New Year’s Day 1812

by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

Page from Harriet Otis diary
Page from the diary of Harriet Otis, 1811-1814

Wedy Jany 1st – The new year commenced in bustle and hurry – All was preparation for the grand event of waiting on the Queen – the room smoked so while we were dressing, that our eyes looked as tearful and red as if we were going to a funeral instead of a frolic.

Thus began New Year’s Day 1812 for 24-year-old Harriet Otis. The day was full of activity and interesting people, and fortunately for us, she described it all in her diary.

The Otis family lived in Washington, D.C., and the first item on the day’s agenda was the New Year’s reception at the White House. Harriet’s father, Samuel Allyne Otis, was secretary of the Senate, and like many other well-to-do Washingtonians, the Otises made an appearance at this important social occasion. (“The Queen” was Harriet’s somewhat snarky nickname for First Lady Dolley Madison.)

Harriet rode to the White House in the carriage of Hannah (Hooper) Reed, the wife of a Congressman from Massachusetts. It was a busy day in the city.

After a little hurry scurry our carriages set of[f] on full tilt – the whole city was alive – everybody in motion. [At the White House] we were jostled […] about two hours, diverted with strange figures and smiling and bowing and recieving [sic] good wishes untill [sic] it was time to go to Mrs Lloyd’s to dine.

The Otises’ next stop was the home of James Lloyd, senator of Massachusetts, and his wife Hannah (née Breck). It’s obvious from her diary that Harriet knew some of the most eminent men and women of the time, not just through her father, but also her brother Harrison Gray Otis and her uncle and aunt, James and Mercy (Otis) Warren.

I could identify some, but not all, of the people who dined at the Lloyds’ that day. Even so, Harriet’s uncensored opinions on the members of her exclusive social circle—and her gossipy, breezy writing style—make the diary very fun to read. We’ll start with Mrs. Lloyd.

A very sweet lovely woman but not always a very entertaining companion, having [a] trick of looking dreadfully wearied with everything.

Someone named Dr. Mitchell made a distinct impression, and I particularly like how Harriet described him.

As curious an Animal as any menagerie can furnish – very harmless though and accommodating too, for let him talk (and it is difficult to prevent him) he little regards whether you are listening or not – pompous, vain but goodnatured – his brain filled with all sort of knowledge ill digested and worse assorted.

And then, unexpectedly, a name I recognized.

Fulton the grand inventor of all manner of schemes – torpedos steamboats &c &c – just obtained a patent for building steamboats on the western waters for twenty eight years – His exterior quite prepossessing.

Portrait of Robert Fulton
Robert Fulton, from the frontispiece of Robert Fulton and the Clermont, 1909

When Harriet met him, the accomplished Robert Fulton had embarked on a venture to establish exclusive rights to steamboat passage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Just days after she wrote this entry in her diary, in fact, his steamboat New Orleans would complete its maiden voyage.

But while he was much renowned for his inventions, Fulton was also unfortunately (according to Harriet) a Democratic-Republican, and the Lloyds, Otises, and Reeds were all Federalists. Outnumbered, Fulton used a time-honored tactic for navigating political conversations during the holidays: avoidance.

Certainly a politic man for he wa[i]ved a political discussion (being a high Demo in company with feds) by saying “Dont ask me about politics, I have nothing in my head but wheels and pivots.”

A very happy and healthy New Year from the MHS to all of you and yours.