Monthly Archives: May 2006

Item of the Day: Isaac Weld’s Account of New York City in 1796

[In 1796 New York City’s harbors were among the busiest in the world. Between 1795 and 1800, due in part to the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, exports to Great Britain trebled and imports, especially Caribbean sugar, doubled. During the trade boom of the late 18th century, the municipal government expanded Manhattan’s southern tip through land fill and a plethora of wharves creating the cluttered landscape Weld describes. Along with the soaring increase in trade, banking, and commerce, came a commeasurate increase in population and disease. Damp, marshy areas were believed to be unhealthy, but the Aedes aegyti mosquito was not identified as the contaminating culprit until the mid-19th century. When the first signs of yellow fever appeared in New York in 1796, city officials publicly minimized the threat fearing a catastrophic decline in trade if they should quarantine the city. Wealthy New Yorkers simply moved their families to outlying Greenwich Village or Harlem, but poorer emigrants had no such advantage. The 1796 yellow fever epidemic claimed over 700 lives, most of them destitute workers living near the wharves.]

New York is built on an island of its own name, formed by the North and the East rivers, and a creek or inlet connecting both of these together. The island is fourteen miles long, and , on an average, about one mile in breadth; at its southern extremity stands the city, which extends from one river to the other. The North or Hudson river, is nearly two miles wide; the East or the North-east one, as it should rather be called, is not quite so broad. The depth of water in each, close to the city, is sufficient for the largest merchant vessels. The principal seat of trade, however, is on the East River, and most of the vessels lie there, as during winter the navigation of that river is not so soon impeded by the ice. At this side of the town the houses and stores are built as closely as possible. The streets are narrow and inconvenient, and, as but too commonly is the case in seaport towns, very dirty, and consequently, during the summer season, dreadfully unhealthy. It was in this part of the town that the yellow fever raged with such violence in 1795; and during 1796, many persons that remained very constantly there, also fell victims to a fever, which if not the yellow fever, was very like it. The streets near the North River are much more airy; but the most agreeable part of the town is in the neighbourhood of the battery, on the southern point of the island, at the confluence of the two rivers. When New York was in possession of the English, this battery consisted of two or more tiers of guns, one above the other; but it is now cut down, and affords a most charming walk, and, on a summer’s evening, is crowded with people, as it is open to the breezes from the sea, which render it particularly agreeable at that season. There is a fine view from it of the roads, Long and Staten Islands, and Jersey shore. At the time of high water, the scene is always interesting on account of the number of vessels sailing in and out of port; such as go into the East River pass within a few yards of the walls of the battery.

From the battery a handsome street, about seventy feet wide, called Broadway, runs due north through the town; between it and the North river run several streets at right angles, as you pass which you catch a view of the water, and boats plying up and down; the distant shore of the river also is seen to great advantage. Had the streets on the opposite side of Broadway been also carried down to the East River, the effect would have been beautiful, for Broadway runs along a ridge of high ground between the two rivers; it would have contributed also very much to the health of the place; if , added to this, a spacious quay had been formed the entire length of the city, on either side, instead of having the borders of the rivers crowded with confused heaps of wooded store houses, built upon wharfs projecting one beyond another in every direction, New York would have been one of the most beautiful seaports in the world. All the sea-ports in America appear to great disadvantage from the water, when you approach near to them, from the shores being crowded in this manner with irregular masses of wooden houses, standing as it were in the water. The federal city, where they have already begun to erect the same kind of wooden wharfs and store-houses without any regularity, will be just the same. It is astonishing, that in laying out that city, a grand quay was not thought of in the plan; it would certainly have afforded equal, if not greater accommodation for the shipping, and it would have added wonderfully to the embellishment of the city.

Many of the private houses in New York are very good, particularly those in Broadway. Of the public buildings, there are none which are very striking. The churches and houses for public worship, amount to no less than twenty-two; four of them are for Presbyterians, three for Episcopalians of the church of England, three for Dutch Reformists, two for German Lutherans and Calvinists, two for Quakers, two for Baptists, two for Methodists, one for French Protestants, one for Moravians, one for Roman Catholics, and one for Jews.

According to the census of 1790, the number of inhabitants of New York was found to be thirty thousand one hundred and forty-eight free persons, and two thousand one hundred and eight slaves; but at present the number is supposed to amount at least to forty thousand. The inhabitants have long been distinguished above those of all the other towns in the United States, except it be the people of Charleston, for their politeness, gaiety, and hospitality; and indeed, in these points they are more strikingly superior to the inhabitants of the other large towns. Their public amusements consist in dancing and card assemblies, and theatrical exhibitions; for the former, a spacious suite of rooms has lately been erected. The theatre is of wood, and a most miserable edifice it is; but a new one is now building on a grand scale, which, it is thought, will be much too large for the town as the other is too small.

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Filed under 1790's, New York, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Travel

Item of the Day: Funeral Oration for George Washington by Major-General Henry Lee (1800)

Full Title: Eulogies and Orations on the Life and Death of General George Washington First President of the United States of America. Printed in Boston by Manning and Loring. 1800.

[George Washington died on December 14, 1799. From every corner, eulogies poured forth waxing eloquently on Washington’s leadership, virtue, and honor. One of the most famous was delivered on December 26, 1799 to a joint session of Congress by Major General and Congressman Henry Lee, also known as “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee.]

In obedience to your will, I rise your humble organ, with the hope of executing a part of the system of public mourning which you have been pleased to adopt, commemorative of the death of the most illustrious and most beloved personage this country has ever produced; and which, while it transmits to posterity your sense of the awful event, faintly represents your knowledge of the consummate excellence you so cordially honour.

The founder of our federate republic — our bulwark in war, our guide in peace, is no more! O that this were but questionable! Hope, the comforter of the wretched, would pour into our agonizing hearts its balmy dew. But, alas! there is no hope for us; our Washington is removed forever!

How, my fellow-citizens, shall I single to your grateful hearts, his pre-eminent worth? Where shall I begin, in opening to your view a character throughout sublime? Shall I speak of his warlike achievements, all springing from obedience to his country’s will, all directed to his country’s good?

Moving in his own orbit, he imparted heat and light to his most distant satellites; and combining the physical and moral force of all within his sphere, with irresistible weight he took his course, commiserating folly, disdaining, vice, dismaying treason, and invigorating despondency; until the auspicious hour arrived, when, united with the intrepid forces of a potent and magnanimous ally, he brought to submission the since conqueror of India; thus finishing his long career of military glory with a luster corresponding to his great name, and, in this his last act of war, affixing the seal of fate to our nation’s birth.

Possessing a clear and penetrating mind, a strong and sound judgment, calmness and temper for deliberation, with invincible firmness and perseverance in resolutions maturely formed; drawing information from all; acting from himself with incorruptible integrity and unvarying patriotism; his own superiority and the public confidence alike marked him as the man designed by Heaven to lead in the great political as well as military events which have distinguished the era of his life.
The finger of an over-ruling Providence, pointing at Washington, was neither mistaken nor unobserved, when, to realize the vast hopes to which or revolution had given birth, a change of political systems became indispensable.

How novel, how grand the spectacle! Independent States stretched over an immense territory, and known only by common difficulty, clinging to their union as the rock of their safety; deciding, by frank comparison of their relative condition, to rear on that rock, under the guidance of reason, a common government, through whose commanding protection, liberty and order, with their long train of blessings, should be safe to themselves, and the sure inheritance of their posterity.

Commencing his administration, what heart is not charmed with the recollection of the pure and wise principles announced by himself, as the basis of his political life? He best understood the indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and individual felicity. Watching with an equal and comprehensive eye over this great assemblage of communities and interests, he laid the foundations of our national policy in the unerring, immutable principles of morality, based on religion, exemplifying the preeminence of a free government by all the attributes which win the affections of its citizens, or command the respect of the world.

First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him, as were the effects of that example lasting.

To his equals he was condescending, to his inferiors kind, and to the dear object of his affections exemplary tender. Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.

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Item of the Day: Even More Weld’s Travels (1800)

Full Title: Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797.

Etching: A north-west prospect of Nassau Hall with front view of the President’s House in New Jersey, 1764. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

[En route to New York and Canada, Isaac Weld stopped briefly at the College of New Jersey. (In 1896 the name was changed to Princeton University.) Nassau Hall, built in 1756 had been the largest stone edifice in the colonies and housed the entire college. When Weld visited in 1795, the college was an institution in transition. The newly appointed president, Samuel Stanhope Smith, aimed to implement the vision of his father-in-law and predecessor, John Witherspoon, who died in 1794. Under Witherspoon’s leadership the college had begun to shift away from its strict theological moorings by offering a more expansive curriculum of law and science in addition to religion. Witherspoon and Smith wanted to build their school into the nation’s leading institution of higher education by providing a diverse liberal arts foundation for enlightened men interested in a life of public service. The orrery Weld refers to here was a “mechanical planetarium” designed by Philadelphia clockmaker and astronomer David Rittenhouse and was used to demonstrate the motions of the planets. When the Academy at Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) decided Rittenhouse’s creation was overpriced, Witherspoon bought the device for £416 in 1769. He considered it one of the college’s most prized possessions and a necessary prerequisite for any serious natural philosophy or science curriculum. Weld dryly comments on the orerry’s poor condition but fails to note that it was damaged when Nassau Hall was occupied by the Continental Army during the pivotal Battle of Princeton in January 1777. Nassau Hall still bears the scars of damage sustained by a British cannonball during that battle.]

Twelve miles from Trenton, stands Princeton, a neat town, containing about eighty dwellings in one long street. Here is a large college, held in much repute by the neighbouring states. The number of students amounts to upwards of seventy; from their appearance, however, and the course of studies they seem to be engaged in, like all the other American colleges I ever saw, it better deserves the title of a grammar school than a college. The library, which we were shewn, is most wretched, consisting, for the most part, of old theological books, not even arranged with any regularity. An orrery, contrived by Mr. Rittenhouse, whose talents as so much boasted of by his countrymen, stands at the end of the apartment, but it is quite out of repair, as well as a few detached parts of a philosophical apparatus, enclosed in the same glass case. At the opposite end of the room, are two small cupboards, which are shewn as the museum. These contain a couple of small stuffed alligators, and a few singular fishes, in a miserable state of preservation, the skins of them being tattered in innumerable places, from their being repeatedly tossed about. The building is very plain, and of stone; it is one hundred and eighty feet in front, and four stories high.

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Item of the Day: Etching of Mount Vernon by Isaac Weld, Junior (1798)

Full Title: Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797.

Plan of MOUNT VERNON, Seat of General Washington.
By Isaac Weld, Junior.
Published December 18, 1798 by J. Stockdale, Picadilly.

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Item of the Day: More Weld’s Travels (1800)

[After George Washington became a national icon and the first president,travelers and well-wishers felt at ease dropping into his Mount Vernon home whenever they pleased. Upon arrival, visitors were fed and offered accommodations for one or more nights, in part owing to the difficulty it took to find the place as well as a paucity of local inns. When Weld made his pilgrimage to Mount Vernon, Washington was nearing the end of his second term and had not lived there full time for several years. When he retired from public life in 1796, Washington made it his first order of business to restore and repair his family mansion. ]

From Washington I proceeded to Alexandria, seven miles lower down the river, which is one of the neatest towns in the United States. . . . Nine miles below this place, on the banks of the Patowmac, stands Mount Vernon, the seat of General Washington; the way to it, however, from Alexandria, by land, is considerably farther, on the account of the numerous creeks which fall into the Patowmac, and the mouths of which it is impossible to pass near to.

Very thick woods remain standing within four or five miles of the place; the roads through them are very bad, and so many of them cross one another indifferent directions, that it is a matter of very great difficulty to find out the right one. I set out from Alexandria with a gentleman who thought himself perfectly well acquainted with the way; had he been so, there was ample time to have reached Mount Vernon before the close of the day, but night overtook us wandering about in the woods.

The Mount is a high part of the bank of the river, which rises very abruptly about two hundred feet above the level of the water. The river before it is three miles wide, and on the opposite side it forms a bay about the same breadth, which extends for a considerable distance up the country. . . .The scenery altogether is most delightful. The house, which stands about sixty yards from the edge of the Mount, is of wood, cut and painted so as to resemble hewn stone. The rear is towards the river, at which side is a portico of ninety-six feet in length, supported by eight pillars. The front is uniform, and at a distance looks tolerably well. The dwelling house is in the center, and communicates with the wings on either side, by means of covered ways, running in a curved direction. Behind these wings, on the one side, are the different offices belonging to the house, and also to the farm, and on the other, the cabin for the slaves. In front, the breadth of the whole building, is a lawn with a gravel walk round it; planted with trees, and separated by hedges on either side from the farm yard and garden. As for the garden, it wears exactly the appearance of a nursery, and with everything about the place indicates that more attention is paid to profit than to pleasure. The ground in the rear of the house is also laid out in a lawn, and the declivity of the Mount, towards the water, in a deer park.

The rooms in the house are very small, excepting one, which has been built since the close of the war for the purpose of entertainments. All of these are very plainly furnished, and in many of them the furniture is dropping to pieces. Indeed, the close attention which General Washington has ever paid to public affairs having obliged him to reside principally at Philadelphia, Mount Vernon has consequently suffered very materially. The house and the offices, with every other part of the place, are out of repair, and the old part of the building is in such a perishable state, that I have been told he wishes he had pulled it entirely down at first, and built a new house, instead of making any addition to the one one. The grounds in the nieighbourhood are cultivated; but the principal farms are at the distance of two or three miles.

As almost every stranger going through the country makes a point of visiting Mount Vernon, a person is kept at the house during General Washington’s absence, whose sole business it is to attend to strangers. Immediately on our arrival every care was taken of our horses, beds were prepared, and an excellent supper provided for us, with claret and other wine, &c.

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Filed under 1800's, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Travel

Item of the Day: Weld’s Travels (1800)

Full Title: Travels through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, 1797. By Isaac Weld, Junior. Printed in London for John Stockdale, 1800.

[At age 21, Isaac Weld was already a man of the world. An Irishman to the manor born, Weld arrived in Philadelphia in 1795 to begin what became a three year tour of the new American republic. For Weld it was both an exploratory mission and adventure generated by a wish to escape the havoc of Europe mired in war. He traveled through much of the eastern seaboard and Canada, journeying by foot, boat, carriage and canoe through cities, villages, dense forests and wilderness. Weld’s accounts provide a unique view of the nascent American culture at the end of the 18th century. Throughout his great adventure, Weld clung to his aristocratic standards and wrote condescendingly if not acerbically of the American people and his experiences. An eager British audience devoured his travel logs as soon as they were published in 1800. Several editions later they were also published in Dutch, French, German and Italian.]

From the Introduction:

If it shall appear to any one, that he has spoken with too much asperity of American men and American manners, the Author begs that such language may not be ascribed to hasty prejudice, and a blind partiality for everything that is European. He crossed the Atlantic strongly prepossessed in favour of the People and the Country, which he was about to visit; and if he returned with sentiments of a different tendency, they resulted solely from a cool and dispassionate observation of what chance presented to his view when abroad.

On his arrival in Philadelphia:

Philadelphia, as you approach by the river, is not seen farther off than three miles, a point of land covered with trees concealing it from the view. On weathering this point it suddenly opens upon you, and at that distance it looks extremely well; but on a nearer approach, the city makes a poor appearance, as nothing is visible from the water but confused heaps of wooden storehouses, crowded upon each other, the chief of which are built upon platforms of artificial ground, and wharfs which project a considerable way into the river. . . . Behind these wharfs, and parallel to the river, runs Water street. This is the first street which you usually enter after landing, and it does not serve to give a stranger a very favourable opinion either of the neatness or commodiousness of the public ways of Philadelphia. . . . Added to this such stenches as times prevail in it, owing in part to the quantity of filth and dirt that is suffered to remain on the pavement, and in part to what is deposited in waste houses, of which there are several in the street, that it is really dreadful to pass through it. It was here that the malignant yellow fever broke out in the year 1793, which made such terrible ravages; and in the summer season, in general the street is found extremely unhealthy. That the inhabitants, after suffering so much from the sickness that originated in it, should remain thus inattentive to the cleanliness of Water street is truly surprising.

In the old parts of the town they are in general small, heavy and inconvenient . . .

As for the public buildings, they are all heavy tasteless piles of red brick, ornamental with the same sort of blue marble as that already mentioned, and which but ill accord together, unless indeed we except the new Bank of the United States, and the presbyterian church in High street.
It is a remark, however, very generally made, not only by foreigners, but also by persons from other parts of the United States, that the Philadelphians are extremely deficient in hospitality and politeness towards strangers. Amongst the uppermost circles in Philadelphia, pride, haughtiness, and ostentation are conspicuous, and it seems as if nothing could make them happier than that an order of nobility should be established, by which they might be exalted above their fellow citizens, as much as they are in their own conceit. In the manners of the people in general there is a coldness and reserve, as if they were suspicious of some designs against them, which chills to the very heart those who come to visit them. In their private societies a tristesse is apparent, near which mirth and gaiety can never approach. It is no unusual thing, in the genteelest houses, to see a large party of from twenty to thirty persons assembled, and seated round a room, without partaking of any amusement than what arises from the conversation, most frequently in whispers, that passes between the two persons who are seated next to each other.

The women, in general, whilst young, are very pretty; but by the time they become mothers of a little family they lose all their beauty, their complexions fade away, their teeth begin to decay, and they hardly appear like the same creatures.

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Item of the Day: George Washington’s Last Will and Testament (1799)

[Some say that Washington had a premonition about his own demise. Some claim he had a prescient dream that propelled him to write a new will. Whatever his motivation, in July 1799 Washington penned a will without advice or counsel from any other person. The twenty-nine page document he produced is a reflection of Washington’s thinking as a successful sixty-seven year old planter, businessman, husband, and guardian. In it he bequeaths to his wife not just the typical widow’s portion, but his entire estate to hold until her death at which time their heirs would divide the estate equally into some twenty-three shares. More than the distribution of property and endowments, the will is most famous for what it reveals of Washington’s thinking about slavery. Although during his lifetime Washington never devised a method by which he could emancipate his slaves without courting economic catastrophe to his farms, earlier papers indicate that he despised the institution. In 1799 he possessed 317 slaves, although he owned only 124 slaves outright. The rest were dower slaves he acquired through his wife’s estate when they married. Washington makes clear his wish that the 124 slaves he owned should be freed at his wife’s death. (As it turned out, Martha Washington freed her husband’s slaves a year following his death partly because she believed them to be a threat to her since it was only by her staying alive that they remained in bondage. When she died in 1802, she owned only one slave, Elish, whom she did not free. The dower slaves were not manumitted either and were bequeathed to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis where they continued to labor on the Mount Vernon estate.) Perhaps by freeing his slaves Washington once again tried to offer himself as a model of morality and virtue. This time, however, neither his peers nor compatriots chose to follow his example. None of the three slaveholding presidents who followed him manumitted their slaves and the peculiar institution survived another sixty-six years. Five months after writing his will, Washington contracted acute epiglottis, after an inspection tour of his farms in terrible winter weather. Doctors provided the best care available (bleeding and blistering) but Washington died on December 14, 1799.]

In the name of God, Amen.

I George Washington of Mount Vernon — a citizen of the United States, and lately President of the same, do make, ordain and declare this instrument; which is written with my own hand and every page thereof subscribed with my name, to be my list Will & Testament, revoking all others.

. . .

Item. To my dearly beloved wife Martha Washington I give and bequeath the use, profit, and benefit of my whole Estate, real and personal, for the term of her natural life — except such parts thereof as are specifically disposed of hereafter. . .

Item Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will & desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom. To emancipate them during her life, would, tho’ earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy of the same Proprietor; it no being in my power, under the tenure by which the Dower Negroes are held, to manumit them. And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this devise, there may be some, who from old age or bodily infirmities, and others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves; it is my Will and desire that all who come under the first & second description shall be comfortably cloathed & fed by my heirs while they live; and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable, or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty five years; and in cases where no record can be produced, whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgement of the Court upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate and final. The Negros thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses) to be taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of Orphan and other poor Children and I do thereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever. And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the Survivors of them, to see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the age and inform; seeing that a regular and permanent fund be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trust to the uncertain provision to be made by individuals. . .

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Filed under 1790's, Legal, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Slavery