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Pair 17: The Minds of Children

Pair 17: The Minds of Children

Nine-year-old William Granville Petty penned this letter to his father in 1777, while the American Revolution raged (101 Treasures, Item 47). His knowledge of military affairs and his neat penmanship speak to a careful education, suitable for the son of a British earl who would soon rise to be Prime Minister during a defining moment in his nation’s history. It is nestled deep within the library’s William Petty, 1st Marquis of Lansdowne, 2nd Earl of Shelburne Papers, where researchers study high politics, read about governmental policies and debates, and watch matters unfold leading up to the 1783 Treaty of Paris. And yet, carefully preserved in the hundreds of volumes of Shelburne’s extensive archive are two slim, custom-bound volumes of a child’s letters to his father. William Granville Petty would die the year after he wrote this letter to his “dear Papa,” and his treasured correspondence helps us see the Earl of Shelburne in a far more human light than grand narratives tend to allow.

William G[ranville] Petty autograph letter signed to Papa [William Petty, 1st Marquis of Lansdowne, 2nd Earl of Shelburne], December 6, 1777; Bowood Park.
Pen and Ink. William Petty, 1st Marquis of Landsdowne, 2nd Earl of Shelburne Papers. Finding Aid.

It also lets us hear directly from a child’s perspective, a rare enough thing when so much of childhood is told through an adult’s record, a parent’s remembrances, a voice not their own. The growing collections at the Clements Library are increasingly better equipped to help us find these moments. Consider, for example, the cache of papers produced by Grace Abbot (b. 1895) in our Abbot Family Papers. She missed her father dearly while he was away from the family’s home in Warren, Rhode Island, to the point she had even set up her own writing desk and chair, featuring an assemblage of pens, pencils, and pilfered items she loved, along with “a writing pad, ready always to receive an indictment to Daddy.” Over the years, the collection lets us see her evolve‒her scribbled imaginary writing morphs into block letters, which in turn become cursive. “HELLO DAD,” she writes when she is five. “I LOVE YOU‒AND SOMEDAY I WILL LEARN TO WRITE NICELY TO PLEASE YOU.” In her own hand and in her own words, we get the chance to see the young girl she was becoming, just as we saw young William Granville Petty and the man he might have grown to be.