This Week @ MHS
It's another quiet week at the MHS as far as programs go. Here is what lies ahead:
- Wednesday, 24 August, 12:00PM : Join us for a Brown Bag lunch talk with Kenyon Gradert of Washington University in St. Louis as he presents "The Puritan Imagination in Antislavery New England." Gradert's talk will exlpore why antebellum Americans reached for the Puritans in the fight against slavery and why this matters for scholarship of American history and culture.
- Saturdya, 27 August, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Tour 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 email@example.com.
While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.
| Published: Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 12:00 AM
Death of a Party
By Dan Hinchen, Reader Services
"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!
| Published: Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 12:39 PM
“Have you look’d at this Universe, through the Telescopes of Herschell?”
By Rhonda Barlow, Adams Papers
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.
| Published: Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 10:43 AM
This Week @ MHS
As August begins its slow descent into September it is pretty quiet at the Society. This week we have only a Brown Bag lunch and a tour:
- Wednesday, 17 August, 12:00PM : This week's Brown Bag talk is given by Jonathan Lande of Brown University. "Disciplining Freedom: Union Army Slave Rebels and Emancipation in the Civil War Courts-Martial" offers a new interpretation of the history of black Union soldiers by placing the troops' service in the context of slave-soldiers' service and emancipation throughout the Atlantic, reexamining the political structure involved in arming slaves and the experiences of soldiers serving in the U.S. Colored Troops. This talk is free and open to the public.
- Saturday, 20 August, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through the public spaces of the Society's building on Boylston St. The tour is free and open to the public with no need for reservations for individuals or small groups. Parties of 8 or more, please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at 617-646-0508 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
While you are here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.
| Published: Sunday, 14 August, 2016, 12:00 AM
“Just Mede of Praise”: George N. Briggs’ Heroic Act
By Susan Martin, Collection Services
In the mid-1830s, George Nixon Briggs (later Gov. Briggs) was serving in the 23rd U.S. Congress as a representative from Massachusetts. He was still a fairly junior Congressman, working alongside such notables as Edward Everett and John Quincy Adams. But one remarkable incident, documented in a new collection acquired by the MHS, sheds new light on Briggs’ character.
Here’s the story as told by Sarah (Moulton) Wool in 1862: One winter day, “Gov. Briggs was walking by the Washington Canal & chanced to hear, from a crowd collected there, that a colored boy was drowning. Instantly, without waiting to remove any of his clothes, he plunged into the canal & rescued the poor boy from a watery grave.”
The incident probably took place somewhere along the part of the canal that crossed the Capitol grounds, when Briggs was either coming or going to a session of Congress. The canal no longer exists, but at the time it ran up from the Washington Navy Yard, past the Capitol building, then west along what is now Constitution Avenue.
This new MHS collection consists of only two documents. The first, pictured above, is Wool’s two-page description of the event (written by someone else). Almost thirty years later, Wool claimed to remember it “distinctly […] but not the precise time.” She guessed it happened in the winter of 1834-1835 and referred, for corroboration, to her servant James H. Davis and to Briggs’ colleague William Baylies.
The second document in the collection is Davis’s statement confirming the story, written in his own hand, likely at around the same time.
It’s hard to say for sure, but Davis probably witnessed the rescue. Baylies may have been present, as well. As another Massachusetts representative serving in the 23rd Congress, he would have had reason to accompany Briggs to and from the Capitol.
The handwriting on the first document is unfamiliar to me, but it’s possible both statements were taken on the same visit to Troy, N.Y. and collected either by or on behalf of one of Briggs’ sons. Davis began his note with: “Please say to Mr Briggs son[…]” George N. Briggs had died a few months before, in September 1861, from an accidental gunshot wound at his home. His death may have prompted his family to look into the story.
I tried to learn more about some of the key players in the drama, but didn’t find much. William Baylies died in 1865. Sarah Wool, wife of the famous Gen. John Ellis Wool, died at Troy in 1873. She’d had no children, but left $300 in her will to a woman named Elise, the daughter of her servant James H. Davis. Presumably Davis pre-deceased Wool.
A search for James H. Davis turned up someone with that name as a signatory to the “Colored Conventions” at Troy in 1847 and 1855. These conventions, held throughout the United States beginning in 1830, called for equal rights for free and fugitive black Americans.
William C. Richards did not include the story of the daring canal rescue in his 1866 hagiography of George N. Briggs, Great in Goodness. However, according to Sarah Wool, “No one who was in Washington at the time, could forget an incident which did such honor to humanity, & added such lustre to the fame of a brave & good man.”
| Published: Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 12:00 AM