“The Sublimest Thing Ever Exhibited in America”: Inauguration Day 1797
By Amanda A. Mathews, Adams Papers
The ceremony and celebration of Inauguration Day such as the nation witnessed this past Monday as President Barack Obama began his second term, has been a long cherished tradition in the United States. Of the 57 inaugurations performed over the past nearly 225 years, the last Inauguration Day of the eighteenth century, while it may not have included star-studded performances, stands out as the first orderly change of leadership under the new Constitution as John Adams became the second president.
This historic occasion, and the last held in the temporary capital at Philadelphia, despite the large crowds, was missing one very important person for the incoming president—his wife, Abigail. He drew a picture of the scene in a letter to her the following day, “In the Chamber of the House of Representatives, was a Multitude as great as the Space could contain, and I believe Scarcely a dry Eye but Washingtons. The Sight of the Sun Setting full orbit and another rising tho less Splendid, was a novelty.”
Aware of the enormous responsibility and hardships that the office held, and the relief Washington must have felt at reaching retirement, Adams remarked, “it was made more affecting to me, by the Presence of the General [Washington], whose Countenance was as serene and unclouded as the day. He Seem’d to me to enjoy a Tryumph over me. Methought I heard him think Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of Us will be happiest.”
As he set off in uncharted waters, following the beloved Washington, he lamented his family’s absence, in another letter to Abigail two weeks later, “It would have given me great Pleasure to have had some of my Family present, at my Inauguration which was the most affecting and overpowering Scene I ever acted in— I was very unwell had no sleep the night before, and really did not know but I should have fainted in Presence of all the World.— I was in great doubt whether to Say any Thing or not besides repeating the Oath— And now, the World is as silent as the Grave—” With the celebrations over, the real work began. Still, he could confidently tell her, “All Agree that taken all together it was the sublimest Thing ever exhibited in America.” This triumphant moment of democracy in action remains so for our nation today.
| Published: Wednesday, 23 January, 2013, 8:00 AM
Three Centuries of Molasses in Massachusetts
By Andrea Cronin, Reader Services
The molasses trade has a long and sticky history in Massachusetts. Though sugar is far more common in the kitchen cupboard today, molasses lingers in the cultural lore of Boston. Looking back over that tradition one sees how far back those roots go. In a letter to Judge William Tudor on 11 August 1818 John Adams credited molasses as helping usher in American independence:
Witts may laugh at our fondness for Molasses & we ought all join in the laugh with as much good humour as General Lincoln did, Genal Washington however always asserted & proved that Virginians loved Molasses as well as New Englandmen did. I know not why we should blush to confess that Molasses was an essential Ingredient in American Independence. Many great Events have proceeded from much smaller causes.
How could the secret ingredient in pot roasts have influenced the course of history in Massachusetts and the nation? In the 18th century, the Sugar Islands experienced an exponential demand for sugar from European colonizers. There was profit not only in sugar but in distilling the by-product of sugar production, molasses, into rum. The abundance of molasses gave rise in part to the ‘Triangle Trade’ exchange: New England rum to West Africa and Europe, West African slaves to the Sugar Islands, and Sugar Islands’ molasses to New England rum distilleries. With the Molasses Act of 1733 Great Britain imposed a tax on molasses imported from foreign colonies, such as the French or Dutch West Indies. Some point to this act as the stirrings of the beginning of the American Revolution, as the tax struck fear in the northern colonies by affecting their rum trade.
Oh, the rum! With incoming shipments of Sugar Islands’ molasses, Massachusetts entertained a booming rum industry. There were over 25 distilleries in Boston alone by the mid-eighteenth century. The surrounding cities, including Watertown, Haverhill, Charlestown, and Medford soon followed the “city upon a hill” into rum distillation.
Then, nearly a century after Adams wrote to Judge Tudor molasses literally engulfed part of Boston. Yesterday marked the 94th anniversary of the great Boston molasses flood, affecting Commercial Street in the North End on 15 January 1919. It was on this unusually warm day that the US Industrial Alcohol/Purity Distilling Company tank filled with 2,300,000 gallons of molasses spilled into the streets and harbor. The flood killed 21 individuals and injured more than 150 others while damaging an estimated $100,000,000 of property. The 1919 tragedy inundated the newpapers with conspiracies and conjecture about how the tank had failed so epically. It is said that even now it is not uncommon to hear that on a hot summer day there is a lingering scent of molasses in the North End.
| Published: Wednesday, 16 January, 2013, 10:00 AM
Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, #19
The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch.
Saturday, Jan 11th, 1863
The close of the year ’62 brought to mind its course, as one of great public trials, and of some—though tempered with great mercies—in my private relation. The entrance of ’63 was marked by an event which is sublime in the hopes it yields, though not without its great perils, - the definite Proclamation of freedom to the slaves. Who dared to hope for such rapid progress in public sentiment as now to authorize this step, two years ago?
Military events of late, of chief interest, have been the gallant but unfortunate battle of Fredericksburg, the victory at Manfreesboro, and a partial repulse at Vicksburg, - with the landing of Banks’ expedition at New Orleans. At Fredericksburg fell in battle my former neighbor & friend, Rev. Arthur B. Fuller. He was among the volunteers to force a landing. I question the propriety of a clergyman taking the place of the common soldier; but I believe he acted not only by the impulse of his brave heart, but with the feeling that he ought to set an example to others in all things which he encouraged them to do. In the same battle died my young parishioner, John. H. Blackswain, - a good and affectionate boy. W. Edward Blake, another young volunteer from my parish, died in a hospital near the same place, shortly after. His remains were brought on, & his funeral numerously attended, at my church.
| Published: Friday, 11 January, 2013, 1:00 AM
The 1811 Richmond Theater Fire
By Susan Martin, Collection Services
December 26 is the 201st anniversary of the tragic Richmond Theatre fire in Richmond, Va. The fire broke out during the evening performance when an oil lamp ignited pieces of stage scenery, sending the packed house of 600 running for the exits. But the theater, built long before fire safety regulations, couldn’t accommodate the escaping crowd, and in the end, 72 people were killed. Horrific accounts of the event appeared in newspapers across the country.
Harriet Otis, daughter of U.S. Senate Secretary Samuel Allyne Otis, was living in Washington, D.C. at the time. On December 28, 1811, she wrote:
Papa came home at noon with the sad intelligence of the destruction of the Richmond theatre by fire, in which many noted and interesting people perished—among others Lieut Gibbons [James Gibbon, U.S. Navy] who was here a little while since—so little while, that I felt a sensation of horror at hearing he was no more—the particulars of this horrible catastrophe I do not yet know.
Two days later, she had a little more information:
Every tongue utters some new circumstance of horror respecting the Richmond sufferers—Poor Gibbon! hard as seems his fate well may his mother, rescued by him, exult in such a son—He had saved her and rushed back to save Miss [Sallie] Conyers a lady to whom he had long been attached—his efforts were vain and they both perished.
Bostonian Sophia (Sewall) Wood didn’t hear about the fire until January 7. While newspaper reports had overestimated the loss of life, Sophia was deeply affected by the story:
This eve heard of a most melancholly heart-rending account of a dreadful fire at Richmond in Virginia. The Theatre burnt to ashes & 150 Persons fell victims to the flames. This news, so distressing we cannot contemplate unmoved. Oh! but how littlecan we feel for those sufferers & yet how much.
Religious leaders were soon speculating about metaphysical causes. Was the fire a punishment from God for the institution of slavery? For theater-going and other “vices”? The MHS holds a number of sermons preached shortly after the fire, one of which boasts the colorful title: Repent! repent! or likewise perish!...on the late calamity at Richmond, Virginia.
Sophia Wood took a similar line:
Good often arises from the most calamitous events & tis to be devoutly wish’d, that this signal distress, will direct the minds of the disapated inhabitants of V___a to that divine sun of truth & religion, without which our lives are blanke here & the prospect of the future is indeed melancholly.
Harriet Otis, however, hesitated to pass judgment. On January 5, she described a sermon by Senate chaplain John Brackenridge that drew parallels to a Biblical story:
Mr Breckenridge warned us in a very good discourse not to think that “those Jews on whom the tower of Siloam fell were sinners above all others”—Alas who could be so dead to compassion as to pronounce such a sentence on the Richmond sufferers.
The Richmond Theatre building had been entirely consumed, and in 1814 Monumental Church was constructed on the site as a memorial to those who died.
| Published: Wednesday, 26 December, 2012, 1:00 AM
Happy Holidays from the MHS
Head Quarters Co. H. 13th Regiment Mass Vols.
A Merry Christmas in Camp
December 25th 1862
| Published: Tuesday, 25 December, 2012, 8:00 AM