New Edition of an MHS Manuscript Diary in Print: “Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England”

By Ondine LeBlanc

Cover Jacket of Published Volume with portrait of Ellen CoolidgeA little more than a year ago now, a hefty package arrived in the Publications office at the MHS. Sent from a corollary office at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s hilltop home in Virginia, it contained reams of closely printed paper. Along with various administrative sheets, such as permissions letters from art museums in London, the pages in the package included the text that would become our newest publication–an edition of the 1838-1839 travel diary of Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, one of Jefferson’s grandchildren (and his reported favorite). The original, handwritten document made its way into the Society’s collections in 1964. Born in Virginia, Ellen Randolph had married Boston merchant Joseph Coolidge, Jr., in 1825 and became a Bay State resident thereafter.  

The transcription–entirely unabridged–and annotations had been prepared by two editors based at Monticello, Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla. With the fruit of their labors now in our hands, Associate Editor Suzanne Carroll and I (plus several very helpful volunteers) began our part of the work: copyediting all of the notes and front matter and “collating” the transcription. The latter process is how we review the quality of a documentary edition, reading the typed transcription against the original manuscript. Taking our cue from the team in the Adams Papers Editorial Project, we do what documentary editors call a “tandem collation”: one person reads the typed text aloud while the other reads along in the handwritten manuscript, making sure they agree with the rendering of every word, every comma, every underlining.

Some colleagues may not agree with me, but it can be a tedious process. One does not get to read quickly when doing collation. No skimming the dry bits. But here’s the thing about Ellen Coolidge’s diary: it doesn’t have so many dry bits. In all the collating of historical punctuation and extra-curmudgeonly copyediting of annotations (we needed to make sure, for example, that every compound term is spelled exactly the same way throughout hundreds of pages of notes), Ellen’s words kept us going. She is astonishingly erudite–I’m sure the range of her knowledge could have put some of her college-educated male peers to shame–and her quick mind makes revealing, and sometimes irreverent, connections among the goings-on she observes. One moment I might be throttling my keyboard, trying to determine the exact title of some English peer, and then I’d find myself laughing over Ellen’s description of a bust she encounters at a gallery:

Saw in the Adelaide Gallery an electric eel of great size, and a marble head of Lord Brougham in a marble wig with marble curls. Looks like a Butcher’s dog with a wig, on & reminded me of an anecdote of Garrick playing King Lear and laughing in the most pathetic scene, where he should have been weeping over the body of Cordelia, at the sight of a dog in the pit, upon whose head his fat, perspiring master had placed his wig to the great relief of his own shining & naked noodle.

There are, of course, also more serious insights in her diary entries. As a visitor in a culture with a very different class structure, and in a city much more densely populated than the one she is used to, Ellen often has the advantage of unfamiliarity, allowing her to see her environment in sharp perspective. On one of her first drives into London, the crowds of humanity motivate her to think about free will: “they appeared more like flocks or herds obeying the impulse of a voice & a hand from behind than thinking beings going on their own way, chusing their own path, impelled each one by individual motives & governed by their several & independent wills.” Her thoughts turn to a treatise on ant colonies that she has read, and she notes a similarity, but ultimately she draws a distinction between humans and ants based on an idea of social evolution: “But with them all is instinct, men are governed by reason. that is Ants are stationary, neither advance nor recede, while men are capable of both.  Ants are the same now, no doubt, that they were in the commencement of their career—They were wise & methodical as they are now. They are strict conservatives. . . . [Y]et change, the power of improvement, the restless desire for a better order of things is what distinguishes the man from the insect, since it shews the working within him of the principle of progress.”  “Such,” she concludes, “were some of the strange thoughts which distracted my attention from my immediate object, the pursuit of a Cashmere shawl.” 

The Coolidge lineage of Ellen and Joseph has generously provided the MHS with some truly wonderful family archives, including this diary, passed along to us by Ellen’s great-granddaughter Mary Barton Churchill. In 1893, Ellen’s son Thomas Jefferson Coolidge gave the Society a substantial collection of Thomas Jefferson’s personal papers. His gift established the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, the largest holding of Jefferson’s papers outside of the Library of Congress–and the largest bar none of his personal papers. Click here to view selected items from this collection available on the Society’s website.

I’ll be reading Ellen’s diary again over the holiday, and maybe I’ll get a chance to post a few more of my favorite bits.  I hope you’ll share yours too.


* How I wish there were a diary from that trip!

This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

Looking for some intellectual engagement as a reprieve from the holiday madness? Look no further than the MHS this week.

On Tuesday, 13 December at 5:15 PM the final installment of 2011 for the Boston Environmental History Seminar brings Harvard University’s Daniel Barber to the MHS to present his research Phase-Change: Maria Telkes after the Dover Sun House. Catherine Zipf, Salve Regina University, will provide the comment.

On Wednesday, 14 December at 11:00 AM come visit for a 1-hour gallery talk focused on our exhibition The Purchase by Blood. If you cannot make the gallery talk, remember that all MHS gallery spaces are free and open to the public Monday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.  

And on Saturday, 17 December the 90-minute tour The History and Collections of the MHS departs the front lobby at 10:00 AM.

Also note that the MHS library will be closing at 3:45 PM on Thursday, 15 December. 

Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, Post 9

By Elaine Grublin

The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch.

Sunday December 15th 1861

The war advances slowly, but with pretty steady gain to the side of Union. Recent events are the occupation of Port Royal inlet and Tybee island, &c. by our troops & navy; – the arrest of Messrs Mason, Slidell, &c. on board a British steamer; – the fighting at Fort Pickens. Congress have assembled, & the question of emancipation begins to be discussed there. We have reports of great fires in Charleston, & alarm of negro insurrection. I fear to encourage such a terrible remedy; yet see with awe, the mark of that overruling hand which will probably sweep away slavery through the very war that has been undertaken to protect it.

In January Bulfinch reflects on all the events of 1861, so be sure to continuing following the Civil War series on the Beehive.

This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

There is always interesting research happening in the MHS library. This week, take a bit of time out from your holiday shopping to come learn about some of that research at one of our many programs.  

On Tuesday, 6 December at 5:15 PM the final Boston Early American History Seminar of 2011 brings Abby Chandler, UMass Lowell, and Ruth Wallis Herndon, Bowling Green State University, to the MHS for a Panel Discussion on Colonial Family Law. Cornelia Hughes Dayton, University of Connecticut, will deliver the comment.

Then on Wednesday, 7 December at noon MHS short-term research fellow Megan Prins, University of Arizona, presents her research, Winters in America, 1880-1930 at a brown-bag lunch program.

THIS EVENT HAS BEEN POSTPONED. Finally, on Thursday, 8 December at 5:30 PM the Boston Seminar on the History of Women and Gender wraps up 2011 with a final program at 1154 Boylston Street. as Jennifer Morgan, New York University, discusses Quotidian Erasures: Gender and the Logic of the Early Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. The comment will be delivered by Linda Heywood, Boston University. THIS EVENT HAS BEEN POSTPONED.  CHECK OUR WEB CALENDAR IN THE NEAR FUTURE FOR MORE INFORMATION

Beyond research based programs, on Wednesday, 7 December the MHS offers a special event exclusively for MHS members and fellows.  Starting at 6:00 PM the MHS Fellows and Members Holiday Party offers a chance to share good cheer with other members and MHS staff while enjoying the current exhibition. Click here to register for this event.

And on Saturday, 10 December our 90-minute building tour The History and Collections of the MHS departs the front lobby promptly at 10.00 AM. 

Allegorical Animals

By Anna J. Cook

Welcome to the second installment of our Beehive series, “Readers Relate,” in which we bring you a variety of examples of the type of research being done here in the MHS library.

Today’s responses come from Joshua Kercsmar, a PhD candidate under Mark Noll at the University of Notre Dame who spent several weeks conducting research here at the MHS this past summer.

Can you briefly describe the research project that brought you to the Massachusetts Historical Society?

My dissertation explores how British Americans used the moral meanings of animals to define religious and political identity in the New World. In coming to the MHS I wanted to know how ministers — key interpreters of nature for popular audiences — translated the meanings of animals for their listeners.   

What specific material in our collections made coming to the MHS important to your research?

The extensive collection of sermons at the MHS was a main attraction. Once there, however, I discovered an impressive collection of maps. Maps are important for my project, because engravers often framed them with allegorical scenes of people and animals. To promote whites’ image of themselves as improvers of the land, map-engravers would often portray Europeans in the vicinity of livestock. Scenes of Africa and America, however, tended to show Africans and Indians standing near (or riding atop) various species of wild, reptilian, or otherwise unproductive creatures. Through these kinds of comparisons, map-images helped reinforce the notion that Britain was more civilized and virtuous than other cultures.

While you were working here, was there something you examined that surprised you? What was it, and why was it surprising?

These animal-tropes were quite persistent, even into the late eighteenth century. Although I wasn’t sure what to expect, their persistence surprised me. I had thought that as the idea of the “noble savage” gained momentum during the eighteenth century, the equation of Indians with morally questionable reptiles might soften. But it didn’t.

Is there a particular quote (or visual image) from the material that you consulted that stands out for you? What is the quote (or image) and why is it important?

On two maps (Joshua Fry’s A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia Containing the Whole Province of Maryland [London, 1755], and John Henry’s A New and Accurate Map of Virginia [London, 1770]), I found not Indians but African slaves, who were portrayed as nearly naked and serving food. Given the strong connection between Africans and wild animals in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century maps, I read the slave-images as emblems of nature tamed. The images are important, because they suggest how common was the link (so often made in pro- and anti-slavery writings) between African slaves and domestic animals.

If you brought a visitor to the MHS and you had a chance to show them ONE item from our collections, what item would it be?

Detail of plate from Atlas des Colonies Angloises en AmeriqueI would show them the Atlas des Colonies Angloises en Amérique, which contains thirty-eight maps printed in a wide variety of styles from 1736 to 1777. Many of the maps I looked at were from this fine collection, although I was delighted to find that the MHS holds nearly two hundred other maps printed between 1500 and 1800 as well.


We invited Joshua to share anything further about his research that Beehive readers might be interested in. He writes:

 I earned my B.A. in Theology from Wheaton College (IL); my M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; and my Th.M. in American Religious History from Harvard Divinity School, where I worked under David D. Hall. I am now a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. History at the University of Notre Dame, and a student of Mark Noll.

My dissertation, entitled “Nature of the New World: Animals, Identities, and the Moral Ecology of British America, 1530–1800,” examines the ways that British Americans turned to the animal world, a vast repository of moral meaning, to make sense of their place in the American wilderness. I argue that ever since the Middle Ages, Britons had read systems of relationships among humans and animals (what we now call ecologies) as religious and moral indicators. Farmers were virtuous because they cultivated useful and industrious animals such as livestock, and killed destructive ones like foxes, crows, and wild dogs. Witches were evil in no small part because they reversed the scheme, cursing livestock and nurturing relations with snakes, frogs, black dogs, and a host of other corrupt animals. Responding to massive religious and social upheaval, sixteenth-century writers and artists expanded this system. They began to link Catholics and indigenous peoples to wolves, reptiles, and other wild beasts; and Protestants to domestic animals and ecological improvement. British colonists brought these ideas with them to America. Adapting them to new contexts (and through a wide range of sources), they came to define Indians and Africans as sub-humans that needed to be killed, removed, or (in the case of slaves) tamed, but themselves as Protestants, Britons, and (by the 1780s and 1790s) virtuous citizens of a new republic.

I also have two articles in progress. One of them explores how booksellers marketed the predictions of Ursula Shipton, an obscure English prophetess, to various London audiences during the English Civil Wars. Another, in the “revise-and-resubmit” stage with the William and Mary Quarterly, argues for the ongoing influence of Perry Miller on studies of early New England.

If you are a researcher who has worked at the MHS and are interested in participating, please contact me and I will be happy to forward our “Readers Relate” questionnaire to you.