Guest Post: Searching for the Federalist Party in Massachusetts
I plan to be a professional historian, but I had this nagging worry that sifting through a bunch of historical documents could be a mind-numbing slog that would turn me off of the subject I love so much. Thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Society, I now know I’m in this for the long haul. I had so much fun looking through old letters, speeches, and newspaper publications. Every text seemed to be an appeal from the long-dead author, saying, “Hear me! Know my story!” It was a thrilling experience to hear the perspective of contemporaries and draw my own conclusions.
Once I was shown around the building and told how to navigate the collection, I felt right at home. There is such a welcoming atmosphere, and I really felt the satisfaction of learning from the material, rather than simply completing an assigned project. I could assign real value to my work, and I wasn’t treated like a child. I really enjoyed working on my own investigation, alongside like-minded people, in an environment in which I felt completely at ease. During my visits I was delighted to see other young people doing the same kind of thing. The staff always took me seriously, and was always ready to help if I had a question. Until now I had never used microfiche, but within two minutes the reference librarian had me set up and I knew all I needed to know to use it. I could even take pictures of the old documents and email them to myself so I could do work at home.
My project was an investigation of just what happened to the Federalist party after the Revolution of 1800, the first major turnover of power in our government’s history. Usually we are taught that this defeated party, woefully out of touch with public opinion, faded into obscurity quickly after being defeated by Thomas Jefferson, apparently the dashing savior of the republic. The sources I looked over showed a very different story of a party that raised its standard against what they saw as misgovernment and staged a strong, if brief, political comeback.
My most invaluable resource was a collection of the letters by the arch-Federalist Harrison Gray Otis in the aftermath of the disastrous Hartford Convention. I actually came upon it by accident while looking through a collection of Massachusetts letters for a specific speech. The letters form a plea by Otis to posterity, people like us, to not let the name of Massachusetts be blackened by the misrepresentation of its conduct by the rest of the country. After watching a rival get elected governor and listening to that man’s denouncement of his own state during the War of 1812, he laments:
Hereafter it will be too late to blot out the blot made by His Excellency upon the historic page, by alleging that his speech was intended merely to chime with the slang of the day. It will be answered … that the accused party in the Legislature quailed under the pungent rebuke from the chair, and that members of the Convention continued to be dumb as sheep before their shearer … will not the rising generations of this State burn with shame and indignation when it shall constantly be thrown in their teeth by the rising generations of other States, that their base blood has crept to them through ancestors who silently admitted themselves to be stigmatized as outlaws from the “American Family!”
It was the discovery of documents such as this that helped me to develop a real connection to the project, unearthing old misconceptions and hearing age-old voices as directly as I possibly could. The MHS archives gave me a wonderful opportunity to experience historical research first hand. Even now that my fellowship is over I intend to go back and continue my research. We are so lucky to have access to these documents in Massachusetts and this organization, and I hope other people will take advantage of them as I did.
**The MHS has awarded the John Winthrop Student Fellowship since 2013. This fellowship encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the Society in a research project of their choosing.
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