Collecting Delaware Books
Few Delaware public figures seem bigger than life. Perhaps Caesar Rodney, John Edward Addicks, and several of the du Ponts fit the description. Another is Francis Vincent (1822-1884). His many interests and exploits make him seem bigger than life he was also bigger than the common man, weighing, according to one newspaper report, 350 pounds.
Vincent is known to collectors of Delaware books as author of an unfinished history of the state. He was also an innovative newspaper publisher, social crusader, world citizen, philanthropist, and old-fashioned gentleman.
He was born in England but came to this country and Wilmington as a child. When 17 years old, he became a printer's apprentice in the shop of John Newton Harker, then proprietor of Delaware Gazette. Six years later in 1845, he was publishing his own paper, Blue Hen's Chicken, in partnership with William Jeandell. Jeandell, a Wilmington printer, had been a principal partner in the Delaware Republican a few years earlier.
The Blue Hen's Chicken thrived because it featured local news instead of reprinting dispatches from the big city papers. Court proceedings, public meetings, new buildings, ship launchings, and new roads were all reported. Within three months of founding it had the largest circulation in the state. Vincent bought out Jeandell's share two years later.
The paper was sold in 1854 to an ardent abolitionist and subsequently renamed. In 1861, Vincent purchased the Commonwealth, changing its name and reviving the Blue Hen's Chicken masthead. He sold it in 1863.
The paper advocated causes that were liberal or even radical in that day: amending the state constitution to make legislative representation proportional to population, abolition of pillory and the whipping post, abolition of public hangings, simplification of legal language, shortening the work day to 10 hours, abolition of slavery, abrogation of laws that discriminated against free blacks, and public referendums for important laws. The paper and Vincent himself were influential in the cause of free, compulsory public education, a movement that was sweeping the nation at the time.
At a more mundane level he advocated purchasing toll bridges and turnpikes and building new roads to make access to Wilmington and the rivers free. In national matters he supported the homestead law, libraries in prisons and military bases, education for military personnel, appointment of military officers on merit not politics, and a life saving service on the Delaware shore for shipwrecked mariners. A large number of Vincent's causes became law, partly due to the strength of his newspaper and its editorials.
An article Vincent wrote in 1852 exposed an bank fraud in Milford, perpetrated by New Yorkers. He also advocated unification of the Delmarva Peninsula as one state.
His ideas in world affairs were even more ahead of the time. Vincent advocated a world government. As a first step, he supported unification of the English- and German-speaking nations as the Anglo-Saxon Confederation. His writings were known and admired in England. There are two large scrapbooks relating to his international activities in the Bill Frank collection in the library of Historical Society of Delaware. These may have been Vincent's own.
He also suggested a world-wide railroad, starting with a tunnel under the Bering Strait.
When Vincent entered the newspaper business, the two major political parties were the Democrats and the Whigs. He attended the first local meetings of the Republican Party, which opposed extension of slavery into the territories. Vincent's abolitionist writings, especially those relating to the stealing of free blacks, earned him censure by a Maryland court and cost him his Maryland circulation.
Vincent had little formal education but, like so many printers, he acquired a broad education by reading. He was courteous, affable, and generous. One obituary said he "had made and retained more friends than probably any other citizen who had been so long prominent in city politics."
His usual greeting to a visitor in his office was "Be seated have a chair sit down!" even though all the chairs might be occupied. He sometimes greeted people the same way on the street.
At Christmas time, he threw small coins from his window to hundreds of ragamuffins gathered expectantly below. When the circus came to town, he took crowds of youngsters to the show and paid the way for any who could not afford it. Young people were important in his life, and he had five children of his own.
Francis Vincent was a five-term city alderman, trying petty cases. He served a term as city treasurer but failed in attempts to run for mayor. As alderman, he sometimes went beyond duties of the bench. Called out because a man drunk on 6-cent-a-glass whiskey was shooting up a tavern western style, he disarmed and wrestled the man to the ground before arresting him. The police hauled the drunk away in a wheelbarrow. Some on Vincent's clothes were torn off in the fracas, and he hid in an office until a fresh suit was brought.
Another time a huge, rough man entered the Blue Hens's Chicken second floor offices shouting his intention to whip the editor. He was met head-on in the hall by Vincent who rushed him down the stairs and onto the street before he could finish his threat.
Vincent laughingly admitted that his enthusiasm often outran his discretion during the early days in newspapers. Eight times in 18 months readers entered the offices to "wallop the editor." In later years he claimed he had never been whipped but said, "a little thrashing would have sobered down my youthful impetuosity."
His "cowhiding" by an elderly woman in Dover was widely reported. While walking to the Dover railroad station for a trip back to Wilmington, Vincent was accosted by the woman. She pulled a stick from under her coat and began beating him on the back. He fled to the other side of the street and rushed to his train. It seems the lady took offense at an article in the paper about a man claiming to be her son whom she said she had disowned.
Vincent was one of the founding members of the Historical Society of Delaware, though he did not hold office. He was considered infallible in his memory of current affairs, dates, and people. Scharf (History of Delaware) quotes him frequently. Especially interesting is information attributed to Vincent by Scharf telling that the iron for Eastern Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, Moyamensing Prison, and railings that once surrounded Independence Hall was supplied by the Millsborough Charcoal Furnace in Sussex County, Delaware.
Vincent died quietly at home in 1884, surrounded by his wife and children, after a lengthy illness characterized by heart and circulatory problems. He left substantial contributions to Delaware life and letters.
In addition to copies of the Blue Hen's Chicken, four publications of Vincent's are worthy of collector's interest.
A History of Delaware: from its earliest settlement until the present time .... J. Campbell, Philadelphia, 1870 (actually 1871). 9".This book was printed in parts. It was discontinued after 478 pages for lack of commercial success, bringing it to the year 1664. In 1873, the legislature appropriated $500 to encourage resumption of printing on "the united recommendation of all newspapers in the state." Vincent is called "Historian of Delaware" in the bill. However, no further issues were published. Copies can be found in various bindings, often with advertisements of the day bound in. An auction price as low as $65 is recorded along with retail prices of $125 to $200, depending on condition and binding.
Vincent's Semi-Annual United States Register: a work in which the principal events of every half-year occurring in the United States are recorded ... 1 January to 1 July, 1860. F. Vincent, Philadelphia. 662 pages. 9". This book is not common, and apparently the series was not continued.
Essay Recommending the Union of Great Britain and Her Colonies and the United States, and the Final Union of the World in One Great Nation. George W. Vernon. printer: Wilmington, 1868. 10 pages, 7". This a great rarity.
Harkness' Magazine and Lippincott's Magazine printed an article by Vincent titled "Wilmington and Its Industries." Harkness' also published at least some parts of his history of Delaware.
Most of the information in this article was taken from newspaper clippings of the day and a newspaper biography written early this century. Scharf's History of Delaware supplied some detail. Delaware History magazine for April 1968 has an article on Vincent which should be consulted by those wanting additional information. The Bill Frank collection in the Historical Society of Delaware has at least three folders of information on Vincent that should be systematically studied.