Collections Celebrated during Constitution Day

Olivia DrakeSeptember 27, 20219min
During Wesleyan’s celebration of Consitution Day, Richard Dietrich III ’92 Dietrich showed George Washington’s personal copy of the Acts of Congress. Washington not only signed the book, but he also included handwritten words “”President,” “Powers,” and “Required” in the margins. Washington only made such notes in two books. “This is what’s so interesting about these original documents—is that you can see how somebody owned this and what they did with it. So this you know is something that you can interpret was a very important book to him,” Dietrich III said.

In 1789, Congress ordered the printing and distribution of 600 bound copies of the Acts of Congress that contained the founding documents of the Constitution and the establishment of the Union. Of those books, only three remain today, and one is George Washington’s personal copy.

This rare volume, which was bequeathed to Washington’s nephews in 1799, was exchanged and sold to several collectors for 165 years until it was acquired by former Wesleyan Trustee Richard Dietrich, Jr. ’60, P’92— who established the Dietrich American Foundation in 1963.

“This is the most important book that my father ever had,” said Dietrich’s son Richard Dietrich III ’92. “It immediately put him on the map as a big-time collector at a very, very early age— the age of 24.”

Dietrich III, who is now a director of the Dietrich American Foundation, shared the history of the book and his father’s legacy in collecting during Wesleyan’s annual celebration of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day on Sept. 17. Through a talk open to the entire Wesleyan community, Dietrich III and Suzy Taraba ’77, MALS ’10, director of Wesleyan’s Special Collections and Archives, offered a virtual viewing of documents that helped shaped our nation’s founding.

Although the items were presented virtually, both Taraba and Dietrich III noted that all items owned by the collections are available for in-person viewing. Special Collections and Archives houses more than 10,000 linear feet of university archives, local history, manuscripts, and 45,000 rare books including The Dietrich Foundation’s books and manuscript collection.

“We have a rich collection, and it’s meant to be a teaching collection,” Taraba said. “In a typical pre-pandemic academic year we were doing 80 to 120 class sessions a year across a very broad range of disciplines— from dance to earth and environmental sciences, history, English, many foreign language classes, to languages and literatures. Here, we can offer a very interactive class, rather than a lecture, where students can really have a hands-on opportunity to study and learn about these materials.”

Similarly, the Dietrich American Foundation offers its collection of 18th century American decorative and fine arts, books, and manuscripts to be loaned to museums for public consumption.

“My dad started collecting at Wesleyan. Wesleyan was a place that he loved … it’s a place that instilled in him a love of history and that’s really the sort of the touchstone of what this foundation is— it’s a collection of Americana furniture, paintings, other fine and decorative arts, and books and manuscripts,” Dietrich III said. “Those printed works, maps, atlases, letters, original documents—those to my father were really the raw materials of history and history was the thing that really drove him as a collector.”

hamilton letter
Dietrich III showed this signed letter from Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) to Connecticut elector Jeremiah Wadsworth (1743-1804) about the presidential election of 1796. In it, Hamilton explains why New York should support either John Adams or Thomas Pinckney for the president, and not Thomas Jefferson.  Hamilton was an influential interpreter and promoter of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the founder of the Federalist Party.
confederation paper
Dietrich shared a first edition 1777 printing of the Articles of Confederation. “This is a really rare, interesting piece that has real relevance to Constitution Day today. It took four years for states to ratify this … and it really set the stage until a real constitution is written.”
The Federalist: A Collection of Essays Written in Favor of the New Constitution, as Agreed Upon by the Federal Convention, are a rare first-collection printing 85 seminal essays by Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), James Madison (1750-1836), and John Jay (1745-1836). These volumes, which were gifted to the Dietrich American Foundation in 2007, remain in the original uncut publisher’s boards. The Federalist papers were published in 1788 and were written as part of an effort to ratify the Constitution.
Taraba also shared a copy of The Federalist papers from Wesleyan’s Special Collections. She noted the pages’ raggedy edge, known as a deckle edge, and how the pages were not cut at the top. “So one thing we can tell for sure about this copy, is that no one actually read from start to finish. This is a copy that was prized from the beginning, kept in it as close as possible to its original state, meant to be saved for posterity, not meant to be devoured by a reader. It’s really fascinating to be able to see something like this and handle something like this in as close as possible to the original state.”
washington paper
In this handwritten letter, owned by the Dietrich American Foundation, George Washington congratulates Benjamin Franklin for successfully negotiating a Treaty of Alliance between France and the United States in 1778. The peace treaty helped secure the independence of the United States.
Dietrich book
Richard Dietrich IIII spoke about the book, In Pursuit of History A Lifetime Collecting Colonial American Art and Artifacts (Yale University Press, 2020), which showcases 18th century American fine and decorative arts owned by the Dietrich American Foundation collection. Dietrich is a co-editor of the volume.