The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Recent Events

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

MHS Staff Meet with Librarians from Uzbekistan

Although there are many miles between Boston, Massachusetts and Tashkent, Uzbekistan (6,148 miles according to Google) and although the English language is quite different from the Uzbek language, librarians from the National Library of Uzbekistan and staff of the Massachusetts Historical Society found much common ground and camaraderie during a recent meeting at MHS. 

The scheduling logistics for the group - comprised of the Director, Deputy Director, Head, Reading Halls Lead Specialist, and Head of IT and Access to Foreign Library Collections - were handled by WorldBoston. The focus of the meeting and tour, which took place on 5 June, was on how the MHS makes special collections materials available to researchers both remotely and on-site.  During the visit, with the aid of two highly skilled interpreters, we were able to convey information about cataloging, archival storage, and collections management issues.

Following Librarian Elaine Heavey's  brief introduction to the MHS's history and collections, Digital Projects Coordinator Nancy Heywood and Web Developer Bill Beck showed some examples of how we make selections of our collections available online. The MHS website features a few different types of digital presentations—some sections of the website present sets of materials comprised of relatively small numbers of items with lots of contextual information and transcriptions, but other sections of the website present large sets of documents and/or fully digitized collection with minimal descriptive information and usually without transcriptions.

Elaine Heavey then conveyed information about how researchers use online catalogs and collection guides to prepare for their research visit and she demonstrated Portal1791, our new researcher request system.  The group toured the building and saw the spaces that researchers use (orientation room, reading room, catalog room) as well as some staff areas including the conservation lab and one of the larger stack floors.  They also saw a few highlights from the collections.






comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 9 July, 2015, 1:00 AM

Margaret Hall’s WWI Memoir: The Book, the Talk, the Exhibition

I’ve posted on the Beehive a few times about Margaret Hall, a Massachusetts woman who volunteered with the American Red Cross in France during World War I. So you may know (and if you didn’t, now you do!) that her memoir and selected photographs from her war experience will be published for the first time in the Society’s forthcoming book, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall. The MHS will publish the volume on 14 July 2014.

Come celebrate the release of Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country on Tuesday, 15 July 2014, when the volume’s editor, Margaret R. Higonnet, will give a talk titled “‘What is Focus?’ Margaret Hall’s Battle Country.” The program will run from 6:00 to 7:30 PM following a pre-talk reception at 5:30 PM. This event is free but requires an RSVP. Register online or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560.

And while you’re in the Society’s 1154 Boylston Street building, you can take in our current exhibition, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War. Until then, you can get your Margaret Hall fix from July’s Object of the Month.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 11 July, 2014, 8:00 AM

Margaret Fuller’s Italy Comes to Life

Author and MHS Fellow Megan Marshall recently published a new biography of Margaret Fuller titled Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013), and on the evening of Wednesday, 13 March, she joined with Italian folk musicians Newpoli to honor Margaret Fuller’s time in Italy.

A Massachusetts native, Fuller was, in Marshall’s words, an “intellectual prodigy and brilliant conversationalist.” In the 1840s, Fuller organized the “Conversations” discussion group in what is now the Jamaica Plains neighborhood of Boston, and came to know many prominent intellectuals in the Boston area. Fuller befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and joined the growing American Transcendentalist movement. An accomplished writer, she cofounded the Transcendentalist publication the Dial, and became its first editor. Horace Greeley then hired Fuller to be a front-page columnist for the New York Tribune and eventually sent her to Europe as a correspondent.

Fuller’s travels led her to Italy in 1847 when she met a young Italian man named Giovanni Angelo Ossoli and they became lovers. They had a child together and then married. Fuller lived in Italy until 1849, and this period of her life was the focus of the MHS event. Marshall spoke of Fuller’s feelings of contentment during her respite in Italy. “Rome fulfills my hopes,” Fuller wrote. She witnessed the Roman revolution of 1848 and became enamored of Italian culture.

That Italian culture was on display at this event in the form of traditional Italian folk music. After a reading by Marshall, Newpoli took the stage and serenaded a captivated audience with songs ranging from tarantellas to ballads. The songs touched on subjects as diverse as funny tongue-twisters about fish to sad tales of corruption in church and government.

In a great tragedy, Margaret Fuller, her husband, and their young son died in a shipwreck just off the coast of Fire Island, New York, on their return voyage from Italy. But in listening to her story and hearing the music she experienced on the streets of Rome, it was easy to feel her presence still inspiring the Boston intellectual and cultural scene.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 15 March, 2013, 8:00 AM

Historian Ray Raphael on that Flummoxing Electoral College

Twelve years ago at this time Vice President Al Gore ran against governor of Texas George W. Bush, leading to chaotic election results. The votes were so close that one candidate won the popular vote while another won the electoral vote. That was right about the time that people across America began asking, what is the Electoral College, and how can a candidate win the popular vote and still lose the election? Who would create such a system? Many are still asking these questions as we approach another close presidential election in November, and historian Ray Raphael has the answers.

 Raphael is currently a Senior Research Fellow with Humboldt State University in Northern California. He authored the acclaimed People’s History of the American Revolution as well as many other books on the founding of the United States, and his latest book is Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive. Raphael visited the Society on Monday, September 24, to present “The Curious Creation of the Electoral College: What the Founders Didn't Want and Didn't See Coming.” 

 “Welcome, fans of the Electoral College,” Raphael began, to the laughter of the audience. He went on to explain the roots of the electoral system in the Federal Convention of 1787 and the ways in which even the founders viewed it as an imperfect solution. The Virginia Plan, an outline of government proposed by the Virginia delegates, called for an undetermined number of members of an executive branch chosen by the legislature. James Wilson of Virginia, however, proposed a single executive elected by the people. Although the members of the convention agreed upon the idea of a single executive, with very limited powers, they disliked the idea of a popular vote to decide the election. Wilson outlined an electoral system as an alternative, but it was rejected. The feeling of the convention was that Congress should be involved in selecting the president. Why the opposition to a popular vote?

 “They wanted government by the people,” Raphael said, “but not the people ruling on a daily basis.”

Finally, the question of how to elect the executive was referred to a committee, which became known as the “Grand Committee.” They created the electoral system we know today, which does not involve Congress directly in presidential elections. The committee also gave the president powers of treaty and appointment. The electoral system and the greater powers allocated to the president were contrary to the sentiments of the convention as a whole, but nonetheless the electoral system was ratified as part of a final effort to complete the Constitution. As a result, electors representing each state, which are equal in number to its Congressional representation, elect the president. Although Maine and Nebraska count their electoral votes proportionally, the rest have a winner-take-all system. In winner-take-all states all the electoral votes go to the candidate who had the most votes in that state, which in four cases has resulted in a candidate winning the popular vote and losing the electoral vote, as we saw in 2000—and which came very close to happening again in 2004.

The committee designed the Electoral College to avoid corruption. They believed that if the electors, who were chosen by the state legislatures, voted at a distance they would be less likely to succumb to the dangers of intrigue and faction. The founders expected the electors to behave nobly and do what was best for the nation. But it only took eight years for national political parties to take hold, resulting in electors having no discretion in voting. Their votes were pre-committed to their parties.

“It’s Oedipal,” said Raphael. “In trying to escape your fate, you create it.”

The Electoral College has evolved considerably from the original intent of the founders, which was to protect the election of the executive from corruption. But even after the collapse of the election process in 2000, Raphael believes it is unlikely to be changed by a constitutional amendment. Voters in rural states, with small populations, and voters in swing states are courted because their votes have added electoral weight, so they prefer this electoral system.

“Isn’t it amazing?” asks Raphael. “Humans are stuck with their own contrivances for centuries.”

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 28 September, 2012, 1:00 AM

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