The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The More Things Change....

Today’s media commentators like to decry political polarization and incivility in the United States. It’s become a well-worn cliché: Why can’t we all just get along? Some will even claim that this polarization is worse now than ever before. (Of course, we only have to go back 150 years to find Americans literally at war with other Americans, but let’s put that aside for the moment.) I’d like to present, as evidence for the defense, a letter written in 1813, when this nation was still in its infancy. The letter forms part of the Henry P. Binney family papers at the MHS.

In mid-1813, Benjamin Homans (1765-1823) worked as chief clerk of the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. His friend and colleague Amos Binney (1778-1833) was the Navy Agent at Boston. The United States was a year into the War of 1812, and Boston was a hotbed of dissent. New England Federalists and merchants vehemently opposed “Mr. Madison's War, largely because of their reliance on trade with England. Binney lived and worked in the belly of the beast as an agent for the federal government, and Homans sympathized. He wrote to Binney on 23 June 1813:

You may be very sure, that I am no stranger to the active operation of evil spirits in Boston, party spirit, selfish spirit, envious spirit, proud spirit, family spirit, mean dirty spirit, assassin spirit, infernal spirit, tory spirit, royal english spirit, pseudo patriot spirit, hypocritical sanctity spirit, professional spirit, Jew spirit & Turk spirit. […] I conceive that every good quality, every moral virtue, and every social principle to be rapidly depreciating in Boston, and that it is at this day the vilest and most profligate spot on Earth, and for myself, my heirs & successors, I would prefer a residence in Algiers, Siberia or Botany Bay, than to live within one hundred miles of the atmosphere tainted by the noxious breath of Ben Russell and the Junto and their satellites.

Wow! Homans certainly didn’t mince words. A little bit of context: Benjamin Russell (1761-1845) was the editor of Boston’s hugely popular and staunchly Federalist Columbian Centinel. He had editorialized against Thomas Jefferson and now regularly attacked his successor James Madison. The “Essex Junto” was a group of hardline New England Federalists, so-called because many of its original members hailed from Essex County, Mass.

It would be difficult to overstate the Junto’s opposition to the Madison administration and the Democratic-Republicans. Governors of Federalist states refused to send their militias to join the war effort. There was even talk of secession. Just before Homans wrote this letter, John Lowell (1769-1840), a prominent member of the movement, published a pamphlet entitled Thoughts in a Series of Letters, in Answer to a Question Respecting the Division of the States. In this pamphlet, Lowell argued that the Louisiana Purchase had been an unconstitutional overreach by Jefferson and a violation of the original compact of the thirteen colonies. In truth, the annexation of all that new territory meant a shift in the balance of power and a dilution of the political and economic influence of the North. Lowell thought the original colonies should expel the western territories from the Union. Russell at the Columbian Centinel agreed.

In his letter, Homans advised Binney to stay strong and ignore the haters:

There is but one course a man can take, and that is to fix the pole star in his mind and steer by his own Compass, without attraction deviation or variation; the privilege of finding fault gives employment to the idle and food to the envious and vicious, and Saint John or Angel Gabriel could not go from the Town House to the head of Long Wharf without having some fault found with them, and even some would be self-righteous enough to cast a stone; in my opinion, no event in the progress of human affairs will ever restore Boston, to a state of social happiness civil liberty & personal independence. Since the Essex Junto took possession of it, every unclean Beast has found an asylum there. 

Homans also referred to the capture of the U.S.S. Chesapeake just three weeks before and took one more swipe at Madison’s domestic adversaries: “We have a desperate, enraged and brutal Enemy to deal with. And their friends & advocates are ten times worse and deserve ten times greater damnation.” Though he didn’t use the word, there’s little doubt that he considered these men traitors. In fact, some people called them “Blue Light Federalists” because they were alleged to use blue signal lights to communicate with British ships from the harbor.

 For better or worse, bitter partisanship and vitriolic attacks have been a part of our political landscape from the beginning. When Homans’ letter was written, the United States was just 37 years old, and acrimonious debates were already raging about vital issues: territorial expansion, states’ rights, international alliances, and regional conflicts between the mercantile North and the agrarian South.

 With only superficial changes, Homans’ words might have been spoken by any number of today’s political commentators. And if Benjamin Russell’s Columbian Centinel were an online publication, it’s easy to imagine what the comments sections would look like!

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 8:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

It is a shortened week here at the Society with a couple of early closures and a long weekend. 

Please note that the Library closes early on Tuesday, 19 May, at 3:45PM, and on Wednesday, 20 May, at 3:30PM. 

On Tuesday, 19 May, there is an Early American History seminar taking place at 5:15PM. "Slavery in Massachusetts" is a panel discussion featuring Barbara A. Mathews of Historic Deerfield, Gloria McCahon Whiting of Harvard University, and Maria A. Bollettino of Framingham State University. The session considers two papers, Mathews' "'Is This Where Titus Lived?' Researching and Intepreting African-American Presence in 18th-Century Rural New England," and Whiting's "The Body of Liberties and Bodies in Bondage: Dorcas the Blackmore, Dorchester's First Church, and the Legalization of Slavery in the Anglo-Atlantic World." This event is free and open to the public. 

And on Wednesday, 20 May, is the second installment of the Utopian Settlement series. "Mr. Ripley's Utopia" consists of a lecture and walking tour at Brook Farm (670 Baker Street in West Roxbury). The event is guided by Peter Drummey, Stephen T. Riley Librarian (MHS) and Maggi Brown, Regional Interpretive Coordinator (DCR). The program begins at 5:30PM - Sold Out

The MHS is CLOSED on Saturday, 23 May - Monday, 25 May, in observance of Memorial Day. Normal hours resume on Tuesday, 26 May.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 3:22 PM

"Covered with Egyptian Darkness": New England's Dark Day of 1780

While the weather in Massachusetts was sunny and beautiful over Mothers' Day weekend, many other places in the country experienced extreme and severe weather ranging from hail and tornadoes to flooding and blizzards. On 19 May 1780, Massachusetts, along with the rest of New England, experienced a different type of extreme weather event in what became known as the "dark day."

Abigail Adams, home in Braintree while John continued his diplomatic mission in Europe, recorded her impressions of "a strange Phenomena":

"On fryday the 19 of May the Sun rose with a thick smoaky atmosphere indicating dry weather which we had for ten days before. Soon after 8 oclock in morning the sun shut in and it rained half an hour, after that there arose Light Luminous clouds from the north west, the wind at south west. They gradually spread over the hemisphere till such a darkness took place as appears in a total Eclipse. By Eleven oclock candles were light up in every House, the cattle retired to the Barns, the fouls to roost and the frogs croaked. The greatest darkness was about one oclock. It was 3 before the Sky assumed its usual look. . . . About 8 oclock in the Evening almost Instantainously the Heavens were covered with Egyptian Darkness, objects the nearest to you could not be discerned tho the Moon was at her full. . . . I hope some of our Philosophical Geniousess will endeavour to investigate so unusual an appearence. It is matter of great consternation to many. It was the most solemn appearence my Eyes ever beheld but the Philosophical Eye can look through and trust the Ruler of the Sky."

In a letter to John Adams, Abigail's uncle Cotton Tufts included his own account and noted the various explanations local people were giving for the strange occurrence:

"This uncommon Darkness, greater in Degree and longer in Duration than had ever been before amongst us occasioned much Speculation, some attributed it to the Influence of the Planets, some to the Effects of a Comet and some to an Eruption of a Vulcano. The Vulgar considered it some as portending great Calamities, others as a Prelude to the general Dissolution of all Things. A close Attention to what appeared before and during this Event will help us to (at least) a probable Solution of this Matter, without having Recourse to the Planets &c. for a Cause. Prior to this, The Woods from Ticonderoga for Thirty Miles downwards had been for some Time on Fire. No Rain for many Days, Winds chiefly at West and N. West. By these the Smoak and Vapours were carried to a great Distance, insomuch that in our Vicinity, the Sky was at Times obscurd, the Air crowded with Smoak and Vapours, a disagreable Smell like what proceeds from Swamps on Fire."

Indeed, Tufts' explanation of forest fires proved correct; however, it was only recently that examination of tree rings in the forests of Ontario, Canada, indeed confirmed a widespread fire sending smoke far into New England, coupled with fog and cloud cover combined to produce a weather event that was remembered for generations.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 13 May, 2015, 10:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

It is a quiet week here at the Society with just two items on the calendar. 

First, on Wednesday, 15 May, there is an author talk beginning at 6:00PM. Join us as Zach Hutchins, Assistant Professor of English at Colorado State University presents "Puritan Paradise: Eden in Massachusetts & Beyond." In this talk, Hutchins will draw on research conducted for his recently published first book, Inventing Eden: Primitivism, Millenialism, and the Making of New England (Oxford UP, 2014). Preceding the talk is a reception that begins at 5:30PM. This talk is free and open to the public, though registration is required. Please RSVP. This program is the first installment of the Utopian Settlement series, with two more events taking place later in May.

Then, on Saturday, 18 May, stop by at 10:00AM for the History and Collections of the MHS. This 90-minute, docent-led tour explores all of the public space in the Society's home on Boylston St., touching on the art, collections, history, and architecture of the MHS. The tour is free and open to the public with no need for reservations for individuals or small groups. However, groups of 8 or more should contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at abentley@masshist.org or 617-646-0508.

Finally, do not forget to come in anytime Monday-Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM to view our current exhibition, "God Save the People!: From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill."

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 9 May, 2015, 2:07 PM

"A Second Mother"

In this post, I’d like to introduce you to a remarkable person from one of our manuscript collections: Frances Elizabeth Gray. Elizabeth, as she was called, was born on 2 July 1811, the oldest child of Henry and Frances (Pierce) Gray, and spent most of her life in Roxbury, Mass.

What makes Elizabeth so remarkable? Her story begins with the tragic and premature death of her mother. Frances Pierce had been just 16 years old when she married Elizabeth’s father Henry in 1810. Twenty years later, just three days after giving birth to a daughter Anna Ellen, she died. She had delivered sixteen children, three of whom died in infancy. With Frances gone and Henry working as a merchant far away in New York, their daughter Elizabeth found herself with twelve—that’s right, twelve—younger siblings to raise. She was 18 years old.

Her siblings were: William (17 years old), John (16), Henry, Jr. (14), Caroline (12), Charles (11), Lydia (10), Mary (8), Frederick (6), Arthur (5), Frances (4), Horatio (15 months), and Anna Ellen (3 days). The Grays received some support from uncles, but the day-to-day care of the family fell on young Elizabeth’s shoulders.

Her diaries begin with entries describing her mother’s death and the events that followed:

1830. On Monday, March 22d, my mother died; was buried on Saturday 27th, the funeral delayed in consequence of my father’s absence, who did not arrive till a few hours, after it had taken place; he had gone to New-York on Saturday, 20th, on business, but being informed of my mothers illness, immediately returned, but was not aware of her death, till he arrived home.

Sat. eve. 27. A scene of trouble. I will not attempt to describe it.

Sunday, April 11th. Horatio, aged 15. mos, & Anna Ellen, the baby, born March 19; were christened; all the children were present, making thirteen.

Anna Ellen put out to nurse, March 22d to Mrs Moncrief.

Henry Gray returned to business in New York and frequently wrote to Elizabeth with news and advice. I was prepared to dislike Henry for his absenteeism, but his letters demonstrate a respect for his daughter that impressed me. He almost always deferred to her in matters related to the children. He wrote with genuine affection and regard for her happiness, as well as confidence in her judgment. For example: “I approve your measures, not only what you have done, but what you may do.”

The rest of the correspondence consists primarily of letters to Elizabeth from her brothers William, John, and Henry, Jr. In the 1830s, the boys were living in various Massachusetts towns, where they were educated and trained for professions. My favorite correspondent, by far, is John. He often wrote to Elizabeth with desperate pleas for money, clothing, and other items, and when she sent them, he was effusive in his gratitude. Here’s part of letter dated 25 Oct. 1831:

I shall simply say I have received what you promised: viz bundle and moneys. A thousand thanks—best feelings—memorys of you—none wrecked. Indeed you have been a second mother. May the Father of Mercies, direct the early beginning of such charity, to terminate in your own personal happiness! I address him for you; for you especially, peculiarly, emphatically for you.

John’s life also ended prematurely, which adds to the pathos of his letters. He was studying law, but struggled with financial and emotional problems. After a failed effort to establish himself in the west, the 23-year-old John was found dead in a hotel in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) on the morning of 21 Mar. 1837, almost seven years to the day after his mother’s death. He’d taken a fatal dose of opium.

Caption: The last letter in the collection from John Gray, written in Wheeling.

The collection includes many letters related to John’s death, as the family struggled to come to terms with it. Henry felt that John had been the most gifted of his children, and his death was an “irreparable loss.” An inquest established that John had not committed deliberate suicide, and Dr. Eoff of Wheeling provided more details on his state of mind in the last days. In a letter to Elizabeth, he explained that John had suffered from delusions and took the opium as a curative:

He believed that one or more living animals were within him & consuming his heart, liver, &c &c & imagined that he could hear them singing &c. These impressions produced great depression of spirits & kept him continually anxious to take some medicine to remove them.

As for the other Gray siblings, my research turned up only the barest outlines of their lives. Elizabeth herself lived to be 82, but never married, though she received offers. In later life, she lived with her youngest sister Anna Ellen and helped care for her nephew, William Gray Brooks. He remembered his aunt Elizabeth fondly, writing: “I owe to her unselfish devotion and love whatever I am or know.”

Another moving tribute appears in a letter to Elizabeth from her troubled brother John, written on 16 Sep. 1834:

You say little to me of Futurity; perhaps you speak the less, because you feel the more. You have acquired fame enough. To illustrate your virtues and tenderness I point to twelve brothers and sisters. Let me partake of your advice often, that my gratitude may be strengthened, if it be capable of it.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 7 May, 2015, 1:00 AM

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