With warmer weather and the completion of my manuscript, I’ve been out on the Salem streets more, but every time I’m on a lovely walk I see some horrible structure that makes me run home: it’s not just the new big buildings but also the small old ones, purchased by developers so they can “save” them from rot and decay by gutting their interiors and blowing them out in every possible direction so they can shove five or six or more units into their then-unrecognizable structures, thus solving our housing crisis at the same time! Maybe we might be left with some semblance of a “historical” facade but that’s about it. I’m sure you can tell I’m not happy, but it’s a lovely spring Saturday and I’d like to focus on more pleasant and interesting things, like a really cool preservation/education project at an 18th century plantation ruin in Virginia. But beware: monster preservation (or lack thereof) post coming up: I’m gathering steam and data!
But for today: Menokin, the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It is a beautiful ruin in the Northern Neck of Virginia, once the center of prosperous Tidewater plantation. Despite its ruined status, Menokin is one of the best documented Georgian houses in America: the original plans exist, and a comprehensive inventory was created by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1940. It was left to decay for most of the twentieth century, and then a tree fell on it in the 1960s, nearly reducing it to rubble. Now it is under cover, and its owners, the Menokin Foundation, are in the process of “restoring” it in an innovative and transparent way—literally. Those portions of the house which are intact will be preserved and stabilized, while missing walls, floors, and sections will be replaced with glass, thus revealing its fabric and construction over time. The phrase dynamic preservation is used by those who envisioned the project: their goal is tell the story of Menokin through the process of reconstruction, “not as a snapshot in time but as a continuing narrative.” The “Glass House Project,” designed by architect MachadoSilvetti in collaboration with glass engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan and landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand, began last summer and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Neither Ruin nor Relic,” Michael J. Lewis called the Menokin Glass House Project “the first postmodern restoration” and a “cannonball flung between the feet of the historic preservation community.”
Menokin in 1940 (HABS, Library of Congress), after the destructive tree fall, at present and envisioned.
A cannonball indeed! It will be interesting to see what the professional historic preservation community thinks of this project. I’m no professional, and I’m torn, but the educator in me is impressed by the Menokin Foundation’s obvious commitment to transforming the house and its surrounding 500 acres into a teaching tool. The Foundation’s interpretive arm, Menokin: ReimaginingaRuin, is very active, with a series of presentations on both material and human history. The complex topic of slavery is the focus of ongoing initiatives and discussions centered on its Remembrance Structure, built with historical techniques above the archaeological remains of one of the dwellings where the plantation’s enslaved laborers lived. The Foundation clearly has no interest in reconstructing the house according to the constraints of one moment in its history, and dressing up guides in pre-revolutionary or antebellum costumes to give tours to visitors about what once was. Its focus on evolving construction will facilitate more substantive discussions about how and why rather than just when.
Remembrance Structure at night; interior rendering.
I have fewer courses this semester as I took some of my archived overload so I could finish my book, but this release has been somewhat overset by the fact that I’m teaching a brand new course for the first time in quite some time. I always update my courses with new content and readings, but a new prep is much more time-consuming, especially when it’s not quite your expertise, which is the case with this course: English Constitutional History. We have a pre-law concentration in our major and this course is one of its electives and I can’t remember the last time it was taught. I’m teaching it like a social history of the Common Law, and I’ve learned a lot so far. This past week, I’ve been reading about treason, of which there were two kinds: High Treason and Petit (Petty) Treason. Both were capital offenses: High Treason was an offense against the King or the State, and Petit Treason was a crime committed against your master. As the law was codified in the fourteenth century the latter generally referred to wives killing their husbands, servants (and later slaves) killing their masters. Under this statute, which was in effect from 1351 to 1828, a woman who murdered her husband was not indicted for homicide, but petit treason, and until 1790, if found guilty, she faced public execution by burning at the stake. A succession of English women faced this prospect in the early modern era, or I should say, a succession of wives.
The punishment for treason, both kinds, had to be terrible: men who were found guilty were hanged, drawn and quartered, and women burned, as their public nudity was apparently an equally horrific offense against God and society. Most accounts indicate that women were hanged and then burned, and of course their clothing was burned off. The English colonies in North America were subject to the Treason Law of 1351 as well, and consequently two women, both enslaved, were burned at the stake in Massachusetts: one Maria, a “servant” to Joshua Lambe of Roxbury, who was found guilty of burning both his and an adjoining house down in 1681 (it’s not clear to me whether she was found guilty of petit treason or arson, which was also a capital offense), and Phillis, who conspired with her fellow enslaved “servants” Mark and Phebe to kill their master John Codman of Charlestown by arsenic (and “black lead” or “potters lead”) in 1755. There are many sources for this sad tale, including a Massachusetts Historical Society pamphlet from 1883 which provides testimony from the trials of the accused. According to its narrative: Mark, Phillis, and Phebe,—particularly Mark,—found the rigid discipline of their master unendurable, and, after setting fire to his workshop some six years before, hoping by the destruction of this building to so embarrass him that he would be obliged to sell them, they, in the year 1755, conspired to gain their end by poisoning him to death. I’ll let newspaper articles take it from there.
Both Mark and Phillis confessed and received their horrible sentences; Phebe was judged a less-guilty conspirator and transported to the West Indies. Mark offered up an explanation that you often hear in European cases of poisoning: that if one does not spill blood in murdering it is somehow a lesser offense before God. His body was indeed “gibbeted,” for quite some time: in his account of his “midnight ride,” Paul Revere actually wayfinds with reference to where “Mark was hung in chains” twenty years later. The rookie mistake that everyone always makes in regard to the Salem Witch Trials is that the “witches” were burned, but witchcraft was not a crime punishable by burning under the Common Law by contrast with the Continent, where the “crime” was judged manifest heresy. In England, and New England, only wives, servants and slaves were burned at the stake, and also counterfeiters. The last woman executed by burning in England was Catherine Murphy, who along with her husband Hugh, was found guilty of counterfeiting, a crime against the Crown and thus High Treason, in 1788. Her sentence was carried out in March of 1789, provoking the abolition of death by burning in the Treason Act of 1790.
I’ve been searching high and low for Salem suffragists, and I have found some, but it’s been a difficult search as there are no extant papers of the “Woman Suffrage Club” of Salem that I can find: newspaper articles, a few flyers, references in diaries and other texts, that’s about it. There are records of many other women’s organizations—charitable groups, religious groups, fellowship groups—which met over different decades of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and among them are the minutes and correspondence of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (SFASS), one of the country’s earliest female abolition societies. Looking at all these records, I see familiar names turning up again and again, and as I suspect there were concentric circles of female activism in nineteenth-century Salem, most especially among those women advocating for abolition and suffrage, I am especially grateful that the SFASS archives have been digitized through a partnership of the Congregational and Phillips Libraries. I had a student who worked with these records a year ago for her capstone research and she deemed them “boring”, but I find them fascinating in terms of both content and tone: expressions of a sisterhood of mutual aid and activism pervade even the most administrative of notations.
Records of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1834-66, Phillips Library MSS 34: available at the CongregationalLibrary. Meeting minutes & Correspondence from William Lloyd Garrison.
Before I get into the activities of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, I need to write about Clarissa Lawrence, again. An African-American schoolteacher who lived on High Street in a house that still stands, Lawrence was committed to what was obviously for her an intertwined mission of aid and abolition: she established the first female Anti-Slavery Society in 1832, the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, which consisted solely of free women of color. This organization was folded into the integrated Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1834, but in the interim year, Lawrence also revived and reformed the dormant Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem. This woman was tireless, and relentless, and on fire. She served in the leadership of the SFASS, and was a delegate to the third Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in Philadelphia in May of 1839. On the last day of the convention, Lawrence rose to make a memorable speech, recorded in its proceedings and frequently referenced and reprinted. Yet despite her renown among her peers and historians, she is largely forgotten in the Witch City.
I hope that Mrs. Lawrence felt supported in all of her efforts by her sisters in the newly-formed Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, all 130 of them, including officers, managers and members. I assume that her election as Vice-President means that she was. The women were very serious about their organization, their meetings, and their minutes. Their first task was to draw up and ratify a constitution, after which they held regular meetings at Mechanic Hall, Creamer Hall, the Masonic Hall, and the Howard Street Church: sub-committee meetings were held at members’ homes. There is one reference to the expenditure of ten dollars for the “privilege of holding our meetings for the enduring year (1837) in the Anti-Slavery Room–occupied by the anti-slavery gentlemen of this city as a reading and debating room”: I have no idea where this might have been, but it conjures up an image of gentlemen reading and debating while the women are doing. Every meeting started with prayers, and decorum was always observed: one young lady who shall remain nameless was asked to resign for her use of “profane” language and she complied. Most of the work of the Society consisted of fundraising in order to support several missions: the purchase of memberships in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society for those that could not afford them, sending representatives such as Clarissa Lawrence to conventions, supporting “refugees from slavery”, and underwriting William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator. There were occasional requests for support of vulnerable members of Salem’s free black population—which were answered—but you can tell that the ladies’ primary focus was on those who had escaped from the South. Fundraising primarily took the form of holding fairs, in which the other female anti-slavery societies in the area—in Boston, Marblehead, and Danvers—would contribute, with reciprocation from Salem: the bonds of sisterhood definitely crossed municipal boundaries as well as state lines.
Salem Register, 1841
Recording Secretary Eliza J. Kenny (sometimes spelled Kenney) was a fascinating woman in several ways, and she will get her own Salem Suffrage Saturday post in the near future: her influence, as well as long-serving President Lucy G. Ives, seems to be behind the lecture series sponsored by the SFASS from 1844-1860, which brought many famous abolitionist advocates to Salem: William Lloyd Garrison seems always ready to speak in Salem, but Wendell Phillips, O.B. Frothingham, William H. Channing and others also came to speak at the Lyceum. The lecture that received the most attention in the press by far was that of “fugitive slave” William Wells Brown, who came to Salem on his first tour as an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, at the beginning of a brilliant career. When asked if he could “represent the real condition of the Slave” Brown replied that he could not: your fastidiousness would not allow me to do it; and if it would, I, for one, should not be willing to do it;—–at least to an audience. Were I to tell you the evils of Slavery, to represent to you the Slave in his lowest degradation, I should wish to take you, one at a time, and whisper it to you. Slavery has never been represented; Slavery never can be represented. What is a Slave? A Slave is one that is in the power of the owner. He is chattel; he is a thing; he is a piece of property. A master can dispose of him, can dispose of his labor, can dispose of his wife, can dispose of his offspring, can dispose of everything that belongs to the Slave, and the Slave shall have no right to speak; he shall have nothing to say. The Slave cannot speak for himself, he cannot speak for his wife, or his children. He is a thing. Brown’s words were by all accounts riveting, so much so that his Salem talk was issued in print, with the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society right there in the title, on the cover, a great example of the Society’s increasing focus on communication in its second and third decades.
Salem Observer, 1847-48; Henry M. Parkhurst’s “phonographic report” of Mr. Brown’s Lyceum Speech.
Eliza Kenny led me to the intersection of abolitionism and suffrage: she was the first Salem woman to sponsor a petition, “that the right of suffrage may be extended to women” to the Massachusetts legislature in 1850, right after she attended the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester. I saw lots of familiar names among the 25 women who signed the petition: her anti-slavery sisters. Eliza went down a spiritualist route that made her a less effective (and committed) advocate for either abolition or suffrage later, but her decades of activism are commendable, as are those of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery, which disbanded in 1866, their objective realized at long last. But there were still battles to be waged.
Kenny petition for the Harvard Anti-Slavery Petitions of Massachusetts Dataverse; The Female version of Am I Not A………., first used in George Bourne’s Slavery Illustrated in Its Effects upon Women (1837).
My contribution to Thanksgiving next week at my brother’s house will be Indian Pudding, which I have made many times in years past, always with variant recipes. As we are getting into the holidays, my general plan is to avoid some of the more serious topics here on the blog in favor of food, decorations, and traditions, but as I started looking into the history of this pudding, a dish that was always around and which I always took for granted, I started getting into some material that was not light, fluffy, and cheery. Indian Pudding is more complex than I thought! The general story is one of colonial New Englanders missing their old English puddings, and substituting “Indian” corn meal out of necessity, but this is too simple a tale: you can also connect this native pudding to the French and Indian Wars, the inventive expat Count Rumford, slavery and abolition, vegetarianism, and “Yankee” thrift. It’s more American than Apple pie.
An advertisement for Durgin Park in Boston, which always featured Indian Pudding and closed just this year, from Historic New England, and a typical “old New England” recipe card featuring IP (not one of my recipes—I’m egg-phobic so I always bake the eggless varieties).
The Oxford English Dictionary lists a 1722 cookbook as the first source of the phrase “Indian Pudding”, but the first reference I could find was not in a cookbook, but rather in “Indian Pete” Williamson’s “memoir” French and Indian Cruelty, exemplified in the Life and various Vicissitudes of Fortune of Peter Williamson, who was carried off from Aberdeen in his Infancy and sold as a slave in Pennsylvania (York, 1757). This is a sensational and suspect source, in which Williamson ascribes all sorts of barbaric behavior to the “savages” of North America, including cannibalism and the concoction of “Indian Puddings” out of their British victims. Published in the midst of the French and Indian War (which was the North American theater of the Seven Years War) this was lurid propaganda, but the reference pops up in several other North American “descriptions” later in the century before disappearing (thankfully). Much more influential was Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford’s recipe for “wholesome” and cheap Indian pudding, prescribed as a beneficial food for the European poor in his Essays, political, economical, and philosophical (1796). Thompson, Massachusetts Loyalist, accused spy, and accomplished inventor (who served an apprenticeship in Salem) achieved fame, fortune, and title in Britain and Bavaria, but always seems a bit sentimental about his native land. He devotes quite a few pages to Indian Pudding, describing its benefits, providing a recipe (with American variations) and even giving directions on how to eat it.
Back in America, Indian Pudding was a staple in all the cookbooks issued from the later eighteenth century well into the twentieth–as far as I could tell: I checked in with a sample about every twenty years. There are notable variations: boiled or baked, plain or fancy, eggs or no eggs, savory or sweet, all sorts of additions in terms of spices, berries, and nuts. The pudding becomes progressively sweet in the early nineteenth century, presumably as it is moving from breakfast porridge to dessert, but then there is a reduction of sweetness in the later nineteenth century, as it was featured as an economical and “healthy” food, and a favorite dessert of vegetarians. In between, there is an amazing abolitionist argument put forward by Nathan Bangs in his Emancipation, its necessity and means of accomplishment : Calmly submitted to the Citizens of the United States (1849) in which he associates rice pudding with the perpetuation of slavery and Indian Pudding, “the good old food of New England” with freedom! (This argument does seem to discount the sugar and molasses in “Yankee” Indian Pudding).
Indian Pudding was already “old” in 1849 and became older still—definitely out of fashion in the later nineteenth century except for working families and housewives more concerned with thrift than show. The Colonial Revival movement put it back on the table, especially the Thanksgiving table, for “old-fashioned” holiday meals at the beginning of the twentieth century. And after that, I’m not sure what happens to Indian Pudding: I guess it depends on the family, and the region. It is included in all of the cookbooks which were labeled American in the twentieth century, but that might be more for custom than utility: I have a feeling that pies prevail.
I don’t think this unhappy family (in the American Agriculturist, 1894) is pondering pudding, but the juxtaposition is amusing; Anna Wells Morrison’s “Colonial Thanksgiving” menu in the 1902 Delineator features “Indian Meal Pudding”; Jeri Quinzio’s Puddingis part of the Edible Series at the University of Chicago Press.
Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.
Henry David Thoreau, Slavery in Massachusetts (1854), an essay based on a speech given on July 4, 1854 in Framingham, Massachusetts, following the return and re-enslavement of Boston refugee Anthony Burns to Virginia in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
My romantic appreciation for “Old Salem” the olden/golden time of daring sea captains who brought home and commissioned the material culture I so admire, must be tempered by the historical myopia of its most expressive creators. While Henry David Thoreau’s generation included many Salem residents who were ardent and influential abolitionists, several generations later the Salem’s participation in the trans-Atlantic slavery system was forgotten quite conveniently. This must have been a national trend which at long last is provoking the equally-national revisionist trend we are in now, but still, we can’t let the authors of these histories and reminiscences of limited memory off the hook, for it is a fact that the first ship which brought enslaved Africans to Massachusetts was the Salem-made Desire, captained by a Mr. William Pierce of Boston. As noted in Governor John Winthrop’s manuscript history of Massachusetts, in 1638 the Desire, returned from the W. Indies after seven months. He [stopped] at Providence[Isle] and brought some cotton and tobacco and negroes &c, and salt from Tertugo [Tortuga]. Dry fish and strong liquors are the only commodities for those parts. He met there two men sent forth by the Lords &c. of Providence, with letters of marque who had taken divers prizes from the Spaniards, and many negroes.
This was not a one-off cargo but the beginning of a trade, rationalized by the labor demands of a colony that had already incorporated indigenous slavery into its framework and was overwhelmed by all that land on the horizon: only very cheap, preferably free, labor turn it into something of value. Winthrop’s brother-in-law Emmanuel Downing, writing from his Peabody estate in 1645 rather than the elaborate Salem house he later lived in, explained it very succinctly in a letter to the Governor: If upon a just war [with the Narragansetts] the Lord shall deliver them into our hands, we might easily have men, women and children enough to exchange for Moors, which will be more gainful pillage for us then we conceive, for I do not see how we can thrive until we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business, for our children’s children will hardly see this great Continent filled with people, so that our servants shall desire freedom to plant themselves, and not stay but for very great wages. And I suppose you know very well how we shall maintain 20 Moors cheaper than one English servant. Winthrop and Downing are very clear, even casual, in their acceptance of slavery, but their early twentieth-century historians don’t acknowledge their clarity, or seek to engage with it. Here’s what Ralph Delahaye Paine has to say about the Desire, in his popularThe Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: The Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement (1912).
Well, I’m sure you can characterize his interpretation by the subtitle of his book, but still, it’s a bit alarming to see “negroes” in one sentence followed by this ship Desire was a credit to her builders with nothing in between! No judgement, no context, just obvious approval of the “genius” of Salem’s merchants and shipmasters, “for discovering new markets for their trading ventures and staking their lives and fortunes on the chance of finding rich cargoes where no other American ships had dreamed of venturing.” In one of my favorite domestic remembrances of Old Salem, there is a similar dismissiveness, or non-engagement: in Old Salem, “Eleanor Putnam” (1886; really Harriet Leonora Vose Bates) recalls Salem shops, Salem Schools, and Salem sea captains, but even though she discloses that the manuscript memories of her cousin the sea captain references the slave trade, she doesn’t engage—she is much more interested in telling her readers precisely how he took his rum!
That’s pretty much how the Colonial Revival “Old Salem” generation dealt with slavery: the occasional reference, but minimal engagement or recognition that it was a foundation of the golden era which they hold in such high esteem. It is convenient that slavery became illegal in Massachusetts in 1783, so that the Salem of Samuel McIntire and the early republic can be depicted without its taint. But this limited view would not last forever: the ultimate antiquarian George Francis Dow, the force behind Pioneer Village, the restoration of the John Ward House, and the Essex Institute’s pioneering period rooms, published Slave Ships and Slaving in 1927. Dow’s book is largely based on first-hand accounts of those who experienced the slave trade over the early modern era—except for those enslaved, of course— and while he references the Desire (though he makes her a Marblehead-built ship) he does not note either the year or the specific date of August 25, 1619, when enslaved African-Americans first stepped foot in North America, in the Jamestown port of Point Comfort, traded for rations by the crew of the White Lion, an English privateering ship sailing under Dutch authority which had captured its human cargo from a Spanish slave ship in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the date now, and the 400th anniversary of this consequential date is upon us. It’s being marked by an ambitious series in the New York Times, initiatives and events by commissions across the country, and a nationwide bell-ringing moment (at 3 pm) initiated by the National Park Service. In its recurring role as the guardian of serious historic interpretation in Salem, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site has invited the community to engage in its bell-ringing event (on the deck of the Friendship) at 2:45 on Sunday, followed by an interactive tour of slavery at the site. I can’t imagine a better place to reflect—looking out over the water, on a ship—and I love the bell-ringing ritual, as it brings us back to the days of the fiery abolitionists, and very far away from those of the Old Salemites. In the same Independence Day speech which I quoted at the beginning of this post, Henry David Thoreau remarked that Every humane and intelligent inhabitant of Concord, when he or she heard those bells and those cannons, thought not with pride of the events of the 19th of April, 1775, but with shame of the events of the 12th of April, 1851 (when the first refugee from slavery after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Thomas Sims, was returned to Georgia): the distortion of revolutionary ideals by slavery was so very clear to him, and them, and I think (hope) it is for us as well.
Louis XIV famously once said Fashion is the mirror of history but as we all know, sometimes mirrors show us things we don’t want to see. I was looking around for some inspiration for my Resistance Ball dress, when I discovered the work of an amazing Haitian-born, Brooklyn-based artist named FabiolaJean–Louis, a photographer, a stylist, a (paper)dressmaker, and a “maker” who seems to be able to embrace the past, present and future in her work, sometimes simultaneously. Her breakthrough exhibition, Rewriting History (2016), took my breath away. Look at this “mirror image”, in which the embroidery design on the back of the embellished dress of “Madame Beauvoir” mirrors the scars from the scourged back of the once-enslaved man named Gordon, displayed in a famous photograph by McPherson & Oliver that went viral during the Civil War.
Madame Beavoir’s Painting
The juxtaposition of the very beautiful (women, dresses, surroundings) with very ugly historical events is jarring in these compositions, but also remarkably effective: you can’t look away. According to Ms. Jean-Louis, it’s not just the medium and the message but also the material: the paper gown sculptures are transformed in a way that allows me to represent layers of time and the events of the past as they intrude upon the present. Through the materials, I suggest that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present, as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors. Rewriting History seeks to reconnect viewers to the past so that parallels with current events are amplified.
Madame Leroy and Rest in Peace; Revolutionary Dress Top (detail).
The beautiful Madame Leroy in her exquisite eighteenth-century gown with a stomacher (locket? window?) encasing a lynched man, an image which is repeated even more starkly in the model-less Revolutionary Dress. Less straightforward, at least for me, is Marie Antoinette is Dead, modeled on François Boucher’s portrait of a reclining Madame de Pompadour, but the updated subject seems to be a Voodoo Queen in a rococo dress. There are no fashion victims among Jean-Louis’s subjects: only powerful women, and heroines such as Mathilda Taylor Beasley: born into slavery in Georgia in 1832, she somehow escaped, and operated a secret school for African-American children in Savannah in the 1850s—a very dangerous act at that time and place. I cannot help but think of Charlotte Forten Grimké, a contemporary of Beasley’s and Salem’s first African-American educator, who ascended to that profession under far more advantageous circumstances in the North. Beasley is memorialized in Passing and Violin of the Dead, and now I know her name. I really can’t discern whether I am reacting to these works as a cultural consumer or an educator.
Marie Antoinette is Dead; Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (Neue Pinakothek, Munich);Passing and Violin of the Dead. All photographs by Fabiola Jean-Louis with more + commentary at her website: www.fabiolajeanlouis.com .
Growing up in York, Maine, my focus was increasingly over the river and out of state once I hit my teens, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a larger town with a mall, movie theaters, downtown shops, and lots and lots of restaurants. As I’ve said before, I think I ended up in Salem in large part because of its similarity to Portsmouth, and its greater proximity to Boston (now Salem surely has more restaurants, but fewer shops). For some reason which I can’t remember, my favorite restaurant in Portsmouth has always been The Oar House, which still exists, but a close second was The Codfish Aristocracy, which is long gone. I had very little historical curiosity then, as well as very little regard for American history, so I never questioned the name; only later did I delve into the origins of this interesting idiom. Since I have cod on the brain this week, I decided to delve into it a bit more, and of course, in this year of discovering all sorts of legacies of slavery, here is another one. I think there are several connections, actually. As a general reference to the New England aristocracy of families whose “new” wealth was based on the Atlantic fisheries and trade to both the West Indies and Europe, the term predates the nineteenth century; after all the original “sacred cod” was placed in the old Colonial State House in the early eighteenth century and the present one dates from 1798. Salem even has a claim for the origins of the term, based on the cod embellishment on the stairs in Colonel Benjamin Pickman’s beautiful Georgian mansion on Essex Street, built in 1756. A lithograph of this house was included in the materials chosen by a special Essex Institute committee to represent Salem at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, when it was “still standing though defaced by shops in front. It is said that the term “Codfish Aristocracy” arose from the fact that the end of each stair in the hall of this was house was ornamented with gilded codfish, Colonel Pickman’s fortune being derived from the fisheries”.
Arthur Griffin photograph of the Sacred Cod in the State House, 1950s; The Pickman House by Pendleton’s Lithography, Digital Commonwealth & Boston Athenaeum.
New England cod fed both enslaved Africans and free Europeans and thus created great wealth in New England, but the derisive use of the term “Codfish Aristocracy”, in reference to the ostentatious and vulgar display of that wealth, comes later, in the 1840s and 1850s, and most prominently in the debate over slavery. He was not the originator of the phrase, but when Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina remarked that We should regard it somewhat strange if we should require a codfish aristocracy to keep us in order in the midst of a speech on the floor of the Senate in the summer of 1850, it seemed to hit a chord. As a leading pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist voice, Butler drew heated criticism from Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who indicted Butler as both “the Don Quixote of slavery,” and an admirer of “the harlot, Slavery” in his own Senate speech in May of 1856: in retaliation Butler’s cousin Preston S. Brooks responded by caning Sumner on the Senate floor days later, instigating his three-year incapacitation. In the following year, after Senator Clement Claiborne Clay introduced a bill repealing all laws allowing bounties to vessels employed in the fisheries under the rationale that 25 states were made to pay tribute to the Codfish Aristocracy of a mere six, papers in Massachusetts opined that “southern hatred of New England” was his true motivation.
Somewhere between the absolute disdain conveyed by the southern use of the term and the occasional pride displayed in the North was the New York attitude: more mockery than condemnation. There are three caricatures of the Codfish Aristocracy that represent this perspective well in the collection of the Library Collection of Philadelphia: literal representations are always an effective form of censure!
Three Codfish Aristocrats: McAllister Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia, c. 1840-1880.
I’ve always admired these three portraits of women from the Lynde family: the wife and daughters of Benjamin Lynde Jr., chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature and one of the justices who presided over the trial of Captain Thomas Preston following the Boston Massacre. As the portraits were produced by very esteemed and in-demand artists, their existence seems to me to represent the extreme wealth and prestige of the family, and by extension Salem, with which they were all identified. But since I’ve had my “enslavement enlightenment” lightbulb moment, I find I can’t look at them in the same way I used to: a little personal perspective on a challenge faced by many towns, cities, and universities these days. I can’t admire the rich folds of velvet and silk swathing these women without thinking of their other “possessions”.
Robert Feke, Mrs. Benjamin Lynde Jr., c. 1748. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation.
Joseph Blackburn, Mary Lynde Oliver, c. 1755. National Gallery of Art.
John Singleton Copley, Lydia Lynde (Walter), c. 1762-64. Lydia Lynde, ca. 1762-64. New Britain Museum of American Art, Stephen B. Lawrence Fund and through exchange.
Maybe I can look at the silk without guilt: there are references to at least two enslaved men in the various accounts of Justice Lynde’s household, implicating his wife Mary (Bowles) Lynde (1709-91), but I do not know if the Lynde’s two daughters, Mary Lynde Oliver (1733-1807) and Lydia Lynde Walter (1741-1798) are so-tainted. As Mary Jr. was married to a gentleman scientist (Andrew Oliver) and Lydia married the Rector of Trinity Church in Boston (the Reverend William Walter), I would like to think that they despised the institution and practice of slavery, but that might be anachronistic wishful thinking on my part as science, religion, and slavery seem to be compatible in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Mary’s 1751 diary is among other Oliver collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and I bet that would yield some clues. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts during the lifetimes of all of these women, and it would be interesting to know their reactions to that epic event. While the two Marys led much of their lives in the Lynde family home on the corner of Essex and Liberty Streets (demolished in 1836, and then of course the PEM engulfed that latter so that no longer exists either) in Salem, Lydia lived with her husband in Boston until 1776 when they decamped for Nova Scotia with other Loyalists, to return only in 1791. While The Loyalists of Massachusetts described both of Benjamin Lynde’s sons-in-law as “staunch Loyalists”, I’m just not sure that is the case with Andrew Oliver, Mary’s husband. He was certainly part of a conspicuous Loyalist family as his father was the last royal Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts and his uncle its last royal Chief Justice, but he seems to have been more passionate about science than politics and he and Mary remained in Salem during the Revolution.
Joseph Blackburn, Andrew Oliver, Jr., c. 1755, National Gallery of Art. In the companion portrait to that of Mary above, Andrew Oliver looks even more resplendent, with his waistcoat and dovecote!
John Singleton Copley, Andrew Oliver, Jr., 1758. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
At least I think they did: they’re pretty quiet, only emerging towards the end of the war as executors (she with her maiden name) of her father’s estate. I’d like to think that Mary and Andrew fulfilled the dictates of Benjamin Lynde Jr.’s will and freed his long-term “man” Primus joyfully, and on the most generous of terms. No advertisements for lost or runaway humans before that, thank goodness, only books. We do get some insights into Mary’s character from the ever-quotable Reverend Bentley, although they are not very complimentary: she was “of real piety but not of that mind which could have rendered her a fit companion for her husband who took a high rank in American Literature. She was feeble limited in her enquiries, & a century too late in her manners.” (Diary II, 335-6).
Addendum: There is a fourth portrait of a Lynde lady: Benjamin Lynde Jr.’s mother, Mary Browne Lynde, in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum: I don’t remember ever seeing it, but it is featured in Lorinda Goodwin’s book An Archaeology of Manners: The Polite World of the Merchant Elite of Colonial Massachusetts (2002) as well as the Smithsonian’s catalog of American portraits, where it is attributed to none other than Sir Godfrey Kneller, the “Principal Painter” of the late Stuart courts. It is quite something to think of a Salem girl being painted by the same artist who portrayed James II, William and Mary, Anne, Locke and Newton! There is no online catalog of its object collections on the PEM website, so I can’t check out their attribution, though Goodwin lists it as unattributed. Mrs. Lynde Sr. appears to have been a very beautiful woman, but not only were her father and husband slave owners, she lived in an age in which slavery became integrated inextricably with the British Atlantic Empire. In 1713 Britain was granted the asiento, the exclusive contract to supply the Spanish American colonies with slaves, in the treaty that ended the War of the Spanish Succession, thus enabling its domination of the Atlantic Slave Trade for the rest of the eighteenth century.
I’m wrapping up February, a month in which educators have focused on African-American history since at least 1970, with a summary of some of the research in which I’ve been engaged and some links to some other initiatives and events in the Salem area. I really learned a lot this month, about Salem’s African-American history, and about Salem’s history: essentially I learned that they are one and the same. I got drawn into the experiences of African-Americans in Salem in the eighteenth century by my efforts to learn digital mapping through a project on enslavement, while the Remonds of Hamilton Hall have always been my point-of-entry for the world of nineteenth-century free blacks in Salem. I’ve been supervising an internship for Hamilton Hall in which the intern has been digging deep into the activities of the extended Remond family, and I have benefitted from directing (and following!) her path. My map is in the very preliminary stages primarily because I haven’t really mastered the process yet, but also because I have yet to establish the full scale of enslavement in colonial Salem. Every discovery leads me down a path in which I struggle to establish context: the Honorable justices William Browne, Benjamin Lynde Sr., and Benjamin Lynde Jr., the Loyalist Captain Poynton of the “Pineapple House”: all slave owners.
Advertisements from the BostonEvening–Post; 1731 portrait of Benjamin Lynde Sr. by John Smibert; Diary entry and will excerpt from The Diaries of Benjamin Lynde and of Benjamin Lynde, Jr.(1880). I’m using the “Otis Map” or the “Map of Salem about 1780,” based on the Researches of Sidney Perley and the (contemporary) accounts of Col. Benjamin Pickman & Benjamin J.F. Browne with Additional Information Assembled by James Duncan Phillips and Henry Noyes Otis and drawn by Henry Noyes as my old-school working map and adding Xs as I uncover information from newspaper ads, censuses, and diaries–but there are still a lot of family papers to go through.
It’s so odd to think of Benjamin Lynde Sr. (1666-1749) and Benjamin Lynde Jr. (1700-1781), Salem natives, residents, and chief justices of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature, conducting their legal responsibilities while simultaneously managing their private estates, which included the purchase of new slaves, and the recovery of those who had run away. The elder Lynde mentions purchasing sheep and a young boy named Scipio in the same breath. Benjamin Lynde Jr. presided over the trial of the British soldiers indicted for the Boston Massacre of 1770, and freed one of his slaves in his will six years later. And then everything changes: just one of many remarkable things I’ve learned about Charles Lenox Remond (1810-1873), also a Salem native and son of a free black emigre, is his intense advocacy for the erection of a memorial to Crispus Attucks, the African-American martyr of the Boston Massacre. He would not see that statue erected in his lifetime, but he would be the first African-American to testify before the Massachusetts legislature in 1842: on the timely topic of the the desegregation of the relatively-new railways. Just this past week, an excerpt of the new book Separate: the Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey From Slavery to Segregation by Steve Luxenberg was published in the WashingtonPostMagazine as ” The Jim Crow Car”: who knew that that phrase had northern origins? Mr. Luxenberg tweeted me a quote from his book referencing Remond’s testimony on February 10, 1842 when the chamber was filled with curious spectators as “Word had gotten out: a man of color would be testifying.”
Before this month, I had a healthy respect for Charles and his equally famous sister Sarah Parker Remond, both very public abolitionist advocates and speakers, but I was a bit more interested in their parents, John and Nancy, a very entrepreneurial couple who kept the home fires burning while supporting their efforts back in Salem. I remain impressed with the entire Remond family, but I got to know Charles a bit more and I really think he was a man ahead of his time. He was not just advocating for abolition, he was going for complete equality: of race and gender. I read in his letters to his fellow abolitionist Ellen Sands in the Phillips Library in Rowley very carefully, and his earnest identification of his enemies as “his majesty Mr. Slavery and her majesty Mistress Prejudice” rings true in all his advocacy work: for desegregation of travel and education, for women’s suffrage, for the end of the Massachusetts anti-miscegenation laws, for the end of slavery and equal opportunities for African-Americans. All of the Remonds petitioned their local and state authorities on a range of social justice issues in the 1840s and 1850s, calling for the the abolition of capital punishment, the desegregation of the Boston schools (having been successful in Salem), and the refutation of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Just one petition with Remond signatures from Harvard University’s Anti-Slavery Petitions of Massachusetts Dataverse.
Because of the presence of the Remonds (and perhaps other African-American families whom I haven’t learned about yet), Salem served as a refuge of sorts for free blacks from eastern cities in search of educational opportunity, particularly young women: two very prominent educators, Charlotte Forten (1837-1914) and Maritcha Remond Lyons (1848-1929), left Philadelphia and New York for Salem in the 1850s and 1860s, and Forten graduated from Salem Normal School (now Salem State University) and became the first African-American teacher in the Salem public schools in 1856. Salem was definitely formative in Forten’s intellectual and personal development, and Salem State is justly proud of its graduate: a permanent exhibition space was opened up on campus last year, and a special tribute to her pioneering roles will be held next week.
Charlotte Forten and Maritcha Remond Lyons, who was named after her mother’s best friend, Maritcha Remond. You can register for Race, Gender and Education: a Dialogue Linking Past andPresent, a complimentary event, here.
The city of Salem is fortunate that institutions such as Salem State, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and Hamilton Hall are engaging in the interpretation of African-American history, but I think this topic—along with many others—deserves the coordination and amplification that a historical society/museum/center could bring to its presentation. A few tweets from the city’s tourism organization about the existence of an audio guide to African-American sites in Salem does not suffice. Despite the residency and advocacy of the Remonds, of Charlotte Forten, of Robert Morris and Jacob Stroyer, and the fact that the Salem Ship Desire deliveredthefirstdocumentedcargoofenslavedAfricanstoMassachusettsin1638, Salem has only two sites on the map of the comprehensive African-American Trail project at Tufts University: Stroyer’s grave and Remond Park. While it’s lovely that Salem has paid tribute to the Remond family with a seaside park, this gesture should not suffice either–especially when the information conveyed in its signage is wrong: a large population of nineteenth-century African-Americans did not live on Bridge Street Neck, remote from the center of the city. And their presence and stories—like those of their predecessors and successors—should not be confined to the margins of Salem’s history.
Part of the African–AmericanTrailProjectat Tufts including an evening last fall in which projections of the University’s first African-American students were photographed: here is Claude Randolph Taylor from 1924. Photograph by Erik Jacobs, Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University. I’m sure that the Remond Park sign will be corrected soon, but why was this sweeping and incorrect assertion included in the first place?
For Presidents’ Day, I’m focusing on one of the shortest presidential visits in Salem history: President Polk’s breezy visit on July 5, 1847 which seems to have clocked in at (well) under in an hour. There are much more notable (and longer) stopovers by Presidents Washington, Monroe, and Jackson, and both Presidents Taft and Coolidge visited Salem often while they summered nearby, but I thought Polk’s pitstop might shed some light on the popularity of abolitionism here in Salem in the antebellum era. There was an interesting reaction to my post last week on my slavery mapping project: it was shared on a few facebook pages and rather than commenting on the specific issue of slaveholding in pre-revolutionary Salem, there were references to the city’s active abolitionist community nearly a century later, as if that somehow compensated for the sins of the past. I”ve heard this sentiment from students too, but my colleagues seem a bit more reserved about the popular appeal of the anti-slavery movement. I actually don’t seek to judge the past by ahistorical standards; I’m more interested in uncovering as much of the truth as possible. So what does the response of Salem’s citizens to the arrival of President Polk on the day after the Fourth of July in the summer of 1847 tell us?
So interesting that this 1844 Polk Print (Library of Congress) mirrors the “Landsdowne” Portrait of George Washington from 1796: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
The historical assessment of Polk’s presidency has traditionally focused on his successful policies of westward expansion, including the annexation of Texas in 1845, the negotiation of the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain in 1846, and the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, increasing the territory of the United States dramatically and extending its boundaries to the Pacific. He was a man who lived up to his promises, but expansion at this time cannot be viewed apart from the increasingly-intense debate over the expansion of slavery, and Polk was a slave owner not only by inheritance, but also by “investment”. The story of Elias Polk, the “faithful slave” who served the President in the White House, seems to have been utilized to portray Polk as a paternalistic slave owner, but a recent study characterizes him as far more “acquisitive” and entrepreneurial, holding “the constricted views of a Tennessee slavemaster.” This is certainly how the most fervent of northern abolitionists saw Polk, but I’m not sure if they speak for the majority of the population.
Two abolitionist “Moral Maps” which illustrate fears of the spread of slavery in the United States and North America, 1847-1854, Cornell and Yale University Libraries.
The nation was at war when the President visited Salem in the summer of 1847, and the reports of his visit illustrate the divisions that were becoming ever-apparent: in side-by-side columns in the Salem Observer for July 10, 1847 we can read a stinging indictment by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and an account of the President’s reception in Salem, which was “kind and hospitable” by his own estimation. It’s quite a contrast! The Anti-Slavery Society’s condemnation takes the form of a letter addressed to the president in which he is called out (You are a slaveholder. Men, women, and children are by you held in slavery—recorded in your ledger as chattels personal—worked like brutes, without wages or stipulation, under the lash of a driver, and fraudulently and tyrannically deprived of all their just earnings), compared unfavorably to the “Autocrat of all the Russias,” and called upon to emancipate his slaves immediately. In the next column, the President is welcomed to Salem with full “civic and military honors” and a “cavalcade” (before motorcades there were cavalcades) through its “ancient” crowd-lined streets. There are conflicting assessments of Polk’s visit to Salem, but all the papers agree it was a hastily-put-together affair, as the city authorities got word of the President’s arrival only the night before.
Salem Register, July 5, 1847
Here you can see the city scrambling: Boston, Lowell, Concord, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine were presidential stops announced ahead of time, but the President seems to have added stops in Portsmouth, Newburyport, Salem and Lynn at the very last minute as he made his way back to Washington. The program announced above was pretty much how it came off, but additional details emerge in the reporting: the President’s train arrived at the Beverly Depot at 2:55 and according to the Salem Gazette, “Mr. Polk refused to leave the cars in Beverly unless he could be assured that he should not be detained more than 15 minutes in Salem,” and consequently a “gallopade” ensued through the city which was characterized as both “ludicrous” and farcical” by both the Salem and Boston papers. The Salem Register calls Polk’s visit to Salem “a Grand Presidential Polka……affording a vast fount of amusement to the lovers of the ludicrous.” There was a big crush to see “the man who made the war, but “the Comet-like flight of the Head of the Nation through the City of Peace beggars description.” [Yes, Salem was indeed referred to as the City of Peace before it became Witch City: better, no?] He came and went “like a Flash………with the President” (in an elegant barouche driven by six black horses) “bobbing his uncovered head, now this way, and now that, as a handkerchief flustered from some window, or a cheer came up from a band of his adherents, posted on some corner.” I’m not sure if this depiction has a larger message of criticism aimed at the President beyond that of the short shrift he gave Salem, and none of the reports of this “Presidential Polka” enable us to “read” the crowd: besides the brevity of this presidential visit, everyone also seems to agree that the “most pleasing part” of the whole affair was the sight of the schoolchildren of Salem aligned along Chestnut Street. As the Salem schools had been desegregated three years before, I’m assuming (and hoping) that there were African-American students in the ranks.
The People’s Choice? A Polk campaign ribbon from 1844, Smithsonian Institution.