The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The MHS as Time Machine

In my work as a manuscript processor here at the MHS, I often come across the diaries or letters of a person I wish I could meet face to face. It’s rarely the well-known movers and shakers of history, just someone with a unique and interesting voice. I’ve introduced you to some of these people (Eliza Cheever Davis & Moses Hill) in previous posts, but my latest discovery is Jacob Newman Knapp (1773-1868), teacher and occasional preacher of Walpole, N.H. I wrote about Jacob before, but I hope you’ll indulge me if I quote from him again. Here he is in a letter to his son Francis on 21 May 1850 (from the Knapp family correspondence):

We are all well and active. When I say active I speak more particularly for others, than for myself. My days of activity have either gone by, or not yet arrived….Well, it is said that it takes a variety to constitute a world! There is certainly a good variety of characters in the world. Life is undoubtedly a serious trust and must be seriously accounted for; but there is so much of the ludicrous, of the absurd extravagant and incomprehensible in the human character, that I feel inclined to cry and to laugh at the same time. What a display, at different times, in the same person, of saint and sinner, of philosopher and fool, of man and monkey, a perpetual, practical antithesis, a combination in one person of the two sons of Leda, mortal and immortal by turns.

His wit, eloquence, and philosophical attitude endeared Jacob to me immediately. Not to mention his obvious affection for his family:

We [Jacob and his wife Louisa (Bellows) Knapp] have many topics of interest for conversation; one never tiring, never exhausted subject is our sons. We follow them every where, and when facts are unknown, we reason upon the probable and the improbable, the possible and the impossible, and at times free the imagination from its cage of logic, and let it fly at large, at liberty to light anywhere, and to sing its wildest notes. We have no dull hours. We have occasionally some silent hours, but no vacant ones, for they are crowded full of reminiscences or compendiums and abstracts of future developments.

Jacob lived to be almost 95 years old. He was born 7 Nov. 1773 and died 27 July 1868. Imagine, a man born a few weeks before the Boston Tea Party, old enough to remember events of the Revolutionary War (he was almost 10 when the Treaty of Paris was signed), who lived to see the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 14th Amendment! No wonder his letters are full of so much wisdom. How fascinating he would be to talk to.

There’s only so much we can know about the people of the past from the writings they leave behind, but it’s hard not to feel that I have, in a way, “met” Jacob.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 6 August, 2014, 1:00 AM


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