected President of the trustees at the first meeting of its Board. He went on to serve as one of the original Trustees of the College.

By Lee B. Dalzell, Head of Reference

List of books in Ephraim Williams Jr.'s library