Beverly Wilson Palmer and Charles Sumner on C-SPAN

By Kathleen Barker

On 17 February, Beverly Wilson Palmer spoke at the MHS in honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Sumner. Palmer, the editor of the Charles Sumner Papers, highlighted the lifelong efforts and achievements of this prominent abolitionist and U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. Thanks to our friends at C-SPAN, Palmer’s lecture will air on C-SPAN 3 this weekend! You can view the lecture on Saturday, 25 June at 6:00 PM and 10:00 PM, and again on Sunday, 26 June at 11:00 AM. Visit the C-Span website for a preview of Palmer’s remarks or to check your local listings.

A Description of One Letter John Quincy Adams Sent to his Father in June 1811

By Nancy Heywood

In recognition of Father’s Day we’d like to share one example of a letter that a noteworthy son (John Quincy Adams) sent to his noteworthy father (John Adams).


In June 1811, John Quincy Adams (JQA), his wife, Louisa Catherine, and their youngest son, Charles Francis Adams, were all living in St. Petersburg, where JQA was serving as the U. S. Minister to Russia.  JQA, the oldest son of John and Abigail Adams, wrote letters fairly often to his parents.  One letter (dated 30 May and 7 June because it was written on two days in 1811) offers an example of the thoughtfulness, eloquence, and respect JQA displayed towards his father. 

The long letter, written when JQA was 43 years old, mainly focuses on his decision to decline an appointment to the U. S. Supreme Court and to remain at his diplomatic post in Russia.  For more details and context about this opportunity presented to JQA, please consult one of the biographies listed below.  The intention of this blog post is to share a few sentences written by JQA to his father, who was a former diplomat, former President of the United States, and a notable letter writer himself. 

In the letter, JQA states how honored he felt to be nominated by President Madison for the Supreme Court and also expresses his surprise at the Senate’s unanimous approval.  JQA appreciates the encouragement of his parents, who urged him to accept the position and return home to his country after nearly two years abroad; however he cites several reasons why he decided not to accept the position.  A key reason related to “a simple and very natural circumstance in the condition of my family….”  He is referring to his wife’s pregnancy, although he doesn’t use that exact word.  He states that he is not tempted to make a long ocean voyage and “to expose the lives of a wife and infant to the dangers inseparable from such a passage ….”  

The letter conveys JQA’s concern with how his parents will regard his decision and actions.  He clearly cares about the opinions of his parents, “…in the whole course of my life I scarcely ever did a responsible act, of which I was proud or ashamed, without feeling my soul soothed or galled with the reflection of how it would affect the sensibility of my Parents….” He also writes that he looks to his father’s life and past actions for guidance:  “As a direction for my conduct upon every occurrence involving public principle, I know of no human law more unerring than your example.”  JQA clearly hopes that he has explained his reasoning convincingly and that his father will understand and support his decision.  Towards the end of the letter, he writes, “I feel … a cheerful confidence that after fully weighing the difficulties of my situation, you will approve the grounds upon which I have rested.”

A published version of most of the letter (the long section he wrote on 7 June 1811) can be found in The Writings of John Quincy Adams, volume 4, 1811-1813. Edited by Worthington C. Ford. New York: Macmillan Company, 1914. See pages 98-102.  This is available online through GoogleBooks.

The manuscript (Letter from John Quincy Adams to John Adams, 30 May – 7 June 1811) is a four-page letter, and is part of the Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. This manuscript collection has been microfilmed and this letter appears on reel 411.

Three biographies that provide more detailed information about JQA’s nomination to the U. S. Supreme Court:

 Hecht, Marie B.  John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of an Independent Man. (NY: Macmillan Company, 1972).

 Nagel, Paul C.  John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life.  (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).

 Remini, Robert V.  John Quincy Adams.  (NY: Times Books, 2002).

Happy Bunker Hill Day!

By Elaine Grublin

Today, 17 June 2011, marks the 236th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.  The battle that occurred on that “decisive day” has taken on an almost mythical quality in telling the story of the American Revolution and is still being studied and interpreted by scholars and history enthusiasts here in Boston and around the globe. The MHS holds a number of original documents, maps, and artifacts that help tell the story of the early days of the American Revolution, including the Battle of Bunker HIll.  As you mark this day please visit our website and check out a few of those Bunker HIll related items.

View a high resolution image of this manuscript map, drawn by a British soldier several months after the battle, here.

Read a letter written by Colonel William Prescott, a leader of the rebel troops at Bunker HIll, to John Adams, attending the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, describing the events of Bunker Hill here.

Also, this month our Object of the Month web display features an important MHS artifact related to the battle. The swords of Colonel Prescott and Captain John Linzee, of the Royal Navy, were brought together when William Hickling Prescott, a grandson of Colonel Prescott, married Susan Amory, a Linzee descendant, in the 19th century.  You can read the full story, and view a high resolution image of the swords here

This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

We have a busy week coming up.  Whether you are in the neighborhood at lunchtime or after work, there is something for everyone at the MHS this week.  All events are free and open to the public. 

Monday, 13 June, at noon current Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati fellow David Preston, The Citadel, will present his research “Braddock’s Veterans: Paths of Loyalty in the British Empire, 1755-1775.”

On Tuesday, 14 June, also at noon, historian and author Julie Winch, University of Massachusetts-Boston, will be at the MHS to talk about her newest book, The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America.  Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the event.  

On Thursday, 16 June — the eve of the anniversary of the Batlle of Bunker HIll — at 6:00 PM, historian and author Paul Lockhart offers a program centered on his latest book The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George Washington.  This event is co-sponsored by Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.  Light refreshments will served at 5:30 PM.  RSVP’s are encouraged for this event.

And on Saturday, 18 June, join us at 10:00 AM for our weekly building tour.  Spend 90 minutes with an MHS docent learning about the HIstory and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Brown-Bag Lunch Talk: “Drops of Grace and Mercy”

By Anna J. Cook

On Wednesday, 1 June, past and present fellow Rachel Cope of Brigham Young University gave a brown-bag lunch talk on her current book-length project “Drops of Grace and Mercy: How Women Cultivated Personal Change Through Conversion Processes.” Much of the existing scholarship on the Second Great Awakening of religion in American life focuses on what Cope identifies as external forces. Scholars ask what socioeconomic forces, such as industrialization and migration, precipitated the culture of religious revival life during the first half of the nineteenth century. Cope argues that this emphasis on externalities has lead to an inordinate focus on male participants, since men were most often the visible preachers and organizers. When women appear in the existing scholarship, it is most often in the aggregate, as a demographic very likely to participate in the revivals. In part because of the equation of femininity with spirituality, women’s participation in religious movements has been understood as natural rather than worthy of particular note. Thus, there has been a dearth of critical historical analysis of women’s involvement in revival activities.

Seeking to address this gap in the scholarship, Cope focuses on women’s spiritual experience as religious seekers, asking how and why they came to religious conversion and what women did after they chose a certain spiritual course. Recently, Cope has begun to think about the concept of “agency,” an idea that has a lot of currency in present historical scholarship. When historians speak and write of agency, they are trying to understand the degree of freedom individuals and populations had, within a certain historical context, to make meaningful choices and pursue their desired life course. Because of the emphasis on personal freedom, discussion of agency has often emphasized people whose life choices are radical, people who are obviously pushing the boundaries of what is expected of individuals in their situation. Cope would like to consider not only the agency of exceptional women, but also the agency of women whose spiritual experiences and choices “fit the mold,” or supported (rather than resisted) existing structures. As she says of these women, often “working within the box is [just as] meaningful” as working outside of it.

Discussion following the presentation revolved around how Cope will situate her subjects within broader contexts, even as she focuses on their internal experiences and women’s interpretations of their spiritual lives in diaries, letters, and other forms of autobiographical writing. Those who attended the brown bag asked questions about comparing the female subjects’ writing to the voices of male counterparts; about socioeconomic commonalities among the women who left a spiritual record; about comparisons between religious and non-religious women; and about the possibility of change across time from the early 1800s to the 1850s, when Cope’s research ends.

As Rachel Cope continues her fellowship here, and moves forward with her project thereafter, we wish her the best in forming this valuable contribution to the fields of religious and women’s history.

Paul Revere’s Ride

By Elaine Grublin

A recent news story has resulted in renewed interest in Paul Revere’s famous ride to Lexington, Massachusetts on the night of 18 April 1775.  Within our collections the MHS holds three accounts of the evening’s events, all written by Revere.  Two of the accounts are a draft and fair copy of a deposition likely prepared for the Provisional Congress in 1775, shortly after the events occurred. The third document is a letter written by Revere to Jeremy Belknap, founder of the MHS, circa 1798, in which Revere offers a detailed description and some reflection on the evening’s events. 

Paul Revere’s deposition, draft, circa 1775

Paul Revere’s deposition, fair copy, circa 1775

Letter from Paul Revere to Jeremy Belknap, circa 1798 

In addition to the documents listed above the MHS holds a large collection of Revere family papers – spanning several generations – which is available to researchers in our reading room.  A guide to the collection is available here.

This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

This week the MHS offers two engaging brown-bag lunch programs.  Brown-bag lunches are free and open to the public.  Typically there is a twenty to twenty-five minute presentation, followed by an open discussion of the topic at hand.  You bring your lunch, the MHS provides beverages.

On Wednesday, 8 June, at noon current Ruth R & Alyson R. Miller Fellow Nora Doyle, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents her research “‘A Higher Place in the Scale of Being’: The Maternal Body in America, 1750-1850.” 

On Friday, 10 June, also at noon New England Regional Fellowship Consortium fellow Carrie Hyde, Rutgers University, presents her research “Alienable Rights.”

Also, the current exhibition History Drawn with Light has been extended through 30 June.  If you have not had a chance to visit, or if you would like to visit again, be sure to make time in June to come to the MHS. 

Finally, the Saturday building tour The History and Collections of the MHS returns this week.  Join one of our docents for a 90 minute tour starting from the front lobby at 10:00 AM on 11 June.   

Tornado Strikes Worcester County in 1953

By Nancy Heywood

The devastation caused by the tornadoes that touched down in Springfield, Monson, and other Massachusetts towns on Wednesday (June 1st) is sobering. The damage is substantial–several fatalities, many injuries, buildings and property utterly destroyed, and widespread power outages.

The staff of the Massachusetts Historical Society offers our condolences to those who have suffered losses and hope recovery efforts proceed smoothly for all in the affected communities.

Thankfully, tornadoes are relatively rare in New England but the events of this week are not entirely unprecedented. The tornado that touched down in Worcester County, Massachusetts on 9 June 1953 killed 94 people, injured more than 1,000, and damaged 4,000 buildings. The Massachusetts Historical Society holds an album containing 72 photographs of the Worcester tornado taken by Alfred K. Schroeder. The images depict damage to cars, houses, and other town buildings. Several of these photographs were used in a segment that aired on a local television station in 2003 about the 50th commemoration of the tornado and are available for viewing on the MHS website:

Damage to Assumption College from Worcester tornado

Girl in Kitchen of house damaged by Worcester tornado 

Car in tree after Worcester tornado

Damage to neighborhood from Worcester tornado

Damage and house on road from Worcester tornado