Chapter 29: Society in Boston. 1845-1860.

A view of the society of Boston,—of the character and tendencies of its ruling class,—at the close of the first half of this century is essential to a just comprehension of the position of an agitator in such a community for moral and political reforms. The subject has only been touched casually in memoirs and books of travel, without an attempt to treat it comprehensively; and a brief review of life in the city as it then was fitly opens the new period of Charles Sumner's career.1

The population of the city grew between 1845 and 1850 from 115,000 to 137,000, and five years later exceeded 160,000. Its territory was still confined to the peninsula,—Charlestown, Roxbury, and Dorchester being as yet suburban towns. Mansions surrounded by gardens had disappeared, and had given place to blocks. Fort Hill, long a residential quarter of rich people, had been abandoned to tenement-houses. The Back Bay, now the seat of fine houses and noble churches, was still a waste, and mostly under the sea. Beacon Street ended in front of the site of the Public Garden. What is called ‘our best society’ lived on streets looking on the Common, or on those lying near by, all within ten minutes walk of the State House. For its numbers, no American city was so strong in capital. Its older wealth, created just before and just after the beginning of the century, had come from foreign commerce, from ships returning from distant seas; its later had come from mills established on the [2] Merrimac. Its prosperous citizens were, in a certain proportion, born in the city, but many had come from the centre of the State, from Cape Cod, and from New Hampshire,—men of good stock, enterprising, self-poised, and large-minded. Some had a pedigree in which they took pride; while others, who could not boast that distinction, fell easily into the fashion of the place. They educated their children in academies and colleges; and when rare ability and ambition were combined in their sons, they sent them to foreign universities. They were careful in the training of their daughters, placing them in the classical school of George B. Emerson, an accomplished teacher, whose devotion to his work for more than thirty years is gratefully remembered. Before steam navigation had been well developed, or even before it existed at all, they sought the advantages of foreign travel for themselves and their families. They had Harvard College near by, which has at all times diffused the academic spirit in the city and its suburbs, and raised up scholars and intellectual guides, through whom a humanizing influence has been diffused over the whole community. Their style of living was sober but generous, with furniture imported from France; with specimens of art in original work or in copies, which had begun to come from foreign studios with cellars stocked with Madeira of various vintages, the favorite wine of the day, whose age and quality were the topic of much talk at the table. They dined at two o'clock, and took at seven or eight a bountiful supper, to which their friends came without ceremony. Many had country-seats in Brookline, Dorchester, Waltham, Medford, and Nahant, to which they drove in private carriages, sometimes in the one-horse chaise. They were as a class, in private and in business life, men of high integrity, interested in public works, popular and scientific education, social and public libraries, hospitals, charities, and churches. They were honorable merchants, dealt fairly with customers, kept accurate accounts, and their trade-marks were symbols of good work.2 They were highly conservative; took a harmless pride in their social standing; received consideration from the masses something like that accorded to an English lord or squire; were accustomed to have their own way, and to resent interference from those who had not by family or wealth reached the same [3] position as themselves. They were English in thought and habit as in blood. They were not wanting in patriotism, but as a class they had little faith in the republican polity, and small confidence in the good sense and steadiness of the people.3 They reverenced Alexander Hamilton, hated Jefferson, distrusted the Adamses, were more or less in sympathy with the Hartford Convention;4 and as soon as Daniel Webster showed his power and disposition to serve them, they rallied round him as the conservative leader, and followed as he led to the end of his career. Their typical man was Harrison Gray Otis,5 a silvertongued orator, who bore a name honored in the colony, and who was a popular favorite, elected often to State and national offices, beginning life as a Federalist, and ending it with a protest against the antislavery cause;6 he sighed in his old age for a more aristocratic polity than ours, and fixed thirty years as the limit of our republican system. The predictions of his class as to the society of tie future were equally dismal. Washington Allston, who grew to be less of a republican as he grew older, said that if things went on as they promised, ‘in eighty years there would not be a gentleman left in the country.’7

The Boston men of that day revealed their inner thought to foreigners more than to their own public. In 1841, at a dinner where old lawyers and Ticknor were present, Lord Morpeth was struck with the desponding tone, almost amounting to treason to the Constitution, which they pronounced an utter failure, especially in respect to the election of fit men for President.8 Thackeray, whose visit was a few years later, found ‘a vast amount of toryism and donnishness everywhere.’9 Sumner, who was familiar with the talk at dinners and in drawing-rooms, [4] wrote, in 1852, to his brother George, then in Europe: ‘There are beautiful and generous spirits in Boston, but the prevailing tone of its society is provincial toryism. Persons freshly returned from Europe, who have hearts, are at first disturbed by it, then straightway adopt it. Witness the C——'s.’10

These people were naturally ill-affected toward the progress of republicanism in Europe, and were quite unanimous in their want of sympathy with the uprisings of 1848. They were as much perplexed with fear of change as kings or any privileged orders.11 Sumner wrote to his brother in 1852: ‘You must not confound the opinion of Boston with that of Massachusetts. The Commonwealth is for Kossuth; the city is against him. The line is broadly drawn. The same line is run between my political supporters and opponents. The city is bigoted, narrow, provincial, and selfish; the country has more the spirit of the American Revolution.’

One cannot but note a certain type in the portraits of the Boston men of this period as they hang in private houses, libraries, and museums, where they appear like strong-featured, and, as Mr. Webster called them, ‘solid men.’ Their heads, as cut by artists in marble, if exhumed among the ruins of the buried city ages to come, would not be unworthy of a place with the busts which line the long hall of the Vatican.

The professions and journals, which direct the thought of a people, were at the time in a high degree conservative. Dr. James Walker, then professor at Cambridge, was easily the first preacher. King's Chapel, with Rev. Ephraim Peabody in the pulpit and worshippers of the best society in the pews, represented the churches. Channing, that finest product of New England, was no longer living, to temper with his moral enthusiasm social and commercial opinion, and to set forth in weekly ministrations his lofty ideal of humanity.12 Edward Everett and Rufus Choate were the first orators. Choate, C. G. Loring, and B. R. Curtis were the leaders of the bar. Lemuel Shaw, just, wise, and [5] serene, with never a sinister thought to affect the balance between suitors, personified justice in the Supreme Court of the State,—a tribunal which then held and still holds the respect of jurists wherever the common law is administered.13 The representative newspaper was the ‘Daily Advertiser,’ long directed by a public-spirited citizen, Nathan Hale, assisted by his son, the junior of that name; but as one turns its files, he can see at a glance how repugnant to its management were all novelties in the shape of moral and political reforms.14

There was but one society at that period to which admission was sought, and every one in it knew every one else who was in it. It was close and hard, consolidated, with a uniform stamp on all, and opinion running in grooves,15—in politics, Whig; in faith, Unitarian and Episcopalian. Its members were closely connected by intermarriage; and a personal difficulty with one was quickly taken up by the related families,—so that through connections by kin or friendship nearly all the society was likely to take a part.16 Sumner was for a time, at an earlier period, shut out from one house on Beacon Street merely for complimenting, in a lawyer's office, the editor of a magazine who had reviewed a domestic controversy already before the public in judicial proceedings. The head of the family, learning the circumstance from a relative who, unobserved, was within hearing, shortly after returned a subscription paper which Sumner had sent to him, with the reply that no papers would be received from one who had approved an attack on his family.17 The intervention of Prescott was necessary to restore good relations, broken in consequence of an offhand and overheard remark. The prison-discipline controversy of 1845-1847, treated [6] later in these pages, will show how family sympathies gave a personal direction to public controversies.

Bancroft, the historian, escaped from a community where a Democrat was regarded as little better than a Jacobin, and years after his removal assured a friend that it was a comfort to live in New York rather than in Boston. R. H. Dana, Jr., wrote to Sumner in 1851, ‘Boston oligarchy is confined to the pavements and Nahant.’ Prescott wrote to Sumner in 1851 of a former period in Salem similar in character: ‘Judge Story in his early days was exposed to much obloquy from the bitterness of party feeling, which becomes more intensified in proportion to the narrowness of the sphere where it is displayed. Boston is worse than New York in this respect.’

The capitalists were greatly interested in a protective tariff, and its maintenance was the one end of their politics. Mr. Nathan Appleton and Mr. Abbott Lawrence were not only wise projectors of manufacturing schemes, but they were competent to defend in argument the protective system. Both had represented Boston in Congress. It was all important to their interests to keep the Whig party, north and south, united in support of the tariff; and with reference to a market, to keep on good terms with the Southern people. A Southern slaveholder, or his son at Harvard, was more welcome in society than any guest, except a foreigner. Southern planters tarried for weeks at the Tremont House, then the favorite hostelry of the town, for the ocean air and suburban drives; and from year to year were registered among its guests the well-known names of the Allstons, Hungers, Izards, and Rhetts. It is difficult to understand this deference to Southern planters now that the marvellous expansion of the West, during, the second half of this century, has displaced the South as the principal consumer of New England products, as well as the dominant power in American politics.

These people had a keen sense of legality, sharpened at times by material interests. This made them faithful to law and government; but it also led them, at least once, to strain the Constitution for the protection of slave property, going beyond its letter as well as its spirit.18 When their representative in Congress, separating himself from his Northern associates, voted [7] for the Fugitive Slave law in 1850, he suffered no reproach or loss of support from the mass of his party in the city; and the willing agents in its execution lost no favor, social or political. Longfellow wrote at this time, Sept. 15, 1850, in his diary:—

The day has been blackened to me by reading of the passage of the Fugitive Slave bill in the House, Eliot of Boston voting for it. This is a dark disgrace to the city. If we should read in Dino Compagni that in the tenth century a citizen of Florence had given such a vote, we should see what an action he had done. But this the people of Boston cannot see in themselves; they will uphold it.

Social pressure was freely brought to bear to enforce conformity in politics and arrest tendencies to radicalism, or to opinions or conduct which were contrary to the conventional standard. Men of courage who pushed moral principles into politics were stigmatized as fanatics and demagogues. A Frenchman visiting Boston in 1851 found that the mention of Sumner's name in social life made certain people shiver (frissonner), because he was a Free Soiler, and suspected of abolitionism, though otherwise nothing ill was said of him.19 Later pages will show how this intolerant spirit went so far as to call for the withdrawal of patronage from offenders who were dependent on their earnings for the means to support their families.

There is a passage in a letter from Ticknor to Hillard relating to the prison-discipline debates, of which, though curtailed in the printing, enough remains to show that the former justified social exclusion as a penalty for holding unsound opinions and a means of enforcing conformity. The passage, doubtless referring to Sumner, is as follows:—

I am sorry as you are for the effect these discussions produce upon society in Boston; but the principles of that society are right, and its severity towards disorganizers and social democracy in all its forms is just and wise. It keeps our standard of public morals where it should be, and where you and I claim to have it, and is the circumstance which distinguishes us favorably from New York land the other large cities of the Union, where demagogues are permitted to rule by the weak tolerance of men who know better, and are stronger than they are. In a society where public opinion governs, unsound opinions must be rebuked; and you can no more do that while you treat their apostles with [8] favor, than you can discourage bad books at the moment you are buying and circulating them.20

Social unity was assisted by old organizations and clubs. The Massachusetts Historical Society, founded in 1791, has long done good service in preserving the details of national and local history,21 and its succession of presidents, distinguished by the names of Savage, Winthrop, and Ellis, are an assurance of genuine merit in investigation.22 The Wednesday Club, its members meeting at one another's houses, which in 1877 completed its first century, has at all times enrolled names honorably known in science, literature, and public life.23 The Corps of Cadets, a militia company with a regimental organization older than the Revolution, has drilled young lawyers, doctors, and merchants in the positions of a soldier, some of whom fleshed their maiden swords on the battlefields of the Civil War. Children were then taught dancing by the elder Papanti, as now by his son; and his hall, now resorted to only by youths, was before 1850 often the scene of assemblies where one might see the wit, beauty, and fashion of the town.

The household life of Boston at this time was most attractive. Travellers have noted the ‘perfect politeness, courtesy, and good breeding’ which prevailed in it. The Virginian,24 who had been taught that there was nothing good in Yankees, and the Englishman,25 who was filled with equal prejudice against all Americans, [9] were alike charmed as soon as they crossed its threshold; and both bore cordial tribute to the hospitality, heartiness, and refinement which they found wherever they went. The houses were rich in the appointments already noted. Host and hostess presided with dignity and grace; and the young women, distinguished by intelligence, style, winsomeness, and often beauty, could play well their part in any society in the world. Foremost among these last were the daughters of Mr. Appleton, whose names have found a place in books of travel and fiction. Foreigners felt the charm of this circle, which remained in the memory for half a century as fresh as yesterday's feast.26

Such a society was like that of ancient Athens more than any other modern city can show,—intellectual, consolidated, despotic over individual thought, insisting on uniformity of belief in matters which were related to its interests, and frowning upon novelties which struck at its prestige. It exists now only in tradition. The changes wrought by the Civil War and the great increase in numbers have made a new city, no longer provincial, less interesting than it was, but more tolerant, and with no one set to call itself ‘society.’ The families which once controlled city and State, which dictated opinion and put antislavery men in Coventry, have vanished. If they survive in a few names, they exercise no perceptible influence on the course of events. It is difficult, with the transformation which has come from devastating fires, from new or widened streets, and the conversion, in whole districts, of dwellings into warehouses, to find old landmarks; but it is harder still to find traces of that society which had cast out Wendell Phillips, well blooded as the best, and which now laid its heavy hand on Sumner, Palfrey, and Dana.

George Ticknor's house, at the corner of Park and Beacon streets, facing the English elms on the Common, was the centre of the literary society of the time.27 He had retired from a professor's [10] chair at Harvard, had ample leisure at command, had collected a superb library, and he and his family spoke French and German as easily as English. He had, as his journals show, studied in the best of foreign schools, and had seen the best of foreign life. Both before and after he took his house on Park Street, his home was for more than a generation the resort of all that was most distinguished in the culture of the period; and he was assisted in this refined hospitality by one who was his peer in accomplishments, and who graced the society of Boston and Cambridge from youth to age. There came foreigners of high rank or repute, who from time to time visited the city,— among them, in 1824, Lafayette, and four young Englishmen, Wortley, Stanley, Labouchere, and Denison; and later, Tocqueville, Morpeth, Dickens, Lyell, and Thackeray. There as a daily visitor was Hillard, almost the peer of the brilliant conversers of Holland and Lansdowne houses in their palmiest days, or of those who gathered round Samuel Rogers in St. James's Place. But with all this, and not overlooking his review of Spanish literature, it is doing no injustice to Ticknor's rank in letters to say, that, unlike his contemporaries in Boston,—Bancroft, Prescott, Longfellow, and Holmes,—he has as an author left nothing of permanent interest to mankind. His social success abroad has been noted as a mystery, and referred, not to wit or warmth of heart. but rather to his acquaintance with good form, and a certain skill as raconteur. he was cold by nature, unsympathetic with the masses, and without faith in the future of the republican system. He was no exception, however, in a class always distinguished for public spirit; and he deserves honorable mention as a benefactor, by gifts and personal service, of the Public Library of Boston. To be admitted to such a house as Mr. Ticknor's was a test of culture and good breeding; to be shut out from it was an exclusion from what was most coveted in a social way by scholars and gentlemen who combined the fruits of study and travel.

The features of Boston life which have been here indicated show something of the environment of a young man of Sumner's position and tastes when he took his place among reformers. Further proof and illustrations of what that life was will be given in the course of this narrative.

1 For a description of Boston in 1825, see ante, vol. i. p. 45. The characteristics of the people and society were much the same from 1820-1860. There are touches of Boston in 1860 in the ‘Life, Letters, and Journals’ of Ticknor, vol. i. pp. 315, 316.

2 There is a tradition that William Wirt, who came to Boston in 1829 as counsel in a suit against Peter C. Brooks, expressed admiration at the accuracy and integrity of the mercantile books which he had occasion to examine.

3 Ticknor, like the others, took the desponding view,—‘Life,’ vol. II. pp. 186, 235, 464, 479.

4 They called themselves ‘old Federalists,’ though the party had ceased to exist. ‘Life’ of Ticknor, vol. II. p. 186.

5 1765-1848.

6 Boston Advertiser, April 3, 1848. He died Oct. 28, 1848. To his credit it should be remembered that he opposed the extension of slavery at the time of the Missouri Compromise.

7Richard Henry Dana, A Biography,’ by Charles Francis Adams, vol. i. p. 71.

8 Lord Morpeth's diary (Mss.). Dr. Channing and President Quincy were exceptions. The latter dissented, a day or two later, from the view taken at the dinner referred to; and the former was always full of faith and hope in democracy as a means of social improvement, guided, as he did his best to guide it, by the ethical spirit. At a dinner for Morpeth at Abbott Lawrence's, Judge Story talked ‘high conservatism.’ Adams's ‘Biography’ of Dana, vol. i. p. 30.

9 A Collection of Letters, 1847-1855, p. 165.

10 Longfellow, referring to the proneness of some persons to find little good in their own country after returning from Europe, wrote in his diary, Oct. 17, 1847: ‘Sumner to dine. All Americans who return from Europe malcontent with their own country we call Frondeurs, from the faction in the days of the Reqence.’

11 ‘Life’ of Ticknor, vol. II. pp. 230, 234, 236.

12 In two Unitarian pulpits, those of James Freeman Clarke and F. D. Huntington, the spirit of Channing survived; but in those of most of the Unitarian churches, as also in the Congregational (Trinitarian) and Episcopalian, there was little sympathy for moral reforms.

13 Neither the chief-justice nor Peleg Sprague, another highly esteemed judge, showed to advantage in cases where the rights of alleged fugitive slaves were concerned,—the former wanting in courage, and the latter exhibiting a partisan zeal in supporting the Fugitive Slave Act. Adams's ‘Biography’ of Dana, vol. i. pp. 186, 196.

14 The names of journals existing at present in Boston indicate no identity in management or views with those of former days, as there have been several transfers, with no attempt to preserve continuity in politics or otherwise.

15 E. P. Whipple described the social leaders of Boston at this time, in a conversation with the Author, as ‘fixed and limited in their ideas.’

16 For instance, the Ticknor, Eliot, Dwight, Guild, and Norton families were connected by marriage; and Mr. Eliot was a near kinsman of the Curtis family. Similar ties by blood and marriage united the Sears, Mason, Warren, Parker, and Amory families, and also the Shaw, Sturgis, Parkman, and Perkins families. Another group was the Sturgis, Perkins, Cabot, Forbes, Cary, Gardiner, and Cushing families. The different groups were often connected by kin or close friendship.

17 Ante, vol. II. pp. 254, 255.

18 Ticknor was firm in his convictions against antislavery agitation. ‘Life,’ vol. II. pp. 217, 218, 265, 272, 285, 286, 446.

19 J. J. Ampere's ‘Promenade en Amerique;,’ vol. II. p. 36. Ampere, during his sojourn, was frequently at Ticknor's, which readily accounts for the chill which came on at the mention of Sumner's name.

20 ‘Life’ of Ticknor, vol. II. p. 235. The social exclusion practised by Ticknor on Sumner and antislavery men is mentioned in Adams's ‘Biography’ of Dana, vol. i. pp. 128. 176, 177. It will be seen that Judge William Kent, though as ill-affected toward anti-slavery agitation, thought the attempt of Ticknor, the Eliots, and others to ostracize Sumner, ‘unwise and unfair.’

21 Its first centenary was commemorated Jan. 24, 1891, with an oration by T. W. Higginson, and addresses by Rev. George E. Ellis and Robert C. Winthrop; and the public exercises were followed by a reception at Mr. Winthrop's house.

22 Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips, and Henry Wilson, the last an historian as well as Senator and Vice-President, were not admitted to the Society. Richard Hildreth's ‘History of the United States’ did not bring him membership while he remained in Boston, but after his removal to New York he was made a corresponding member. Sumner was not chosen a member till a few weeks before his death. James Freeman Clarke's membership came late in his life, though his knowledge of history was always wide and accurate. All these were antislavery agitators.

23 Mr. Winthrop on the occasion, May 9, 1877, described the distinguished membership at different periods. R. C. Winthrop's ‘Addresses and Speeches,’ vol. III. p. 459. There has been also the Thursday Club, of which Mr. Everett was at one time President, and the Friday Club, to the latter of which Mr. Ticknor belonged. At the Thursday Club the custom has been to read papers on scientific subjects.

24 An account of William Wirt's impressions during his sojourn in Boston in 1829 is given in his ‘Life’ by J. P. Kennedy.

25 Dickens's ‘American Notes.’ The best description of the literary life of Boston at this period, given by any foreign visitor, is by John G. Kohl, a German, in his paper entitled ‘The American Athens,’ contributed to Bentley's Miscellany, and reprinted in ‘Littell's Living Age,’ Jan. 18, 1862, and H. T. Tuckerman's ‘America and her Commentators,’ pp. 311-318. His visit was made in 1857.

26 A. Gallenga's ‘Episodes of my Second Life.’ Lord Morpeth enjoyed this society very much, as his diary in manuscript shows. Foreigners, however, who were charmed by the good manners and refinement, could not be expected to detect the features which most concern this narrative.

27 He began to live in this house in 1829. A picture of the library is given in the ‘Memorial History of Boston,’ vol. III. p. 662, and in ‘Life’ of Ticknor, vol. i. p. 388. As to visitors at the house, see ‘Life’ of Ticknor, vol. i. p. 391; vol. II. p. 482.

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