The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Abigail’s Window

The First Lady was lost. Nine miles off the main road, Abigail Adams, 56, hacked her way through the thick woods bordering Baltimore and the “wilderness city” of Washington, D.C. Eager to join husband John in the new capital, Abigail had left Quincy in early November 1800 with two servants. By Saturday the 15th, they had fallen a few days off course. For two hours, a frustrated Abigail circled the same forest paths—a precious gulf of travel time gone, since they only rode in daylight, and local inns were scarce. Abigail (accurately) reckoned that 36 miles of rough and lonely land lay ahead. She forged on, “holding down & breaking bows of trees which we could not pass,” as she told sister Mary Smith Cranch, “untill we met a Solitary black fellow with a horse and cart. We inquired of him our way, and he kindly offered to conduct us.” Abigail hired him on the spot. Following his directions, by Sunday afternoon she reached her new home, “a Castle of a House…in a beautifull Situation” with a “romantic” view of the Potomac River.

Abigail Adams’ trove of letters, as national convention-watchers have recently reminded us, supply a unique view of slavery and of the African-American experience in the new republic. When First Lady Michelle Obama reiterated on Monday that slave labor built the White House, many viewers turned to founding-era papers, including those of the Adams family, for details. Enter Abigail. One of the second First Lady’s D.C. dispatches, back in popular circulation again this week, lists her candid observation of slaves at work outside the President’s House window. Here’s an extract of the 28 Nov. 1800 letter to Cotton Tufts that got Abigail Adams trending on Facebook and lighting up Twitter:

“The effects of Slavery are visible every where; and I have amused myself from day to day in looking at the labour of 12 negroes from my window, who are employd with four small Horse carts to remove some dirt in front of the house. The four carts are all loaded at the Same time, and whilst four carry this rubish about half a mile, the remaining eight rest upon their Shovels, two of our hardy N England men would do as much work in a day, as the whole 12; but it is true Republicanism that drive the Slaves half fed, and destitute of cloathing, or fit for May faire, to labour, whilst the owner waches about Idle, tho his one Slave is all the property he can boast. Such is the case of many of the inhabitants of this place.”

 

Such a public display of slavery in the nation’s capital distressed Abigail Adams, although a New England upbringing had not shielded her from its misery. Her father William Smith, a Weymouth clergyman, owned several slaves who were freed upon his death in 1783.“I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province,” Abigail wrote to her husband in 1774, as demands for American liberty grew. A staunch antislavery advocate, Abigail was furious when the Declaration of Independence’s “most Manly Sentiments,” denouncing the slave trade, were, after debate, heavily struck from the final draft. Plain-spoken about the need for African-American freedom on paper, Abigail’s actions also merit a quick review. She employed her father’s former slave, Phoebe Abdee, to run the family farm. She educated African-American servants in her Quincy parlor. When a neighbor balked at Abigail sending one of her staff, James, to school, she argued for him in a letter to John: “The Boy is a Freeman as much as any of the young Men, and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? Is this the Christian principle of doing to others, as we would have others do to us?” Then Abigail pivoted to quash James’ toughest critic: “Tell them Mr. Faxon that I hope we shall all go to Heaven together. Upon which Faxon laugh’d, and thus ended the conversation. I have not heard any more upon the subject.” The question of James’ education was settled in 1797. Three busy years later, Abigail set out for the President’s House.

Abigail, a hardy traveler, took advantage of every panorama and every person she met. Given a new window on the world, Abigail used it. Barely a month into her D.C. stay, Abigail accepted an invitation to visit Martha Washington, now the General’s widow, at Mount Vernon. The rooms she found “small and low,” and the “greatest Ornament” to the visitor’s eye, Abigail decided, was a long piazza that knit together the Potomac’s gauzy blue-grey with lush green lawn. Signs of decay, the New Englander wrote, now threatened parts of the plantation’s beauty. Abigail’s unique summit with her old friend and colleague is worth a ponder. What did the two First Ladies discuss? We know one topic for certain: Slaves. Specifically, Abigail wrote to her sister Mary Smith Cranch on 21 December 1800, the deepening anxiety that Martha, “with all her fortune finds it difficult to support her family, which consists of three Hundred souls.” With 150 Mount Vernon slaves on the brink of emancipation, Abigail wrote that Martha was “distrest” for the fate of “Men with wives & young children who have never Seen an acre, beyond the farm. are now about to quit it, and go adrift into the world without house Home or Friend.”

 

This rich letter, held in the Adams-Cranch Papers here at the Massachusetts Historical Society, contains Abigail’s description of plantation life and underlines her antislavery creed. “If any person wishes to see the banefull effects of slavery. as it creates a torpor and an indolence and a Spirit of domination,” Abigail wrote, “let them come and take a view of the cultivation of this part of the United States. I shall have reason to Say. that my Lot hath fallen to me in a pleasant place. and that verily I have a goodly Heritage.” Mount Vernon gave Abigail another President’s House window from which to see America’s slaves, and the thorny road ahead. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 30 July, 2016, 11:47 AM

This Week @ MHS

The library is hopping lately at the Society, while things are a bit quieter in terms of programs. Here is what is on the calendar this week:

- Tuesday, 26 July: "Women in the Era of the American Revolution" is a three-day teacher workshop taking place here at the MHS, that is open to educators and history enthusiasts. However, this workshops is SOLD OUT. If you would like to be placed on a waiting list, please call 617-646-0557.

- Friday, 29 July, 2:00PM : "Augustus Saint-Gaudens Civil War Monuments" is a survey of the life and work of the influential sculptor, focusing on his heroic, yet compassionate 1887 "Abraham Lincoln: The Man" (or Standing Lincoln) as representative of his method, art, and time. This talk by Jack Curtis will give students an appreciation of Saint-Gaudens' pioneering integration of architecture, landscape design, and monumental sculpture. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Saturday, 30 July, 8:30AM : We end the week with another teacher workshop. Civil War Seminar is led by Joseph Fornier of the Rochester Institute of Technology and explores three themes: how the Union and the Confederacy justified secession and war; the idea of emancipation as a revolutionary form of war; and Lincoln's proposals for reconstruction of the United States as the Civil War came to an end in 1865. This program is open to all K-12 educators and is co-sponsored by the Ashbrook Institute at Ashland University, with assistance from the Lincoln and Therese Filene Foundation. Contact education@masshist.org or 617-646-0557 for more information. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 24 July, 2016, 12:00 AM

Society and Scenery: The Travel Diary of Elizabeth Perkins Lee Shattuck

In May I traveled to Europe for the first time, keeping a travel diary throughout the trip. It was probably the longest run at journaling I've managed to keep, partly because I felt this experience was more noteworthy than my regular routine. More importantly, I didn't want to forget the details of what I experienced. Travel diaries, and diaries in general, allow us to record our daily lives, passing thoughts, and observations on any given day. Years from now, we can look back on what we wrote and experience that pesky yet pleasant sense of nostalgia (or, in the case of many a teenage-years journal, embarrassment).

To see how other travelers had journaled about the places I visited, I searched our online library catalog, ABIGAIL, to find women’s travel diaries of different kinds. Some are introspective; others read more like a daily log of events and observations. Many are text-only while others include drawings, watercolors, and ephemera. The travel diary of Elizabeth Perkins Lee Shattuck, for example, is accompanied by a sketchbook with scenes captured throughout the writer’s journeys between 1868 and 1870. Elizabeth Perkins Lee, daughter of Henry and Elizabeth Perkins (Cabot) Lee kept this diary during her travels in Italy, France, and England between January and May 1869.

 

In her diary Lee records daily activities, sights toured, and social visits. She takes particular interest in describing the art and sculpture in Rome, frequenting the Villa Borghese and the Sistine Chapel. Lee notes after a trip to the Vatican, “Michel Angelos’ Pieta grows up me each time I see it.” While in Rome she celebrated Carnival from a balcony trimmed with bouquets, met friends for tea, and attended the Apollo Theatre, which she describes as “quite jolly and funny.” After her time in Rome, Lee traveled by rail to Florence, then through Geneva, Lyon, and Dijon toward her final European stop of this travel diary, England. She toured Eton and spent time admiring the art at the National Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

 

 

Among the individuals mentioned in the diary are members of the Longfellow family, including Thomas Gold Appleton, Ernest Longfellow, and Hattie Longfellow; Lee’s uncle Francis L. Lee; her cousins Edward Perkins, Mary Perkins, and Charles Callahan Perkins; her future husband Frederick Cheever Shattuck; George Bemis; Frederic Crowninshield; and members of the Warren, Paine, Forbes, Curtis, Sewall, and many other families. A few entries discuss freedmen in America and the West Indies; American grievances against the British after the Civil War; and the Fifteenth Amendment.

While a large number of diaries in the MHS collections focus on Western European travels, others highlight trips to Cuba, New Zealand, Canada, and the Midwestern United States. If you're interested in learning more about nineteenth-century travel and society - of if you're simply in need of a vicarious vacation - visit the library for a closer look at Elizabeth Perkins Lee Shattuck's travel diary and sketchbook, as well as others:

(For a more complete list, see Women travelers—Diaries in ABIGAIL.)

 

Mary Gardner Lowell diaries, 1823-1853. Diaries of Mary Gardner Lowell of Boston and Waltham, Massachusetts, 1823-1853. Travel diaries describe a voyage to Cuba with her husband Francis Cabot Lowell and infant son George, 18 December 1831- 3 June 1832, including time spent in Havana, on the slave plantations of the Matanzas province. Entries describe travel conditions of the voyages and coaching, sights seen, social and cultural observations, friends visited, the weather, and social engagements.

Lorenza Stevens Berbineau diaries, 1851-1869. Three personal diaries kept by Berbineau, servant to the Lowell family, kept while on a trip to Europe with members of the family (1851-1852).

Anna Peabody Bellows travel diary, 1864. Travel diary of Anna Huidekoper Peabody (later Bellows), kept on a trip to England, France, and Switzerland, 16 March-14 August 1864. Entries describe the voyage via steamer from Boston, as well as sightseeing, shopping, social calls, and other activities in Paris and other cities and towns. Includes pencil sketches and watercolors.

Aimee Rotch Sargent travel diaries, 1874-1875. Diaries kept by Aimee Rotch Sargent, 1874-1875, while traveling from New York to England and through Europe with her husband, Winthrop Sargent, describe the ocean voyage, her constant seasickness, social gatherings and engagements with acquaintances, parks, museums, and other cultural institutions visited.

Ann Eliza Perkins Adams travel diary, ca. 1883-1884. Travel diary kept while on a trip by train from Boston to St. Louis and a voyage on the Mississippi River. Entries consist of short descriptions of sites seen from the train window; coach and carriage rides in St. Louis; and traveling on the Mississippi River, including sites seen from the boat, towns visited, events attended, and steamboats observed.

Jane Cummings diaries, 1902-1949. June-September 1911 travel journal records her voyage to Spain, Algiers, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France, and England, describing cities visited, architecture, gardens, museums, cultural institutions visited, works of art, stories about fellow travelers, and the weather.

Martha A. Rapp travel diary, 1920-1921. Diary kept by Martha A. Rapp of Brockton, Mass. while on a voyage from Boston to New Zealand, 4 November 1920-7 May 1921. Martha traveled with her parents by train to Vancouver, British Columbia, then on the passenger ship Niagara to New Zealand. Her diary describes daily life at sea including games played with other passengers, storms; and various places visited in New Zealand.

 

 

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Friday, 22 July, 2016, 12:00 AM

Madame Marie Depage in Boston

From 14-16 April 1915, Dr. Samuel J. and Wilhelmina (Galloupe) Mixter had a special guest at their home at 180 Marlborough Street, Boston. Madame Marie Depage was in town to drum up support for Belgian Red Cross field hospitals. She’d been traveling across America on a whirlwind fundraising tour, speaking about the suffering of the Belgian people after the outbreak of World War I. Dr. Mixter served as treasurer of Depage’s Boston fund, and the Fay-Mixter papers here at the MHS contain some fascinating papers related to the visit, including original correspondence from Depage.

 

 

 

Depage was a popular and high-profile guest. Her husband, Dr. Antoine Depage, was director of the Belgian Red Cross, past president of the International Congress of Surgery, and personal surgeon to King Albert I of Belgium. The king and queen had officially delegated Madame Depage, a Belgian nurse, to undertake this trip, and her comings and goings were covered extensively in American newspapers.

Americans had been generous in their aid to Belgian civilians living under German occupation, but medical care to soldiers in the field was sorely lacking. An article in the Rocky Mountain News quoted Depage as saying, “The conditions are so terrible you cannot imagine them. […] No men in the world can fight more bravely than the men of my country.” She wrote to the sympathetic Dr. Mixter, “You know what proper and urgent care means – one life saved, one limb saved means a family out of trouble after the war.”

 

I was particularly interested in Depage’s statements about wounded German soldiers. The Red Cross field hospitals she worked to establish treated injured allies and enemies alike. According to another newspaper article, she said, “When they were sick I never felt any different toward them than toward my own countrymen. They were simply poor, wounded men. It was only when they recovered and came to me in their gray German uniforms to say good-by that I felt it hard to treat them the same, but wounded men have no nationality.”

Depage used her personal charisma and professional connections to great advantage. She was unmistakably passionate, but pragmatic. She asked Dr. Mixter before her arrival, “Now can you tell me if a visit in Boston shall pay? I must put it in a very plain business way; you know this is not a pleasure trip and I may not think of what I should like or not like.” She thought smaller meetings in the private homes of wealthy Bostonians would be more lucrative than large gatherings. An individual visit, she knew from experience, would flatter her host into giving more: “I suppose Boston is a smart town where society leaders have a great deal to say. I have experienced that in Washington: if it was smart to go and listen to me the people came…and paid!”

Depage also had a personal stake in the cause. Her oldest son Pierre was a soldier in the Belgian army. When she heard that her second son, a teenager named Lucien, was going to the front, she decided to sail back to Europe to say goodbye. Unfortunately, the ship on which she booked passage was none other than the RMS Lusitania. She drowned when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat on 7 May 1915.

 

Depage had been euphoric about her fundraising success. On the morning of the Lusitania’s departure, she bragged in a letter to Wilhelmina Mixter, “I have altogether collected about $115,000.00 [in] contributions and about $50,000 in supplies. Are you not proud of America? I am! And specially of my Boston friends.” She was sorry that Mrs. Mixter hadn’t received an earlier telegram and protested “that you could believe for one minute that I forgot you! Please never do that, whatever happens for it can never be true.” In a previous letter, she’d called the Mixters “the best friends in the world.”

 

Wilhelmina Mixter was also very active in World War I work. She served on the general committee of the Special Aid Society for American Preparedness (SASAP), a women’s group that promoted military preparedness and national defense. The Fay-Mixter papers include meeting minutes and newspaper clippings documenting the activities of this group, which met just down the street from the MHS at 601 Boylston Street. In addition to the SASAP, Mrs. Mixter was involved with Emergency War Relief and sent care packages and supplies to soldiers. Some of my favorite items in the collection are these McCall sewing patterns for hospital clothing.

 

 

The MHS holdings include many papers related to World War I relief work, so we hope you’ll visit our library to learn more.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 20 July, 2016, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

It's a fairly quiet week-to-come at the Society. Here are the programs we have on tap:

- Wednesday, 20 July, 12:00PM : Stop by for a Brown Bag talk given by Craig Bruce Smith of William Woods University. "Atlantic Abolitionism and National Reputation: The Intersection of Ethics and Policy in the United States and Britain" frames the British movement to end slavery as a conscious effort to assert the country's reputation and moral superiority over the United States in the aftermath of the Revolution. It advances that American abolitionism, in turn, became a direct response to the British challenge. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Thursday, 21 July, 6:00PM : Boston Historical. The MHS is pleased to invite the public and representatives of local historical organizations for a change to mingle and share recent accomplishments or the great projects they are working on. Registration is required for this event at no cost. 

- Saturday, 23 July, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 17 July, 2016, 12:00 AM

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