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“The Poor Wretched People Are Much Difficulted”

I’d like to take this opportunity to write about the topic that’s been dominating U.S. headlines and occupies countless hours of on-air and on-line punditry: the annual migration of the monarch butterfly.

Just kidding. Yes, I mean the U.S. presidential election. Bear with me.

Historical perspective is our bread and butter here at the MHS, of course. Studying the past is almost always both illuminating and sobering. So I thought I’d revisit the U.S. presidential election of 1788-1789, when 56-year-old George Washington became the first chief executive of the brand-new nation.

Looking for inspiration, I browsed through our collection of Miscellaneous Manuscripts, what we call an “artificial” collection. These documents were donated to the MHS at different times, and each is cataloged individually in our online catalog. They’re arranged chronologically, so I could zero in on a specific date range.

I came across a document I’d never seen before but loved immediately. It’s a letter from Baptist minister David Thomas (1732-1815) in Virginia to his nephew Griffith Evans (1760-1845) in Philadelphia. The letter is dated 3 March 1789. After complaining that he’d been “immers’d in the fatigues and troubles of a foolish perverse hairbraind world,” Thomas launched into a bitter diatribe about the sweeping Federalist victory in the presidential election two months before. His letter is dripping with sarcasm and contempt:

“How does Fedralism go on in your State? Does the people know the meaning of the word Fedralism, it is a very pretty word, it has a beautiful sound, it Charms all the learned the wise, the polite, the reputable, the Honorable, and virtuous, and all that are not Caught with the alurements of its melody, are poor ignorant asses, nasty dirty sons of bitches; reserved for future treatment agreeable to their demerrit. […] The whole American world is in an uproar.”

 

It’s hard to imagine the kind of sea change Thomas was living through. In fact, this letter was written just one day before the U.S. Constitution went into effect, superseding the Articles of Confederation. Thomas clearly resented the strong centralized government that was set to replace the looser confederation of independent states that he preferred.

George Washington belonged to no political party and was elected unanimously, a circumstance inconceivable today. But far from inconceivable is Thomas’s frustration at his state’s convoluted electoral process, which he described in detail:

“Perhaps you are a Stranger to the term hold the pole, of which I will inform you, viz: the Candidate stands upon an eminence close to the Avenue thro which the people pass to give in their votes, viva voce, or by outcry, there the candidates stand ready to beg, pray, and solicit the peoples votes in opposition to their Competitors, and the poor wretched people are much are much difficulted by the prayers and threats of those Competitors, exactly Similar to the Election of the Corrupt and infamous House of Commons in England.”

He’d narrowly escaped a seat in the Virginia Assembly himself:

“At the last Election I was drag’d from my Lodging when at dinner, and forced upon the Eminence purely against my will, but I soon disappeared and return’d to my repast, and as soon as they lost sight of me they quit voting for me. Such is the pitifull and lowliv’d manner all the Elected officers of Government come into posts of honour and profit in Virginia, by Stooping into the dirt that they may ride the poor people; and would you have your Uncle to divest himself of every principle of honour to obtain a disagreeable office[?] I hope not.”

So, if you get fed up with political shenanigans, chicanery, and tomfoolery this election season, what Thomas called “Rotated […] tricks” and “Reverberated flings,” remember that you’re not alone. And be sure to visit the MHS library to learn more about early American politics—or butterflies, if you prefer.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 31 August, 2016, 12:00 AM

Death of a Party

"At seven minutes to three o'clock on the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 20, 1902, the National Club of Massachusetts committed suicide by voting itself out of existence. The scene of the tragedy was Room 12, Young's Hotel, Boston. Twenty-one members, four less than a quorum, agreed with unanimity and composure to commit this act. A few minutes later, twenty-one gentlemen dispersed to their usual occupations so quietly that neither the elevator boy nor the waiters, nor the lynx-eyed clerks of the hotel, suspected what had been done. The newspapers took no notice of the suicide. The police did not exercise their ingenuity in inventing a theory as to its motive, or debate whether the weapon used were sharp or blunt. To this day, the coroner has ordered no 'quest. And yet, for the historian, the National Club may be of interest, because of the great crisis out of which it sprang. That is why I have been so precise in specifying time and place and circumstance; and why it seems right to give the Society for safe keeping this collection, unfortunately incomplete, of papers refering to the Club and to is parent, the National Party of 1900. Antiquaries today spend their lives gathering similar material about political organizations long past; and in due season our time will be antiquity to a new age."

From "The Suicide of a Political Infant" by William R. Thayer, found in the National Party records, 1900-1903.

 

If you want to learn more about the demise of this political movement, consider Visiting the Library!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 12:39 PM

“Have you look’d at this Universe, through the Telescopes of Herschell?”

The Juno space probe began orbiting Jupiter on July 4, 2016, and already has transmitted images of the planet’s moons and famous Great Red Spot. The study of the planets is not new, however, and when he was in England, John Adams had the opportunity to meet one of the most famous astronomers of his day.

In 1781, astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, an accomplishment that earned him the patronage of King George III. Herschel set up his telescopes near Windsor, the summer home of the king.

John Adams seems to have been impressed. In 1786 he wrote, “Herschell indeed with his new Glass, has discovered the most magnificient Spectacle that ever was seen or imagined.” He tipped his hat to Herschel when writing his Defence of the American Constitutions: “A prospect into futurity in America, is like contemplating the heavens through the telescopes of Herschell: objects, stupendous in their magnitudes and motions, strike us from all quarters, and fill us with amazement!”

Adams had the opportunity to look through Herschel’s telescopes himself. He was supposed to accompany his friend Benjamin Vaughan to Windsor on the evening of April 1, 1787. A few days later, Vaughan wrote that although Adams had been unable to attend, “Dr. Herschell will always of course be happy to see his Excellency;—but the longer the visit is deferred, the more will be there to see. The most proper time is, the first quarter of the moon, whenever the visit is intended.”

What could have kept John Adams from an opportunity to look through Herschel’s telescopes? Adams explained in a brief note:

“I am very much mortified to loose the Pleasure and Advantage of an Excursion to Windsor, to see Mr Herschell in Such Company: but the State of my Family is Such that I cannot justify leaving it.— Mrs Smith is in Travel and the Anxiety occasioned by this Event has made Mrs Adams so much worse, that I should be very bad Company at Windsor, and what is more decisive, it becomes my Duty to Stay at home.”

Mrs. Smith—his only daughter, Nabby—was “in travel,” meaning she was in labor, and Abigail was understandably anxious about the birth of her first grandchild. As usual, John Adams knew where his duty lay—the volcanoes on the moon would have to wait.

Although we do not know when Adams finally looked through Herschel’s telescopes, we do know that he maintained his interest in astronomy. In 1813, Adams wrote to John Quincy, “Have you look’d at this Universe, through the Telescopes of Herschell? What am I and all my Posterity? What is this Globe of Earth? What is the Solar System?”

For more on the Adamses and astronomy see here

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 10:43 AM

Margaret Russell’s Diary, August 1916

Today, we return to the line-a-day diary of Margaret Russell. You can read previous installments here:

January | February | March | April | May | June | July

During August, the Russell family continued daily life on the North Shore with numerous outings by train, motor, and sail. It appears, based on locations mentioned, that Russell spent at least part of her month on the coast of Maine, motoring and sailing in the area near Mt. Desert island (where Acadia National Park is now located). Her days are a mix of outdoor activities and socializing.

One social event Russell notes in passing is a performance of “Miss Draper’s monologues,” although she fails to comment on substance or quality. The following spring (April 1917) critique Agnes Repplier, quoted in the Cambridge (Mass.) Sentinel, had this to say about Ruth Draper’s work:

Miss Ruth Draper has proved to us once and for all the marvellous possibilities of monologue as a mimetic art. Her tiny dramas, differ materially from the earlier French models, which are always in the nature of a soliloquy, illustrating with light, deft touches a single situation and a single speaker. Miss Draper’s impersonations people the stage with characters unseen but distinctly vitalized. She converses with them, having no need of answers. They are invisible allies who throng at her beck and call. While most of Miss Draper’s monologues are humorous or satiric, they grow at times tense with emotion, betraying an exquisite and poignant pathos which proves her to be a pastmistress of her art. While most of them are simple in construction, there are others which may be said to condense a three-act play into ten breathless moments.

Politics, too, intrude upon the privileged and insulated idyll that was a Boston Brahmin summer. On the last Sunday in August, as is Russell’s usual routine, she walks to and from church in the morning, then hosts a family meal at which “C. thinks I better give up plans to go West on account of the strike.” A few days later she notes, “Strike looks so bad that I have given up my plans.” The threatened railroad workers’ strike Margaret Russell alludes to in fact never came to pass -- but the threat of collective action did result in the Adamson Act (1916), a piece of federal legislation signed by president Woodrow Wilson, that established the eight-hour workday and overtime pay for railway employees. As the strike was called off by 3 September 1916, stay tuned next month to see if Margaret Russell’s travel plans are back on track!

* * *

August 1916*

1 August. Left on 8 o’k train & arrived at [illegible; likely a point in Maine given subsequent locations] at 4. Perfectly cool & comfortable journey & smooth on the water.

2 August. Wednesday - Drove to Jordan’s Pond to hear Miss Draper’s monologues. Saw lots of people. In the P.M. to see Mrs. Durham.

3 August. Thursday - Driving. Went to see Helen Cabot -- Mrs. Lovett, Mrs. R[illegible] & Mrs. Gayley to tea.

4 August. Friday. Went in motor to Savin Hill - Hills Cove where we had tea. Bar Harbor [illegible] drive & home.

5 August. Saturday - Harry & Mrs. C. Parker arrived. Mr. & Mrs. Thompson & Miss Putterham came to tea.

6 August. Sunday - Bishop Brent preached a fine sermon. Went to see Miss Schulyer. In the P.M. drove to Jordan’s Pond for tea. Lovely clear day.

7 August. Monday - Foggy. Paid a call on Wheelwrights & Mrs. C. Parker. Stayed at home in P.M. & then went to see Vaughans.

8 August. Left at 9.30 in motor Ellsworth - Blue Hill - Penobscot - Castine. 3 ¼ hours. Sallie & I took a walk to the Point but it began to rain. Nice to be here.

9 August. Raining in [illegible]. Went to village for errands with Sallie. Lovely drive in P.M. with Rob & Dick & S-- [crossed out] [illegible].

10 August. Breakfast at 6.15 & left Castine at 7.10 & train from Rockland at 10. Cool & Comfortable. The John Lawrences were on board. Miss. A-- met me at Lynn 4.15.

11 August. Friday - Stayed at home to clear up my desk. Drove in the P.M. & stopped for tea at Salem.

12 August. Saturday. Miss A-- & I to Rockport for lunch stopped at E. Gloucester & at Magnolia for errands. Bought [illegible] set. Dined at Beverly.

13 August. Sunday - Walked to church & back. Family to dine.

14 August. Monday - Town all day & to see Aunt Emma. Cool & lovely.

15 August. Tuesday - Errands & walked from [inkblot] woods. Mrs. Ward’s class - Miss A-- came & we went for tea at Marblehead.

16 August. Wednesday - To Beverly & to see Marian. Went for [illegible] & she stayed for an hour. Then to Nahant for call.

17 August. Thursday - Heard of a burned out family & went to help. 8 boys in two families. Took drive & stopped for tea at Burnham House.

18 August. Friday - Went to Middlesex Fells at 10.30 & spent the day walking & [illegible] flowers. Lovely day but no results. Home by 4.30.

19 August. Saturday. Met the H.G.C’s at N. Andover. Miss Bramwell with them. Lovely day, long drive home.

20 August. Sunday. Walked to church & back. Nobody came to dine as most are away.

21 August. Monday. Town with Miss A--. Errands & went to see Aunt Emma. Very hot but did not feel it.

22 August. Tuesday. To Salem for errands. Miss Ward’s class & afterwards to tea at Marblehead.

23 August. Wednesday. Went up at 8.30 & met Clara & May T-- at Chilton brought them down & took them back at [illegible] to Bar Harbor - boat.

24 August. Thursday - Went to church. Lunched at Nahant with Mrs. Amory Lawrence. Took drive with Miss A--.

25 August. Friday - at Home all the morning. Lunched at Beverly with Evie Curtis. Afterwards to Magnolia for errands.

26 August. Saturday - Met the H.G.C.’s at Bald Pate at lunch. Tried to find Pauline F-- but failed.

27 August. Sunday - Walked to church & back. Family to dine. C. thinks I better give up plans to go West on account of the strike.

28 August. Monday - Rained hard. Town & then to see Aunt Emma. Went to see Dr. Smith.

29 August. Went to town to get Sevres groups from M.C. Cabot. Back to lunch. Mrs. Ward’s class & then to see F. Prince. 

30 August. Wednesday - Strike looks so bad that I have given up my plans. Walked back from Little Nahant. Baby came to see Mama.

31 August. Thursday. Lunched at Nahant at Mrs. F. Merriman’s. Went to Manchester to see Mrs. H[illegible] & Mrs. James H.

* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

 

*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 3 August, 2016, 12:00 AM

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

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