The Sultan’s gift to the Library of Congress
A collection of books and serials presented by the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II to the U.S. Library of Congress in 1884 were recently digitized by the Library of Congress and made available online. The collection includes Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Arabic works embossed with this inscription in English, French and Ottoman: “Gift made by H.I. M. the Sultan Abdul-Hamid II to the national library of the United States of America through the Honorable A.S. Hewitt Member of the House of Representatives A.H. 1302-1884 A.D.”
In the 1907 Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress, librarian Herbert Putnam noted: “About 400 volumes, bound in red Morocco with gilt edges, have been given by the present Sultan, Ghasee (Gazi) Abdul-Hamid II. They comprise works of native authorship, also translations from European languages of works on Medicine, History, Law, Mathematics, Arts, Drama, Fiction, etc.”1
Here is the story behind the Sultan’s gift: When Congressman Abram Stevens Hewitt (1822-1903) of New York took his son in a long trip abroad in 1893, he visited Istanbul. Hewitt and his son were guests of General Lew Wallace, who was then the U.S. Minister to Turkey.
“Wallace was honored with Sultan Abdulhamid’s confidence to such an extent that he became his counselor in important public affairs”
General Wallace had initially brought attention to himself when he broke traditional social customs and diplomatic protocol by asking to shake hands with Sultan Abdulhamid II when he went to present his credentials at the Sultan’s palace. As the Sultan suprisingly approved, this unconventional start later developed into a mutual respect and friendship between the Sultan and General Wallace, who was already famous for his extraorinarily bestselling novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, published in 1880.2
Wallace had not only formed an intimate personal relationship with Abdulhamid II, “but was honored with his confidence to such an extent that he became his counselor in important public affairs” noted the New York Times in 1885.3
As it seemed likely that Hewitt might be nominated as the Democratic candidate for President in the 1884 election, he was granted a special audience with the Sultan at the Yıldız Palace in 1883. The opportunity was pursued by General Wallace, who most probably thought this would be a good opportunity for better U.S.-Ottoman relations and to influence U.S. public opinion. Hewitt’s conversation with Abdulhamid also suggests that prior to the meeting, Lew Wallace had already briefed the Sultan about Abram S. Hewitt and the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
“His majesty came forward as I entered, and, holding out his hand, shook mine in a very frank, cordial manner.”
In a special cable dispatch to the Chicago Tribune in 1883, Hewitt described his meeting with Sultan Abdulhamid:
“Driving to Yıldız we passed through the well laid out and well protected palace gardens. Reaching the main entrance we were received by Munir Bey and introduced to the Ambassador, who ushered us into the presence of the Sultan. His majesty came forward as I entered, and, holding out his hand, shook mine in a very frank, cordial manner.”
Abdulhamid sat on a sofa while his two guests were seated on the large armchairs on each side. “There was a total absence of courtly etiquette and ceremony” wrote Hewitt. “There were no servants and no guards about, the only person present besides ourselves and the Sultan being Munir Bey” Abdulhamid’s favorite diplomat.
“I felt as much at ease as if I were visiting any private gentleman in New York.”
For the cordiality the Sultan had displayed, Hewitt noted: “I felt as much at ease as if I were visiting any private gentleman in New York. Then, Hewitt and the Sultan spent a good twenty minutes “in an interchange of compliments and mutual inquiries after each other’s health.”
On the morning of the day of Hewitt’s visit, the French Ambassador had an audience with the Sultan. Abdulhamid, waging a diplomatic war after the French occupation of Tunisia in 1881, was content with the neutral stance of the United States. Comparing France and the U.S., he told Hewitt: “The stability of institutions in the United States is owing to the absence of politicians, a superabundance of which in France such a disturbing element.”
“I am very fond of the American Nation, because it harbors no designs and pitfalls against my Empire”
After Hewitt gave a sketch of the history of the U.S., Abdulhamid observed: “I have heard that you are likely before long to become a member of the Government” referring to Hewitt’s possible candidacy for President. “Allow me to congratulate you upon the said Government being that of the United States, and not of France. I am very fond of the American Nation, because it harbors no designs and pitfalls against my Empire.”
Regarding Hewitt’s conversation , the New York Tribune wrote: “His Majesty displayed a remarkable familiarity with American politics. In fact, Abdul Hamid announced several discoveries, proving a remarkable insight into the affairs of a distant country.”4
“Jews were granted homes in Turkey at a time when no Christian country would receive them”
In an attempt to explain the status of Ottoman religious minorities to Hewitt, Abdulhamid noted: “In some respects a Christian has the advantage of the Moslem, as, for instance, in the settlement of debts, when Christian creditors are paid first. Moreover, Jews have over and over again come to Turkey to avoid persecution in their native countries. Most of the European Jews in Turkey have descended from Spain and were granted homes in Turkey at a time when no Christian country would receive them. Most of the Jews in Turkey still continue to speak Spanish.”
“His Majesty struck me as being a perfect gentleman”
Sultan Abdulhamid’s manners had obviously impressed Hewitt, who wrote: “His Majesty struck me as being a perfect gentleman. His manner exceedingly courteous and friendly… He seemed a man of great intelligence of thought. His intellect, I should say, was rather of a metaphysical order, and his mind was given to searching out and studying details rather than considering subjects generally. His Majesty, as we presented our adieus, desired me to write to him when in New York.”5
Later newspaper articles reported that Sultan Abdulhamid had told Hewitt about his love for smoking Virginia tobacco and Hewitt, upon his return in the U.S., sent the Sultan a box containing the finest Virginia tobaccos and indelible pencils. As the correspondence between Sultan Abdulhamid and Abram Hewitt continued, the next year, in 1884, Abdulhamid’s gift of books arrived at the U.S. Capitol, where the Library of Congress was housed. The collection consisted of about 395 volumes published after Abdulhamid II’s accession to the throne in 1876, and showed the Sultan’s intention to emphasize the intellectual progress achieved during his reign.
Abram Hewitt later served as the Mayor of New York City for two years beginning from 1887 and was a trustee of Columbia University from 1901 until his death in 1903. Yet, for historians and students of Ottoman-American relations, this brief meeting makes him an interesting figure of note.
2-İbrahim Kalın, “Sultan Abdülhamid, Lew Wallace ve Bir Oryantalizm Hikâyesi”, Derin Tarih, February 2016.
3-The New York Times, October 24, 1885.
4-The New York Tribune, October 27, 1883.
5-The Chicago Tribune, October 26, 1883.
6- From the collections of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum, Crawfordsville, Indiana